Part 1: The Writing Process

1 Writing Process


Writing is a Process

This chapter is a review of much of what you learned in English 101.  You are welcome to skim areas that you feel confident about.  Be sure to complete the video and interactive activities to test your knowledge.

Do you know what a Slinky® is?

It’s a toy that can serve as a metaphor for the writing process.

“Slinky” by JeepersMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A Slinky is one piece of material that’s coiled in many loops. Writing is a large process that’s made up of smaller ones—processes that connect and loop around each other.

A Slinky, after the first nudge, travels downstairs on its own, step by step. An experienced writer, after the first nudge of an idea or observation, moves through the writing process step by step, with the option to loop back up the stairs as well as down.

Okay, that’s as far as the metaphor stretches (and yes, that’s a bad pun). But you get the idea through the visual example. Writing is a process.

Writing is a tangible result of thinking. And learning how to think—how to develop your own ideas and concepts—is the purpose of a college education. Even though the end result of writing is a product, writing itself is a process through which you ask questions; create, develop, hone, and organize ideas; argue a point; search for evidence to support your ideas…and so on. The point here is that writing really involves creative and critical thinking processes. Like any creative process, it often starts in a jumble as you develop, sort, and sift through ideas. But it doesn’t need to stay in disarray. Your writing will gain direction as you start examining those ideas. It just doesn’t happen all at once. Writing is a process that happens over time. And like any process, there are certain steps or stages.

These are some of the major stages in a strong writing process:

  1. Thinking about your assignment
  2. Developing ideas (often called prewriting)
  3. Narrowing a topic
  4. Gathering information
  5. Ordering and drafting
  6. Revising and editing

Thinking About Your Assignment

When you receive your writing assignment from your professor, it’s important to stop and think about your assignment. What are the requirements? What is the purpose of this assignment? What is your professor asking you to write? Who are you writing for?

Before you begin to write any part of an essay you have been assigned, it’s important to first carefully consider your assignment. You must think about the requirements and how you plan to meet those requirements. All too often, students make the mistake of jumping into an assignment without stopping to think about it rhetorically.

What does it mean to think about an assignment rhetorically?

It means that you’re being considerate of the purpose of the assignment, the audience for the assignment, the voice you might want to use when you write, and how you will approach the assignment effectively overall.

Each time you are presented with a writing assignment in college, you’re being presented with a particular situation for writing. Learning about rhetoric can help you learn to make good decisions about your writing. Rhetoric can be simply defined as figuring out what you need to do to be effective, no matter the writing situation.

Thinking rhetorically is an important part of any writing process because every writing assignment has different expectations. There is no such thing as right when it comes to writing; instead, try to think about good writing as being writing that is effective in that particular situation.

The following video presentation will help you as you begin to think about your assignments rhetorically. It’s so important to stop and think about what you are being asked to write about and why before you begin an assignment.

Developing Ideas

Writers need to have something to write about. In college, you’ll be expected to provide your own observations and ideas. Even in a research paper on an assigned topic, you’ll be expected to offer your own thinking about what your sources say. The purpose of writing in college is to show your own analysis and thought processes on the concepts that you’re learning about.

Writers develop ideas in many ways, including the following:

  • Journaling 
  • Freewriting 
  • Brainstorming 
  • Mapping or diagramming 
  • Listing 
  • Asking defining questions
  • Noting Pros & Cons 
  • Responding to a text

Narrowing a Topic

Once you have decided what you want to write about, you need to stop and consider if you have chosen a feasible topic that meets the assignment’s purpose.

If you have chosen a very large topic for a research paper assignment, you need to create a feasible focus that’s researchable. For example, you might write about something like the Vietnam War, specifically the economic impact of the war on the U.S. economy.

If you have chosen a topic for a non-research assignment, you still need to narrow the focus of the paper to something manageable that allows you to go in-depth in the writing. For instance, you might have a goal of writing about the nursing profession but with a specific focus on what the daily routine is like for a nurse at your local pediatric hospital.

The important thing is to think about your assignment requirements, including length requirements, and make sure you have found a topic that is specific enough to be engaging and interesting and will fit within the assignment requirements.

