Writing Processes

Chapter header

Learning Outcomes

  • Employ informed and flexible processes for writing and speaking, including: creating and/or finding ideas about which to write; collecting evidence and data; planning and drafting; revising; editing; and designing or presenting a message so that it is successfully understood by a specified audience.
  • Use a mindful writing process to plan, practice, revise, and reflect on writing tasks.
  • Collaborate constructively with others to engage in writing as a social process.

3.1 Mindful Writing Processes

Writing—You May Have Noticed—Is Hard

Writing is hard.

Of course it is; what a stupid way to start this chapter.

The problem is that we pretend it’s easy. We think of writing as a remedial activity. We think of it the way we think about learning to ride a bike: Once we get the hang of it, we’ve got it covered forever. University students routinely try to “get out of” taking first-year writing in part because they think they’ve peaked as writers and there’s nothing more to learn.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Learning to write is an iterative process. You get better at it as you practice, practice, practice. And then you die, having failed to master it fully.

But there’s another problem: Not only is writing iterative; it’s complicated. Writing is a social activity mediated by technology and the needs of writers and readers. Technology, writers, and readers are complicated. Unpredictable. Unfathomable. As you learned in the last chapter, communication is embedded in social worlds of negotiated meaning. As I’m writing this, I’m trying to figure out what you need as a writing student. Even after 17 years teaching and studying writing, I’m not sure I'll succeed. I have to imagine who you are—invoke you, invent you—and what you need, across a stretch of time and space (and, alas, culture—I’m getting old).

Writing is an unnatural act.

So, in a very real way we’re never done learning to write.

Another way we pretend writing is easy, to our detriment, is that we spend so little time on it. High school and standardized tests condition us to a “starting gun” approach to writing. We get the assignment, and we start chugging. No planning, thinking, or revising necessary. When we get writing assignments, we put them off, procrastinating the day of our writing till the night before and then fueling our furious typing with caffeine. Once we get words on the page and we’ve checked for errors, we’re loathe to rethink them, reform them. So we don’t. We know this isn’t the best way to write, but when we get good grades (if we do), we have no incentive to change.

One last way we pretend writing is easy: We don’t think about it at all. Writing expert Richard Lanham once said that “Americans use their language, spoken as well as written, in a chronic absence of mind.” You could think of a number of ways this statement might be interpreted: We don’t think, we don’t plan, we don’t strategize, we don’t scrutinize, we don’t reflect, we don’t take language seriously. We take it for granted.

Learn to be a Mindful Writer

In this chapter, I invite you to leave these false assumptions behind, break from whatever habits you may have had in the past, and develop a mindful disposition to writing.

The term "mindfulness" is trendy. The word might make you think of someone sitting criss-crossed on a yoga mat with a look of vague stillness on their face. Scholars who study Buddhism, like the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh or professor of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn, think of mindfulness as a kind of still presence—a way to be fully present in your body, detecting sensation and feeling in order to calm and redirect the mind. This kind of mindfulness is essential for mental health.

But there is another way to think of mindfulness. Mindfulness, for me, is the art of being aware of the activity you are participating in and how you might do it better. This is usually how scholars define metacognition: the process of monitoring and controlling our activity to maximize our efforts. I am suggesting here that mindfulness, as I've defined it here, helps us improve our writing tasks because it directs us to monitor and control the process from beginning to end.

Mindfulness is an act of metacognition, or the process by which we think about our own thinking. When you become a mindful writer, you take control of your own process in order to improve it, refine it. You become a philosopher of your own learning.

That sounds mighty highfalutin for a GE class you might have been hesitant to take. However, mindful writing isn’t just an esoteric, abstract academic exercise. Heaven knows you don’t need any more of those, especially as you approach the last year or two of your undergraduate studies. If you can make metacognition central to your process as a writer, you will find that writing, though hard, can be managed—and improved. You’ll feel more confident as you start to put words on the page. When you’re finished, you’ll feel like you learned more about writing and yourself as a writer. You’ll feel more prepared for the next writing task you take on.

