Traditional writing classes viewed writing as a product. The teacher gives an assignment, the students go home, produce a paper, and turn it in. What happens in between was given little attention. Also, the instructors' grading was often concerned with surface-level features like spelling, grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary. However, good writing is not just a product, like an assembly line product, or a mechanical procedure. Effective writing is a process. Nowadays writing and language teachers recognize the importance of the process of writing – how a writer goes about planning the essay, pre-writing methods, drafting, and multiple stages of revisions (ideally), and finally, a final version. An effective paper is made possible by more important elements, such as crafting arguments, contents, and support.
Students can improve their writing abilities by carefully reflecting on and evaluating their writing habits and methods.
1 Basic questions
For you, it would be helpful to introspect on your your own writing process, and then guide those you tutor to do so as an initial exercise, before you two start working on an actual assignment. Describe your writing process from start to finish, including the following:
- How do you go about doing a major writing task, in English or Korean, at school or work?
- How do you get started? How do you get comfortable?
- How do you gather information and ideas to begin with? How do you brainstorm ideas and organize them? What prewriting techniques do you use? How well do they work for you?
- How, how often, and how much you revise your paper?
- How similar or different is your writing process for different kinds of projects?
- How similar or different is your writing process for assignments in English versus those in your native language?
- What is your motivation like? Do you enjoy it, want to do it, or feel like you are learning? Or does it feel like stress, pressure, or something you have to do?
- If you have problems with procrastination or writer's block, explain how you deal with it, and perhaps what causes it.
By reflecting carefully on their writing process, writers might be able to improve their writing and writing process. That is, careful introspection and evaluation of their writing process, its strengths and weaknesses, writing difficulties, causes of these difficulties, and their writing strategies can help them to improve their study habits and their written papers.
Brainstorming and prewriting techniques may include one or more of the following.
- Freewriting - writing whatever comes to mind in an unorganized format
- Social brainstorming, or tossing around ideas in a group discussion with classmates
- Clustering methods for organizing random ideas, e.g., organizing them into a list, a ranking, or mind map
- Graphical organizers, such as mind maps (concept maps)
- Outlines, be they formal or informal
There is no one ideal writing process for each person. What works will depend on a person's preferences, interests, motivation, and a myriad of other factors. For example, the most effective brainstorming and prewriting techniques will depend greatly on the task and the individual's preferences. Some may prefer graphical organizers, and others prefer to start with outlining. However, for university level writing, it is highly recommended that a student use an outline at some point, possibly in combination with other brainstorming or prewriting methods; it need not be a formal outline, as long as it helps the writer. This is because there are strong expectations of coherence, logical flow, organization, and relevance of information for contents in university papers, and an outline is an ideal way of getting one's ideas into an effective, logically organized format.
3 Writing strategies
By reflecting on their writing strategies, writers might be able to identify address their weaknesses. Less successful writers tend to focus on more superficial aspects of writing such as grammar, and reorganizing factual information in a fairly unoriginal manner. They also tend to engage in a more mechanical type of writing, with less effort at deeper conceptual thinking. Successful writers tend to focus on deeper conceptual learning, developing their own original ideas, and global issues like clear arguments, coherent organization of ideas, and persuading potential readers.
4 Metacognitive strategies
This refers to actively and consciously planning the process of learning, studying, or doing a task, and then actively reflecting on it and evaluating one's learning during the process. This includes consciously focusing on conceptual understanding and deeper learning rather than just memorizing facts and information. In the process of studying or working, a student focuses on gaining a deeper understanding, such as relationships, contrasts, comparisons, similarities, dissimilarities, taxonomies, application (or inapplicability) of ideas, and reasons for why things are as they are. An effective learner also realizes that s/he doesn’t see connections or understand concepts, but tries to attain a deeper understanding.
Metacognition means thinking about what we know, and self-regulating how we learn, e.g.:
- What do I know about this subject?
- How much time do I need to spend on this?
- What would be good strategies or ways of learning this?
- How can I estimate or predict the outcome of this task?
- How should I revise or adapt my study procedures, strategies, or methods?
- How can I spot an error if I make one?
- Did I understand what I just read?
- Visualization successful learning, including effective learning methods; thus, as planning strategy, not magic
Self-regulation in learning involves strategies like the following.
- Make and refine predictions about what they are reading
- Maintain attention during instruction and problem solving
- Make connections between new knowledge and previous knowledge
- Ask themselves questions
- Know how to adapt their approaches when not succeeding or when doing something wrong
- Focus on the more important aspects or information of a task or text
- Tune out or focus less on less important information
- Recognize when a relationship or connection occurs or is implied
- Use visualization when reading and problem solving
- Consider the worth of ideas
- Know when and where to ask for help
- Set priorities
Good motivation leads to effective learning strategies (planning, previewing, in-stream review, post hoc review / rehearsal, memory aids, conceptual learning, multiple passes for L2 reading, visualization). Good learners try to reflect on their motivation, and on possible motivational problems.
Several types of motivation have been identified by psychology researchers, and include the following.
- Intrinsic or internal motivation
- The student is interested in the topic or task, and feels a healthy degree of personal choice in the matter, i.e., it does not feel so much like an obligation. The student tries to understand the contents for the sake of learning, and also gains a sense of achievement in the learning process.
- Extrinsic or external motivation
- The student is less interested in the topic or task, and feels that the work is an obligation, or a source of pressure. The student is more focused on more tangible non-learning rewards like grades, scores, or being recognized as a good student. Or the student is focused on avoiding punishment, such as poor grades, poor scores, feeling "dumb" or looking "dumb", or being considered a poor student. This can include perfectionism, which is extremely focused on performance rather than actual learning.
- Instrumental motivation
- The student does not take an active interest or pleasure in the content, but has no feelings of displeasure, disinterest, stress, anxiety, or obligation toward the topic, because she finds it useful for learning about or accomplishing something else. For example, a student may have a neutral attitude toward learning English, not liking or disliking it, but finds it useful and valuable for learning about international business, which is her real interest and passion.
6 Writing difficulties
Writer's block refers to the difficulty that one has in getting started on a writing assignment, e.g., when a person experiences a mental block and cannot focus, cannot get started writing, cannot organize his/her ideas, cannot get past the introduction, or such.
Writer’s block may be caused by these factors. Some of these in turn may have their origin in problematic writing strategies, or in deeper problems with unhealthy forms of motivation, including a lack of motivation for the particular assignment or course.
- Negative voices from the past
- Affective filters (e.g., emotional / psychological blocks)
- Lack of information
- Overly specific topic
- Overly broad topic
Short-term remedies to these problems can come from trying various prewriting techniques more systematically, and finding more information on the topic. Writers can also reflect on and systematically practice more effective writing strategies. For long-term remedies, writers may need to learn to reflect on the possible causes of writer's block or procrastination, which may be caused by motivational problems, possible due to unpleasant past school experiences, excessive pressure, or other factors that damaged the student's academic interest, self-confidence, or self-esteem.