Gathering Information

It’s easier to gather information once you have a relatively narrow topic. A good analogy is when you conduct a search in an online database. You’ll get thousands (if not more) entries if you use the keywords Vietnam War as opposed to fewer and more focused entries if you use terms related to the economic impact of the war on the U.S.

Or, if you’re analyzing The Great Gatsby, you’ll be able to gather more specific information from the novel if you focus on a character, a theme, etc. instead of all elements of the novel at once.

It may help to use the image of a hand fan in order to understand gathering information. Think of your narrow topic as the end of the fan, the point at which all of the slats are linked together. As you gather information about your narrow topic, the fan spreads out, but the information is still all connected to the narrow topic.


NOTE: Sometimes, gathering information occurs before you narrow a topic, especially if you don’t have much knowledge of that subject.


You might use a general reference source, such as an encyclopedia, a textbook, a magazine, or a website to get a broad view of the issues related to a topic. This, in turn, helps you think of ways to narrow the topic in order to create a focused piece of writing.

However, it’s important to remember that sources like encyclopedias should be starting points only and should not be the kinds of sources you use in most college-level essays.

Ordering & Drafting

Before you begin to draft, it can be helpful to create an outline to help you organize your thoughts. You can refer to the prewriting if you have organized thoughts already using a prewriting strategy, such as mapping. The important thing is to list out your main ideas, including your thesis, to help you visualize where you are going with your essay. An outline will also help you see before you begin drafting if your ideas will support your thesis.

The actual writing occurs after you have a focus and enough information to support that focus. Drafting involves making choices about how much information to offer and what information to put where. Your outline will be a guide, but you may find that you need to revise the order once you begin drafting.

Consider the following points as you draft:

  • Is there enough information to provide evidence for your assertions?  If not, circle back to gathering information.
  • Is there a basic idea that needs to be offered first so that readers understand subsequent ideas?
  • Are there related ideas that logically should be grouped together?
  • Are there some ideas that are more important than others and, if so, what is the best place in the writing to emphasize those ideas?
  • Are there logical linkages between ideas, so readers don’t get lost moving from one idea to the next?

Drafting consists of building the paragraphs of your writing and linking them together. And, remember, your draft you create at this point is not your final draft. There are additional steps of the writing process to consider before you are ready to submit your work.

Revising & Editing Basics


Meme - 2 horses making comical expressions. You want to write a paper without revising it? Tell me about it's compleet lack of grammartical errors.

Many students often try to lump revising and editing into one, but they are really two separate activities. Revising is about your content while editing is about sentence-level issues and typos. It’s important to remember to allow yourself time to complete both parts of this process carefully.

Revision is about seeing your writing again. Revising is an important step in the writing process because it enables you to look at your writing more objectively, from a reader’s view. Set your writing aside for a time. Then go back to it and work from big to small as you ask and answer revising questions.

Basic Big Revision Questions—Ask These First:

  • Are there places that are not clear?
  • Are there places that need more information?
  • Are there places that need less information, because the information seems to diverge too much from your main point?
  • Does some of the information need to be re-ordered in order to make sense to a reader who may not have much background on this topic?


As you see, these basic revision questions concern themselves with the amount, clarity, and order of information. That’s what the revision process is all about—making sure that your concepts and supporting information are presented in the clearest, most logical way for most readers to understand.

Once you deal with the big things (amount and order of information), then you can move to the small things—the language, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.


Once you have your content the way you want it and have completed your revisions, it’s time to think about editing your paper. When you edit, you are looking for issues with sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc. And, when you edit, it’s important to realize that it’s difficult to catch all of these errors in one editing pass. A thorough editing process is one that involves several editing passes. Research on student writing indicates that most of the errors in college essays are related to careless editing. With that in mind, it’s important to take steps to ensure you are engaging in a good editing process.

Questions to Consider When You Edit

  • Is the language clear and easy to read and understand?  Are difficult terms defined?
  • Is the sentence structure clear and easy to understand?
  • Are the sentences grammatically correct?
  • Have I proofread and checked for typos and misspellings?
  • What errors might my spell checker and grammar checker have missed?