3.2 The Mindful Writing Cycle

Writing is not just a product but a process. You know this. Writers go through a process when they write. They think, they make notes in their heads and on scratch paper, they put words on the page/screen, they review those words and make changes. They ask questions and go out looking for answers. If they’re smart, they give their writing to someone else to review so they can see if they’re accomplishing what they set out to do. They make more changes.

Processes are also (a) idiosyncratic, and (b) socially contingent. By idiosyncratic, I mean that each person has a writing process that may or may not follow a logical step-by-step pattern. For example, the last time I taught first-year writing, I encouraged students in the early stages of writing to “let the madman/madwoman out” by writing quickly and sloppily, without worrying about where the writing would go or whether it would be any good. This "mad writer" method worked well for some students. For others, like one student named Dallin, letting the madman out made no sense if the madman was just going to run amok with no clear aim.

By socially contingent, I mean that our writing processes fit the rhetorical situation in which we find ourselves (see Chapter 2). If I’m tapping out a light-hearted text message to my sister Amanda, I’m not going to think too hard about the quality of what I’m typing. Sometimes one thoughtless draft gets the job done. But if you’re planning to publish social science research for other social scientists who have high standards for research methods, data evidence, and writing quality, then you’re going to use a thorough writing process, starting with research questions and ending with meticulous proofreading. The social situation in which we write influences our processes.

For the rest of this chapter, I will describe a process I’m calling the mindful writing cycle. This cycle isn’t just something I cooked up this morning and slapped up in a chart. This cycle is based on significant research into the way people write and the way people improve as writers. (Yes, there are people out there who study the activity of writing as a subject worthy of study in itself. They’re wild at parties.) The cycle is in part based on the model of self-directed learners developed by Susan Ambrose in How Learning Works.

Remember from 3.2 that I’m using the word mindful to refer to the way we monitor and control our writing process in order to improve our chances for social success through writing, no matter what writing situation we find ourselves in. If we use a mindful writing cycle, we'll learn from our writing experience.

Though I present this cycle in stages, I encourage you to use these activities in whatever way you see fit as you become the kind of writer you need to be. Your instructor may ask you—nay, assign you—to follow this cycle in specific ways. The goal is to help you become a more mindful writer.

The Mindful Writing Cycle: Plan, Practice, Revise, Reflect

Here’s a quick tour of the cycle before we get into specifics:

Plan: A mindful writer will take time at the beginning of a writing task to assess the task and set goals. In the planning stage, you’ll consider what your audience wants from you as a writer. You’ll collect and study examples of the thing you’re supposed to write. You will decide when you’ll write and how you’ll discipline yourself write.

Practice: In the practice stage, you come up with ideas, write out a draft using various rhetorical strategies appropriate for your context, and ask for feedback from people whose judgment you trust. I know we often call this stage “drafting,” and, sure, it’s that. But the word practice reminds us that you are iterating—you are beta-testing your ideas before you have to send them out into the world.

Revise: Revision happens throughout any writing process; you can’t help but make little changes as you go. In the cycle of mindful writers, you receive feedback and then you make deliberate, meaningful changes to your work at all levels (from the whole argument to the comma) to prepare to hand it over to a teacher, editor, or some other audience.

Reflect: To develop your metacognitive abilities as a writer, you’ll need to think carefully about what you’ve learned from the writing process, what you’ll take with you to future writing tasks, and what needs to change. Without this step, you can’t take control of your writing.

OK, now that we’ve set up the global picture of writing processes, I’m going to go straight for the advice. Below you’ll find suggestions for each step in the cycle of mindful writers.

3.3 Plan


Remember that in the planning stage, we (a) assess the task and (b) set goals.

assess the task

Any time you set out to solve a problem or complete a task, you want to step back and look at what needs to be done and make some plans. One time my wife asked me to build a shelter in our back yard for our bikes. I'd never built one. So I watched a few videos on YouTube, talked to some neighbors, and went around my block taking pictures of other people's shelters to catch the vision. My planning made the task easier when I finally bought lumber and started hammering it together. As a mindful writer, you should take time to plan out your project before sitting down to write.

