When you write based on a text, you need to consider both the end result as well as how you get to that end result. That is, you need to understand both product and process. Sometimes it’s easier to consider the end result—the product—first, to see where the process leads and to get a better sense of why the process contains certain steps.
Writing as Product
There are many types of writing that you may be expected to do for college: case studies, annotated bibliographies, papers that define a term or concept in depth, learning journals, and more. wrtiYou can link to the University of Maryland’s page on Writing Assignments Across the Curriculum to get a sense of the wide variety of writing that you may be doing in college.
However, one very standard product for college writing, whether or not that writing is based on reading, is an essay. Remember that an essay is a piece of writing that attempts to explain something, analyze something, or present insights. An essay’s purpose is to provide a written explanation of your own ideas, interpretations, and evaluations—your direct reflection, explanation, reaction, application, or analysis of a focused topic.
In order to provide insight, analysis, and/or interpretation, an essay needs a focus. Remember that essays are written for readers– you need to make it easy for your reader to find your main idea. An essay’s focus occurs in a thesis sentence, a sentence that provides your main idea or argument in succinct form. One way to think of a thesis sentence is that it’s an assertion, claim, or proposition that you then support with evidence and examples in order to prove the validity of that claim. The thesis sentence, which often comes toward the start of an essay, is the key idea of the whole essay, encapsulated in one sentence. When you’re asked to write an “essay” as a course assignment, most likely you will be asked to write a thesis-support essay.
Thesis-support essays are just what their name implies. They offer a thesis near the start of the essay, usually at the end of the introductory paragraph, and then follow with supporting ideas and information. Usually, each unit of support starts with a topic sentence which extracts an idea from the thesis and makes a point about that part of the thesis idea. (You will read more fully about thesis and topic sentences on another page of this text.)
Here’s a way to visualize a basic thesis-support essay:
The video below provides three formulas to apply in order to create the product of “essay.” Note that although there are an infinite number of valid deviations from this formula, having formulas is not always a bad place to start when you’re learning how to write an essay. If you understand the basic structure of an essay, you can then play with it, expand on it, and deviate from it once you become a more comfortable and sophisticated writer.
Writing as Process
Getting to the product doesn’t happen all at once, even if you do follow a formula. The video on this page shows a portion of the writing process—what happens in the middle when you’re composing an essay. It doesn’t show the preliminary or later parts of the process. As a writer, it helps to understand all parts of the process so that you can apply that process in your own way each time you need to create a written product.
Here’s an overview of stages within the process of writing an essay (and most other written products):
- Considering writing – involves identifying the context of the writing – your purpose, writing type, and intended audience – as an initial planning step
- Prewriting – includes many different ways of generating information for writing
- Creating a thesis/topic sentences/support – involves identifying your main insight or assertion to be supported, and identifying appropriate categories and types of support
- Writing the draft – involves developing those supporting categories with details, examples, and reasons, and ordering the categories of support. Also involves creating an introduction and conclusion, and drafting a complete piece of writing.
- Revising – involves reviewing and evaluating the draft for context, thesis, topic sentences, and support, as well as clarity of language and appropriateness of format, with your initial purpose and audience in mind.
You can think of a writing process as circular—it circles back on itself to end with the same considerations that you started with. Or you can think of a writing process as a series of conjoined circles, perhaps like a spiral, since often you don’t move through the process in a linear manner. Instead, at any one point, you may need to circle back to a previous stage.
However you choose to visualize “how writing happens,” just remember that it doesn’t happen all at once, and it certainly can happen differently, depending on the particular writing task. As you do more and more writing, you’ll develop your own variation of the process that’s comfortable for you.