Writing Process Activity

See It in Practice

In this first section, you’ll see the student’s assignment sheet and hear a discussion of the key things she must consider for her assignment.

Then, consider the different steps of The Writing Process—Prewriting StrategiesAudience AwarenessVoiceIntroductions & ConclusionsParts of a Thesis SentenceParagraphingEssay Writing, and Revising & Editing, and notice how the student approaches these steps given her specific assignment. As you watch each step, you’ll want to think about how you might apply each step to your own assignment, as you’ll be given a chance to engage in each step with your own writing assignment.

Think About Writing

Now that you have seen how the student in the video approached her assignment, it’s your turn to examine your own writing assignment. As you do, it’s a good idea to do a little writing in a writing journal in some notes. In your writing, you should  to the following questions about your assignment:

  • What is the purpose of my assignment, or what is my professor asking me to do with this assignment?
  • Who is my audience for this assignment? Did my professor specify an audience? If not, who can I assume is my intended audience?
  • What ideas do I have for a topic that might work for this assignment? Do I have freedom with my topic, or do I have to choose from a specific list?
  • How can I apply a strong writing process to my approach for this assignment? What is my plan here?

Before you begin to gather ideas during the prewriting process, it’s important to make sure you understand what you are being asked to do by your professor’s assignment. You should share your responses to these questions with your classmates to see if they have the same or similar responses. What questions might you have for your professor?


Prewriting Strategies


Did you ever work on a creative project—paint a picture, make a quilt, build a wooden picnic table or deck? If you did, you know that you go through a development stage that’s kind of messy, a stage in which you try different configurations and put the pieces together in different ways before you say “aha” and a pattern emerges.

Writing is a creative project, and writers go through the same messy stage. For writers, the development stage involves playing with words and ideas—playing with writing. Prewriting is the start of the writing process, the messy, “play” stage in which writers jot down, develop, and try out different ideas, the stage in which it’s fine to be free-ranging in thought and language. Prewriting is intended to be free-flowing, to be a time in which you let your ideas and words flow without caring about organization, grammar, and the formalities of writing.

There are many ways to develop ideas for writing, including:

  • Journaling
  • Freewriting
  • Brainstorming
  • Mapping or diagramming
  • Listing
  • Outlining
  • Asking defining questions
  • Noting Pros & Cons


See It in Practice

Now it’s time to see how our sample student applies some of these strategies to her essay assignment. In this screencast, you’ll see the student share freewriting and mapping.


Introductions & Conclusions

A name tagThe introduction and conclusion of an essay serve an important purpose: They provide a kind of framing for the body of an essay. That framing helps your audience better understand your writing. The introduction prepares your reader for the ideas that are to come in the body of your essay. The conclusion provides important reminders about key points from the body of your essay and provides you with an important opportunity to leave a lasting impression on your audience.


You’ll want to write effective introductions and conclusions. After all, they are the first and last impressions your audience will have of your essay.



A woman typing on a computerThere is no doubt about it: the introduction is important for any kind of writing. Not only does a good introduction capture your reader’s attention and make him or her want to read on, but it’s also how you put the topic of your paper into context for the reader.

But just because the introduction comes at the beginning, it doesn’t have to be written first. Many writers compose their introductions last, once they are sure of the main points of their essay and have had time to construct a thought-provoking beginning, and a clear, cogent thesis statement.


Introductions Purpose

The introduction has work to do, besides grabbing the reader’s attention. Below are some things to consider about the purposes or the tasks for your introduction and some examples of how you might approach those tasks.

The introduction needs to alert the reader to what the central issue of the paper is.


Few people realize how much the overuse of antibiotics for livestock is responsible for the growth of antimicrobial—resistant bacteria, which are now found in great abundance in our waterways.


The introduction is where you provide any important background information the reader should have before getting to the thesis.


One hundred years ago there were only 8000 cars in the United States and only 144 miles of paved roads. In 2005, the Department of Transportation recorded 247,421,120 registered passenger vehicles in the United States, and over 5.7 million miles of paved highway. The automobile has changed our way of life dramatically in the last century.