Read the assignment carefully. If you’ve been given an assignment sheet, read it. Notice key terms for what you’re being asked to do (define, apply, analyze, contrast, assess, argue, explain, support, describe, synthesize, etc.). If your assignment came with due dates (introduction, first draft), put those dates in your phone. If your instructor gave you a rubric or other evaluative criteria, review it. Check your overall understanding of what is being asked and ask questions. Ask for a rubric from your instructor. A rubric will describe the traits your instructor wants to see in good work.

Recall what you already know about this kind of writing (prior knowledge). You’re a writer. You’ve been writing for a long time, both in and out of school. You’ve had experiences. You’ve completed assignments. Think about answers to the following questions: How is this assignment like those I’ve completed before, and how is it different? Which writing experiences can I draw from for this new assignment? If your instructor has assigned you a project that requires you to synthesize the writing of other people with your own, remember that you’ve written with sources in the past. That said, new writing experiences often throw curveballs; be prepared to transform what you already know in this new setting.

Analyze the genre. This is an important term that you learned from last chapter (yay, prior knowledge!). From the perspective of rhetoric, genres are more than just forms or categories of writing (e.g., romance novels). Genres are semi-formal but adaptive text types that respond to a variety of social needs. In the social science, we use a variety of genres to make knowledge: genres like literature reviews, research articles, grant proposals, oral presentations, or email queries. To analyze a genre, try these three steps: (1) gather examples, either from your teacher or from online (from professional sources)—it’s good to have several quite different examples to show how genres vary; (2) analyze the rhetorical situation of the genre: Who writes this thing? Who reads it? What kind of problem does it solve? What is its purpose?; and (3) analyze the writing strategies you see in the examples: How is this genre organized, usually? What kind of style or argument or document design or evidence do I detect across examples?

Assess your own rhetorical situation. Who is my audience? What do I know about them? What are their values, assumptions, or expertise as a discourse community (like economists or psychologists)? What do they want from me? How should I think about them, construct and invent them, as I write? What is my role as writer? What do I want my audience to feel, think, or do as a result of reading what I write?

Anticipate the value of the task. What am I going to learn from this project? What skills will it teach me? How will it help me do the stuff I want to do in the future? How will I make personal connections to this writing task so that I won’t be bored or discouraged?

set goals

Decide what you want your paper to look like. Now that you've reviewed some examples, both good and bad (I hope), describe the kind of paper you want to write: “In my paper, I want to do X, Y, and Z because my audience . . .” Such goals are called product goals, and they help you anticipate a successful paper.

Set goals about when and where you’ll write. Get out your phone, and plan some writing times. Block out time each day to write or even just think about your project. Even if it’s for only fifteen minutes. Write every day. Write every day so that when you get stuck, you won’t need to worry as much about a looming due date. Choose your writing spot carefully. Find a quiet, comfy place with few distractions.

Commit to distraction-free writing. I know we’re crazy about our phones and we can’t live without them. FOMO is real. So are the bad consequences of CPA—continuous partial attention. Commit fully to the writer’s life and shut off your phone, close all windows not related to your work, and disable all notifications. Get into deep focus mode, and the writing will be easier.

Reward yourself. If you’ve had a good writing day, go get yourself something sweet or savory. Or go watch an episode of that show you’ve been bingeing.

Set goals to share your work with others. Writing is a social activity for social purposes. The writing process can, and should, be social as well. Set a goal to share your work with a class member, a writing tutor (in the Writing Center), or a trusted friend or family member. Talk, annoyingly, about your project with anyone who will listen.

3.4 Practice


I hope you noticed how the planning stage invites you to think globally about your project: the Big Rhetorical Picture. It also goads you into what’s called self-regulating strategies, or self-discipline, if you prefer. In the practice stage, you set down this mental map you’ve charted for yourself in planning, and you write.