The introduction tells why you have written the paper and what the reader should understand about your topic and your perspective.


Although history books have not presented it accurately, in fact, the Underground Railroad was a bi-racial movement whereby black and white abolitionists coordinated secret escape routes for those who were enslaved.


The introduction tells the reader what to expect and what to look for in your essay.


In 246 BCE, Ctesibius of Alexandria invented a musical instrument that would develop into what we know as the organ. Called a hydraulis, it functioned via wind pressure regulated by means of water pressure. The hydraulis became the instrument played at circuses, banquets, and games throughout Mediterranean countries.


The thesis statement (typically at the end of the introduction) should clearly state the claim, question, or point of view the writer is putting forth in the paper.


While IQ tests have been used for decades to measure various aspects of intelligence, these tests are not a predictor for success, as many highly intelligent people have a low emotional intelligence, the important human mental ability to reason about emotions and to use emotions to enhance thought.


Introductions Strategies

Although there is no one “right” way to write your introduction, there are some common introductory strategies that work well. The strategies below are ones you should consider, especially when you are feeling stuck and having a hard time getting started.

Consider opening with an anecdote, a pithy quotation, an image, question, or startling fact to provoke your reader’s interest. Just make sure that the opening helps put your topic in some useful context for the reader.


A woman with aviator glasses riding in a car looking toward the back seat.Anecdote:
One day, while riding in the car, my five-year old son asked me why my name was different from his daddy’s. I welcomed the opportunity to explain some of my feminist ideas, especially my strong belief that women did not need to take their husband’s name upon marriage. I carefully explained my reasons for keeping my own surname. My son listened intently and was silent for a moment after I finished.Then he nodded and said, “I think it’s good you kept your own name Mom!”“You do?” I asked, pleased that he understood my reasons.“Yep, because you don’t look like a Bob.”Question:
The study of anthropology and history reveal that cultures vary in their ideas of moral behavior. Are there any absolutes when it comes to right and wrong?


Overall, your focus in an introduction should be on orienting your reader. Keep in mind journalism’s five Ws: who, what, when, where, why, and add in how. If you answer these questions about your topic in the introduction, then your reader is going to be with you.

Of course, these are just some examples of how you might get your introduction started, but there should be more to your introduction. Once you have your readers’ attention, you want to provide context for your topic and begin to transition to your thesis, and don’t forget to include that thesis (usually at or near the end of your introduction).


The EndA satisfying conclusion allows your reader to finish your paper with a clear understanding of the points you made and possibly even a new perspective on the topic.

Any single paper might have a number of conclusions, but as the writer, you must consider who the reader is and the conclusion you want them to reach. For example, is your reader relatively new to your topic? If so, you may want to restate your main points for emphasis as a way of starting the conclusion. (Don’t literally use the same sentence(s) as in your introduction but come up with a comparable way of restating your thesis.) You’ll want to smoothly conclude by showing the judgment you have reached is, in fact, reasonable.

Just restating your thesis isn’t enough. Ideally, you have just taken your reader through a strong, clear argument in which you have provided evidence for your perspective. You want to conclude by pointing out the importance or worthiness of your topic and argument. You could describe how the world would be different, or people’s lives changed if they ascribed to your perspective, plan, or idea.

You might also point out the limitations of the present understanding of your topic, suggest or recommend future action, study or research that needs to be done.


Be careful not to introduce any new ideas in your conclusion; your job is to wrap up in some satisfying way, so the reader walks away with a clear understanding of what you have had to say.

If you have written a persuasive paper, hopefully, your readers will be convinced by what you have had to say!

See It in Practice

In this videocast, we check in with our student writer after she has written a rough draft of her introduction to her essay. In the video, she discusses her strategies and explains why she feels she has a good start on her essay.


Thesis Statements

A strong thesis statement crystallizes your paper’s argument and, most importantly, it’s arguable.

This means two things. It goes beyond merely summarizing or describing to stake out an interpretation or position that’s not obvious, and others could challenge for good reasons. It’s also arguable in the literal sense that it can be argued, or supported through a thoughtful analysis of your sources. If your argument lacks evidence, readers will think your thesis statement is an opinion or belief as opposed to an argument.

It helps to understand why readers value the arguable thesis. What larger purpose does it serve? Your readers will bring a set of expectations to your essay. The better you can anticipate the expectations of your readers, the better you’ll be able to persuade them to entertain seeing things your way.

Academic readers (and readers more generally) read to learn something new. They want to see the writer challenge commonplaces—either everyday assumptions about your object of study or truisms in the scholarly literature. In other words, academic readers want to be surprised so that their thinking shifts or at least becomes more complex by the time they finish reading your essay. Good essays problematize what we think we know and offer an alternative explanation in its place. They leave their reader with a fresh perspective on a problem.

We all bring important past experiences and beliefs to our interpretations of texts, objects, and problems. You can harness these observational powers to engage critically with what you are studying. The key is to be alert to what strikes you as strange, problematic, paradoxical, or puzzling about your object of study. If you can articulate this and a claim in response, you’re well on your way to formulating an arguable thesis in your introduction.

Parts of a Thesis Sentence

Keep calm and write your thesis sentenceThe thesis sentence is the key to most academic writing. This is important and worth repeating:

The thesis sentence is the key to most academic writing.

The purpose of academic writing is to offer your own insights, analyses, and ideas—to show not only that you understand the concepts you’re studying, but also that you have thought about those concepts in your own way, agreed or disagreed, or developed your own unique ideas as a result of your analysis. The thesis sentence is the one sentence that encapsulates the result of your thinking, as it offers your main insight or argument in condensed form.

A basic thesis sentence has two main parts:

  1. Topic: What you’re writing about
  2. Angle: What your main idea is about that topic


Sample Thesis #1

Thesis: A regular exercise regime leads to multiple benefits, both physical and emotional.Topic: Regular exercise regime

Angle: Leads to multiple benefits



Sample Thesis #2

Thesis: Adult college students have different experiences than typical, younger college students.Topic: Adult college students

Angle: Have different experiences



Sample Thesis #3

Thesis: The economics of television have made the viewing experience challenging for many viewers because shows are not offered regularly, similar programming occurs at the same time, and commercials are rampant.Topic: Television viewing

Angle: Challenging because shows shifted, similar programming, and commercials


Thesis Angles

Most writers can easily create a topic: television viewing, the Patriot Act, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The more difficult part is creating an angle. But the angle is necessary as a means of creating interest and as a means of indicating the type and organization of the information to follow.

Click on each of the thesis angles in the box below that you want to learn more about.


So what about this thesis sentence?

Adult college students have different experiences than traditionally-aged college students.


As a reader, you understand intuitively that the information to come will deal with the different types of experiences that adult college students have. But you don’t quite know if the information will deal only with adults, or if it will compare adults’ experiences with those of typical college students. And you don’t quite know what type of information will come first, second, third, etc.

Realize that a thesis sentence offers a range of possibilities for specificity and organization. As a writer, you may opt to pique reader interest by being very specific or not fully specific in your thesis sentence. The point here is that there’s no one standard way to write a thesis sentence.

Sometimes a writer is more or less specific depending on the reading audience and the effect the writer wants to create. Sometimes a writer puts the angle first and the topic last in the sentence, or sometimes the angle is even implied. You need to gauge your reading audience and you need to understand your own style as a writer. The only basic requirements are that the thesis sentence needs a topic and an angle. The rest is up to you.

Common Problems


Although you have creative control over your thesis sentence, you still should try to avoid the following problems, not for stylistic reasons, but because they indicate a problem in the thinking that underlies the thesis sentence.

Thesis Sentence too Broad

Hospice workers need support.The sentence above actually is a thesis sentence; it has a topic (hospice workers) and an angle (need support). But the angle is very broad. When the angle in a thesis sentence is too broad, the writer may not have carefully thought through the specific support for the rest of the writing. A thesis angle that’s too broad makes it easy to fall into the trap of offering information that deviates from that angle.