How? I'm not sure I can tell you; your unique social situation will influence the process you use to get to a draft, and so will your topic and the level of knowledge you have about that topic. If you’ve been assigned to write a psychology paper on “operant conditioning” and you know zilch about it, then you need to start reading stuff before you start writing stuff. There are several tried-and-true ways into writing—a process we rhetoric nerds call “invention.”

Invention Strategies

Self-exploration. If you have flexibility on the topic, ask yourself (and answer in writing), What interests me? What do I care about? What’s been on my mind? What am I curious about? What do I want to know more about? What is my “what if”? What do I want to study in grad school? What do I want to pursue as a career?

Inquiry. Ask questions. If you have a vague sense of a topic, jump on Google and read anything you can find. Consult wikipedia. Do the unthinkable: Go to the library and find a book and read it. Find key terms or authorities from an informal search. Talk to experts about your topic. Use Google Scholar or academic databases to review expert research in social science. Review data from published experiments, surveys, or interviews; maybe you can do a little of that on your own. Form a hypothesis about your topic, like “I think X influences Y, but I’m not sure” or “I think X is the case, but I’m not sure” or “I think X would be a solution to Y, but I’m not sure.” It’s so important to begin a writing task with questions and not answers; don’t do research merely to support your preconceptions. (In future chapters, you'll learn more about the research process.)

Unstructured drafting. Some invention activities invite you to write without thinking much about where you’re going. Unstructured invention activities can help you put ideas into sentences to explore what you’re thinking. Make lists, draw pictures, make clusters (by writing your topic in the middle of a page and then branching out from there with subtopics/issues). Try freewriting: Just start writing about your topic without stopping, even if you feel like your ideas are bad. Don’t stop until your fingers fall off.

Structured drafting. For those of you less inclined to the free association of unstructured drafting, you can try the structured kind. Use the journalist’s questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. You can also use what Greek rhetoricians called topoi (the plural form of topos), which are categories of thought that guide invention activities. Let me give you some examples. Consequence is a topos: What are the consequences of X on Y? Here's an example: What are the consequences of stress or abuse on brain development in childhood? Definition: What is X and how has it been defined by various people? Value: Is X good or bad, right or wrong, valuable or not valuable? Antecedent: When did X start, and what are the past important events for X? Division: How could X be divided into different categories and sub-categories?

Outlining. I know this sounds high school-y, but research shows that it’s effective for early drafting. Additional research suggests, though, that outlining works best if you've brainstormed ideas first. So, then, here's an order for outlining: (1) brainstorm by writing a list of concepts or ideas or questions or key terms or topics, (2) organize the list into concept clusters related by theme, and then (3) make an outline of your paper by mapping out these clusters into a sequence. Write an outline for your project, even if you’re not sure you’ll keep it. Anticipate how long each section will be, even if you're not sure. Write the number 1 and then write a key term or phrase about what you’ll do first, and so on. Use subordination—that’s when you tab over for subtopics, like this:

  1. Operant conditioning
    1. History: Thorndike, Skinner
    2. Reinforcement and punishment
      1. Positive and negative reinforcement
      2. Positive and negative punishment
  2. Classical conditioning . . .

Outlining is a helpful way to find what will become the subheads of your paper. If you’re far enough in your inquiry process to know what you want to talk about, you can outline nearly every paragraph of your paper before you write it. I’ve found it useful to outline a text and then write underneath the subcategories the names of sources I’ve found that will fit in that subcategory.

Genre drafting. Keep your target genre in mind as you write, which is a particularly useful exercise when you're working on a big research project. Genres are blueprints for social behavior. If you’re writing a research project that begins with an introduction laying out previous research, then start there. That's what your audience will expect to see. Just start writing the paper from top to bottom. If you’re like me, you’ll find that your introduction (with thesis) is the part of the paper you revise the most, as you discover in the body what you really want to say. Follow the structure of the genre you’re writing. For example, often in social science writing, there is a “methods” section and/or a “results” section. Use these sections as guides for your drafting (but make sure the genre you’re writing fits your instructor’s assignment!).