Thesis Sentence too Narrow

Hospice workers have a 55% turnover rate compared to the general health care population’s 25% turnover rate.The above sentence really isn’t a thesis sentence at all, because there’s no angle idea to support. A narrow statistic, or a narrow statement of fact, doesn’t offer the writer’s own ideas or analysis about a topic. A clearer example of a thesis statement with an angle of development would be the following:

*The high turnover rate in hospice workers (55 percent) compared to the general health care population (25 percent) indicates a need to develop support systems to reverse this trend.


Where to Place a Thesis?

In the U.S., it’s customary for most academic writers to put the thesis sentence somewhere toward the start of the essay or research paper. The focus here is on offering the main results of your own thinking in your thesis angle and then providing evidence in the writing to support your thinking.

A legal comparison might help to understand thesis placement. If you have seen television shows or movies with courtroom scenes, the lawyer usually starts out by saying, “My client is innocent!” to set the scene, and then provides different types of evidence to support that argument. Academic writing in the U.S. is similar; your thesis sentence provides your main assertion to set the scene of the writing, and then the details and evidence in the rest of the writing support the assertion in the thesis sentence.

NOTE: Although the usual pattern is “thesis sentence toward the start,” there may be reasons to place the thesis elsewhere in the writing. You may decide to place the thesis sentence at the end of the writing if your purpose is to gradually induce a reading audience to understand and accept your assertion. You may decide to place the thesis sentence in the middle of the writing if you think you need to provide relatively complicated background information to your readers before they can understand the assertion in your thesis.


As a writer, you have the option of placing the thesis anywhere in the writing. But, as a writer, you also have the obligation to make the thesis sentence idea clear to your readers. Beginning writers usually stick with “thesis sentence toward the start,” as it makes the thesis prominent in the writing and also reminds them that they need to stick with providing evidence directly related to that thesis sentence’s angle.

Thesis Creation

HourglassAt what point do you write a thesis sentence? Of course, this varies from writer to writer and from writing assignment to writing assignment. You’ll usually do some preliminary idea development first before a thesis idea emerges. And you’ll usually have a working thesis before you do the bulk of your research, or before you fully create the supporting details for your writing.

Think of the thesis as the mid-point of an hourglass.

You develop ideas for writing and prewriting, using various strategies until a main idea or assertion emerges. This main idea or assertion becomes your point to prove—your working thesis sentence.

Once you have a working thesis sentence with your main idea, you can then develop more support for that idea, but in a more focused way that deepens your thinking about the thesis angle.

Realize that a thesis is really a working thesis until you finalize the writing. As you do more focused research or develop more focused support, your thesis may change a bit. Just make sure that you retain the basic thesis characteristics of the topic and angle.

Thesis Checklist

When you draft a working thesis, it can be helpful to review the guidelines for a strong thesis. The following checklist is a helpful tool you can use to check your thesis once you have it drafted.

See It in Practice

In the videocast below, our student writer takes a closer look at her thesis from her rough draft introduction and makes some revisions based on the things she has learned about a good thesis in The Writing Process.

Thesis Statement Activity

After completing this activity, you may download or print a completion report that summarizes your results.


Argumentative Thesis Activity

After completing this activity, you may download or print a completion report that summarizes your results.


Analyze This

Before you try to develop a thesis of your own, it can be helpful to see how another author presents an argumentative thesis.

In this Analyze This video, watch as one student shares a short analysis of an online article (Live and Learn) with a specific focus on locating and evaluating the thesis. The student will share a summary of the article and then explore the author’s thesis in the article.


See It in Practice

Now that you have learned about the importance of developing a strong argumentative thesis for your argumentative essay, it’s time to visit our student who is engaging in her own argumentative writing process.

In this video, watch as she shares her drafts of thesis statements and her process of arriving at a good working thesis, which will guide her throughout the rest of her writing process.




building blocks
The paragraph is the building block of essay writing. The word itself, according to the Oxford Dictionary Online (2015), is defined as “a distinct section of a piece of writing, usually dealing with a single theme and indicated by a new line, indentation, or numbering.”

Paragraphs can be shown through breaks between lines or through indentations of the first line of the paragraph. Paragraphs are important for ease of reading; they help to offer ideas in “chunks” that the eye and brain can more easily comprehend (as opposed to offering information in one large block of text, which is hard to read).