Audience drafting. Related to genre drafting, audience drafting means only this: Think about your audience as you write. Remember their concerns, what they know and don’t know, what they need from you to understand what you’re trying to say. If your audience is non-specialist—if, for example, you’re writing about social science research to the public—translate your specialist knowledge into clear, accessible language. Define your terms. Make reader-friendly moves by providing clear transitions. Help them understand why your work is important. Remember that it's hard for any of us to predict precisely how this or that audience will respond to our work. Using your best understanding of the discourse community you belong to (e.g., psychologists, historians, the public, etc.), just imagine the kind of audience you want to read and respond to your work.

Ignore sentence-level issues. It’s hard to ignore errors and clumsy sentences as we draft, but I’d urge you to write as swiftly as you can at first and ignore sentence-level issues. There’s no use polishing up a draft that you plan to revise after receiving feedback. If you write every day, you won’t feel particularly frustrated when you have to rewrite, reorganize, or delete stuff later on. Turn off the grumpy editor who wants to tell you you don’t know enough, your writing isn’t working, you have to make things perfect. Everyone is entitled to a lousy first draft. (But no professional writer is content with a first draft!)

Write every day. I know I’ve already said it in the section on planning, but let me say it again. If you write every day, even if it’s for just 15 minutes, you’ll have more material, more ideas, more text to work with. When you start writing the next day, your brain will have been working, subconsciously, on your writing problem, and you’ll pick right up where you left off. You could set a goal to write for a certain amount of time a day; my friend Joey sets word count goals for himself: 1000 words a day, or something like that. That's a bit too ambitious for academic writing, but you get the point. All these invention strategies will be much stronger if you have kept your intellect active each day by committing your ideas into writing.

Peer Review

You’ve used inquiry methods for invention, you’ve written a draft, and now you’re ready to hand it over to someone to see what they think. Remember that writing is a social activity, a collaborative work of imagination. You’re an artist, but you’re not alone. Plan to get feedback. Without feedback, you cannot monitor and control your writing process, the primary activity of mindful writing.

Your peer reviewers play the role of readers for your work. Review helps us become reader-centered writers rather than narcissistic writer-centered ones. It gets us out of our own heads.

As you prepare for peer review, write a “Dear Reader” letter. Doesn’t have to be long. At the top of your draft, write “Dear Reader,” and then explain what you’re trying to do and why you’re trying to do it. Describe your imagined audience and their needs. Assess the draft by describing what makes it strong and where you think it’s weak. Maybe give them specific tasks as readers: “I’m concerned that on p. X I lose the thread of my argument,” or “I’d like you to look for places that could use more support” or “Please ignore the third section; I’m still working on getting it right” or “Please tell me where you feel most interested/bored with the paper.”

As a peer reviewer, you’ll want to follow whatever protocol your instructor gives you. If you don’t receive specific instructions for peer review, consider doing some of the following:

Be positive. Give the writer praise for the things you think he/she did well, and give him/her specific praise (with page numbers) describing the strengths you see in the paper.

Use shared criteria. If your instructor gave you a rubric, use its language to describe what you see in the paper. Use key terms (like argument, organization, evidence).

Be specific. Avoid vague “good job” or “it could be improved” kind of talk. Be specific about the paper’s strengths and weaknesses.

Stay focused on the macro. It’s easy as a reviewer to get caught up in micro (sentence-level) issues, like mistakes. Ignore them, assuming that the writer will proofread before publishing. Focus on the rhetorical situation: the genre, audience, and purpose. Is the purpose clear? Is the genre appropriate for the situation? What is the overall feel of the paper?

Ask questions. Sometimes the best feedback is a good question written in the margins: “Why is this here?” or “Where is the evidence of what you’ve just said?”

Respond as a reader. Trust your instincts. You can tell things about the paper based on your own experience reading it. Where did you disengage, get lost or confused, raise an eyebrow in skepticism? Are you convinced by the argument? Did the writer do something powerful with language? Tell them.

3.5 Revise

ReviseSince writing is hard, our natural inclination is to do less of it. When I sit down to write, I find myself shuffling papers around my desk or looking for something to eat or leaning back in my chair to look out the window. Sometimes I play Pac-Man or online 8-Ball. That’s when I know I’m in full writing-avoidance mode.

Novice writers struggle with these avoidance feelings once they have a draft written. Research shows that novice writers revise very little of their drafts, making mostly cosmetic changes while proofreading. The more successful writers are thinking about their genre, audience, and purpose in the revision process. Moving commas around will come later. Revision is the process of re-seeing your work in an effort to make it as strong and effective as possible. And yes, it can be painful as heck. Surely it will be less painful if you’ve given yourself time to revise and if you’re writing every day. (Got the message yet? Write every day! Think of yourself as a writer. It's what you do.)

Revision is a mindset. When you give your writing to someone else, you make yourself vulnerable, like that moment when the doctor comes in and you’re wearing that little sheet that’s open in the back, feeling like a weirdo and waiting for the next embarrassing thing to happen. If you decide to take on a mindful learner disposition as a writer, you’ll tell yourself the profound but often unspoken truth that All writers have more to learn. Even you. In that sense, you won’t feel like your writing is an embarrassment but a moment to explore your own thinking while you’re saying something important. When you receive feedback, listen attentively. Don’t try to defend what you’ve written; everyone knows it’s a draft and you’re entitled to write poorly in a draft. Ask good questions and take notes. Let the peer review process instruct and refine you.

With feedback in hand, you’re ready to re-see your work. The mindful writer now monitors and controls the process with “user” (i.e., audience) perspective. As you review the feedback and your draft, start devising a revision plan. Your revision plan will be composed of your own sense of the draft and the feedback you received.

Because writing processes are idiosyncratic, you’ll find your own path through revision. Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself as you revise:

Once again, stay focused at first on getting the Big Picture in place before you start revising sentences for style or error. Learn to trust your instincts. Sometimes as we read our work carefully, if we read it carefully, we have these impressions, a “felt sense,” of how the writing is going. Listen to what your senses are telling you. Imagine a fellow social scientist (or whoever your audience is) reading your text. Read your text out loud to get some distance between you and it, to hear it in a new way.

The Big Revision Checklist

When you have the draft in good shape, you may want to look at the below revision checklist as you proofread and polish. Just keep in mind that this list is incredibly thorough. You likely will not have time to attend to all of these principles.


Rhetorical Situation




* * * * *

You want your revisions to be purposeful. You want to be able to explain to someone how your revisions improve your text. That’s the goal: deliberate, purposeful changes to a text to make it more rhetorically powerful.

3.6 Reflect

ReflectI’ve been trying to convince you in this chapter that writing is more than just doing a task. Mindful writing means developing new powers, dispositions, and habits—a new, more aware and deliberate writing Self, committed to improvement. When we write, we project an identity to our audiences; by reflecting, we construct a learning identity for ourselves.

I hope you don’t mind that I’m getting a little philosophical here at the end. Writing is one aspect of how we build our identities. So much of our behavior is a result of the stories we tell ourselves. If you see yourself as a good person, willing to help out when others are in a jam, and if that “good person” idea is part of what psychologists call your “core narrative,” then you’ll be more willing to help. When I was in sixth grade, I started doing poorly in math. Because I had a false belief that math should be easy for smart kids, I told myself that I wasn’t a “math person.” Unfortunately, not-a-math-person became a core narrative for me for the rest of my grade school education.

We can build healthier core narratives by writing reflectively from time to time. Research—including significant research in the social sciences—has demonstrated that reflective writing can help us overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, tragedy, anxiety, depression, racial prejudice, academic failures, and other ailments. In a more modest way, reflective writing can help us think through what we've accomplished when we finish tasks and how we're a different, more wise person as a result of it.

After you turn in a final draft, you can build a healthy, mindful writerly identity by spending a little time reflecting on what you have learned in the process. Ideally, your instructor will require you to do some of this reflection—either in an informal writing assignment or in class discussion—so you can make this identity construction a social experience. It sounds hyperbolic when I say it, but reflection can make you a better person. When you look back at something you’ve accomplished with something more deliberate and mindful than relief, you develop dispositions for writing success in the future.

So: How should you reflect? You can start by answering the following questions:

Looking Back, Measuring Progress

Looking Forward, Making Connections

Notice how these questions invite you to think about your completed task in a variety of ways related to the course, your assessment of the final product, your perception of your own growth, and your sense of what needs to change in the future.

And now I hope you’re seeing how the steps in the cycle for mindful writers are connected. There’s always another writing task on the horizon. These questions prepare you to move forward by looking backward. When you start a new task, you start with the dispositions, experiences, and knowledge you already have; there’s no shortcut to becoming the writer you want to become. But after each task, you can consolidate your new powers to project yourself into the next writing task, having become just a little bit better than you were before.

3.7 Collaborative Writing

In my experience, students underestimate the amount of time they will spend as professionals—no matter the profession—working on writing tasks with others. In a 2015 study on writing in the workplace, University of Wisconsin literacy expert Deborah Brandt discovered that most workplace writing is (a) anonymous, meaning that no author's name appeared on the document, (b) clerical, meaning that the writing was related to the mundane, often insanely boring, bureaucratic methods of doing business, and (c) co-authored.

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A Common Sentiment about Group Writing. (Photo: Creative Commons.)

Why Group Work Fails to Spark Joy

I don't want to start on a negative note here, but let's acknowledge that not everyone has a good experience working on projects with others.

Sometimes we just don't get along. A common group anguish is with the freeloader, the group member who shows up to maybe one meeting, disappears, won't respond to emails or texts, maybe shows up on the day of the group presentation to stumble through, and then takes credit for the final project. We all know this person. This person is on the Naughty List. Don't be that person. Don't be the controller, either. That's the person who, from the beginning, and perhaps because this person is anxious the rest of you won't pull your load, takes over the whole project and starts calling the shots. There's also the pleaser, who just wants to do what everyone else wants to do and has no original ideas or suppresses his or her own valuable alternative ideas.

Much like what Leo Tolstoy says about families in the first line of the novel Anna Karenina, there are many ways unhappy groups are unhappy. Who can blame students for wanting to avoid them?

In spite of the somewhat popular but vague negative feeling about group projects, my guess is that many of you have had positive experiences working in groups. And it turns out that all the research on collaborative learning has revealed that students learn significantly from group projects. The Association of American Colleges and Universities labels collaborative work a "high-impact practice" because of what students get from it. When you have to work together, especially with folks you wouldn't normally associate with, you have to listen to others, learn from them, and test your ideas against theirs, which can be a refining process. You'll find out that—imagine!—not everyone thinks the way you do, and we're better off when we combine our ideas with the ideas of others.

What do you do if you've been assigned a group writing project? How do you ensure that the end product is something you can be proud of and that the process you take to get there is productive?

Getting Started

Get to know each other. If your instructor has assigned you a group and you don't know the other members well, take some time to get to know one another. Cover the standard ground about where you're from, what you're into, and what you want to do later in life.

Set up an easy communication system. Swap contact information. Group text messages work best for most people. Talk about how you're going to use a synchronous online system for collaboration. Google Docs works so much better than trying to pass Word documents back and forth because you can edit documents simultaneously and the changes are automatically saved. Review your schedules with each other so you'll know when you might be able to meet.

Philosophize about past group work. Share with each other an experience or two about both successful and unsuccessful collaborative projects you've been in before. Talk specifically about what made a project work, or not. Share your concerns, if you have any, about group work. Talk about what you hope to get out of this project. If your group is up for it, you might want to draft a "Group Contract" that each person agrees to, with statements like, "I will come to all our group meetings and stay on task," "I will be timely in my communication with members of my group," "I will listen carefully to the insights and feedback of other members," "If I do not respond to emails and group texts, I understand that my group may complete the project without me and report my work to the instructor," "If I miss a meeting or class period, I will contact all my group members and make up for what I've missed," "I will not get defensive at the feedback of others," or "I will do my best work and expect other group members to do the same."

Assess the task and set goals. Review together the assignment you've been given. Review whatever assignment sheets, due dates, or rubrics you've received. Break down the task into parts: What needs to happen first, second, third? Decide on a timeline for when you want to have pieces of the project completed. Set goals as a group for when you want to be done with A, B, and C. Reserve time to complete parts of the project and review drafts together. It might make sense to actually write out a "to do" list with these assignments ("Luke will do X, Asia will do Y . . .").

Assign group roles. The most productive groups I've been in have a very clear distribution of labor. Each of us knows what our assignment is. Everyone has a task. The easiest (but not necessarily the wisest) way to divide up a group writing task is to assign each segment of the genre you're writing (introduction, literature review, etc.). You may want to consider assigning roles related to project management: timekeeper, notetaker, editor, communication director, reviewer, facilitator. Each group member brings a unique set of skills to the task; find out what those skills are. Talk about how you'll make decisions as a group. For example, should every decision be unanimous? How will you compromise if there is disagreement?

Get to Work

Stay in touch. I know that some of you would rather start on a task and be left alone for a while, but in my experience, the stronger groups overshare with each other. I mean that they talk frequently, even if only for a few moments on a group text about this or that issue. It's easier to solve problems early when the entire group is open to this kind of self-correcting chatter. It would be even better if you could meet together face to face with open laptops and work together at the same time, talking and then writing and then talking and then writing.

Compromise. I've had more than one experience writing in groups when another group member has cut some of my material from the final product. Though I've never felt that the cut material was absolutely essential to the project, I have felt that my work was undervalued or dismissed or misunderstood. In those instances, I've had to move forward with the new changes knowing that each member will have to compromise material for the good of the project. If you feel like part of what you've produced is essential to the project, discuss the issue with all your group members.

Resolve differences. Sometimes groups don't get along. If so, don't assume your group is dysfunctional. It's a people thing to have static in close quarters. Some of these problems will be alleviated significantly with the kind of work I recommended in the last section. Before you go to the teacher, try to work out the differences together—all of you together (i.e., try to keep from pairing off in disagreement). Listen carefully to someone else's concerns. Repeat back what you're hearing to make sure you understand. If a group member is not responding to emails or texts, refer back (if you can!) to the Group Contract referring to consequences of ghosting or the like. If things get unmanageable, visit with your instructor.

Write. Just throwing in my mantra again: Write, and write as much as possible. As a group member, don't wait till right before due dates to get things done. Get your work finished so you can then turn your attention to the work of others in the group. Invite other group members to read your work and offer feedback.

All-in on finishing touches. Though you may select someone to be the final editor or proofreader, plan for each group member to review the final product before turning it in. You want every member to sign off on the final project so the responsibility is shared.

The Afterparty

Reflect. Once you've turned in your project, take a moment and think about what you've learned—about writing, about yourself as a writer, about group projects, about the topic you wrote about. What went well? If you could go back to the beginning, what would you change about the way your group handled the project? What did you learn from the group project that you likely would not have learned working on your own? What will you do differently when you need to work in a group again?

Assess. With any luck, your instructor will ask each group member to fill out a peer evaluation form to describe and assess the various efforts of the other group members. If you're not sure your instructor has set up a system like this, go ask. On the better peer evaluation forms I've seen, the instructor asks you to rate both the quantity and quality of each group member. Final scores might depend on the way you evaluate your peers. It's hard sometimes to make such judgments on people you've worked closely with. But without this accountability, some people will do more work than others.


In conclusion, I hope you can have more positive experiences working on collaborative writing tasks. Team projects and collaborative writing are central to the work of many situations you'll find yourself in at college and in your career. If you can learn to work effectively with groups, you'll have great success, no matter what you do.

Suggested Citation

(2019). Writing Processes. In , Writing in the Social Sciences. EdTech Books. Retrieved from https://edtechbooks.org/writing/writing_processes

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