Paragraphs are necessary in academic writing to show changes in ideas or further development of ideas. In academic writing, paragraphs present mini ideas that often develop out of the thesis sentence’s main idea.


Thesis Sentence

  • A regular exercise regimen creates multiple benefits, both physical and emotional.

Beginnings of Paragraphs

  • One physical benefit of having a regular exercise regimen is longevity. Recent studies have shown that . . .
  • Exercise reduces heart and cholesterol rates when done at least three times per week . . .
  • Another physical benefit of regular exercise is that it results in stronger heart and lungs . . .
  • People who exercise regularly have less trouble with sleep disorders . . .
  • A benefit that spans the physical and emotional results of regular exercise is the release of endorphins, or substances produced by glands as a byproduct of exercise . . .
  • In multiple studies, regular exercise has been shown to reduce stress . . .
  • Because regular exercise often helps to slow the effects of aging and maintain a good body weight, people who exercise regularly experience the emotional benefits of good self-image and self-confidence in their looks . . .


Although all of these paragraph beginnings are related to the main idea of the benefits of exercise, they all show a slight shift in content, as the writer moves from one benefit to another.

Topic Sentences

SignsIn academic writing, many paragraphs or groups of paragraphs start with topic sentences, which are like mini-thesis statements. Topic sentences are idea indicators, or “signs” that help guide a reader along from idea to idea.

Topic sentences have a topic and an angle, just like thesis sentences. But the angle of topic sentences usually is smaller in range than that of the thesis sentence. Very often the topic remains the same from thesis to the topic sentence, while the angle shifts as the writer brings in various types of ideas and research to support the angle in the thesis.

Look at this sample again; these are topic sentences created from the thesis sentence. The topic remains the same in all (regular exercise) and the overall angle remains the same (benefits). But the angle narrows and shifts slightly from topic sentence to topic sentence as the writer brings in different supporting ideas and research.

Thesis Sentence Topic Angle
A regular exercise regime creates multiple benefits, both physical and emotional. Regular exercise Physical and emotional benefits
Topic Sentence Topic Angle
One physical benefit of having a regular exercise regime is longevity. Recent studies have shown that… Regular exercise Physical benefit of longevity
Exercise reduces heart and cholesterol rates when done at least three times per week… Regular exercise Physical benefit of reduced cholesterol
Another physical benefit of regular exercise is that it results in a stronger heart and lungs… Regular exercise Physical benefit of stronger heart and lungs
People who exercise regularly have less trouble with sleep disorders… Regular exercise Physical benefit of less trouble sleeping
A benefit that spans the physical and emotional results of regular exercise is the release of endorphins or substances produced by glands as a byproduct of exercise… Regular exercise Physical and emotional benefits of endorphins
In multiple studies, regular exercise has been shown to reduce stress… Regular exercise Emotional benefit of reduced stress
Because regular exercise often helps to slow the effects of aging and maintain a good body weight, people who exercise regularly experience the emotional benefits of good self-image and self-confidence in their looks… Regular exercise Emotional benefit of better self-image & confidence

Realize that all paragraphs do not need topic sentences. Sometimes, you may need multiple paragraphs to help explain one topic sentence, because you have a lot of supporting information.

REMEMBER: You need a topic sentence for each group of paragraphs in a piece of academic writing.


Paragraphing & Transitioning

Transition Words
Time Place Idea Summarizing
Before long On the patio Another reason Finally
Later that day In the kitchen Also In conclusion
Late last night At the cottage In addition To conclude
The next day In the backyard For example To summarize
After a while When we went to the store To illustrate In summary
Meanwhile Nearby For instance To sum up
Sometimes Adjacent to Likewise In short
Following Wherever However As you can see
Subsequently Opposite to In contrast For all of those reasons

When to Paragraph

How do you know when “enough is enough”—when you have enough information in one paragraph and have to start a new one? A very rough guide is that you need more than one or two paragraphs per page of type. Paragraphing conventions online require even shorter paragraphs, with multiple short paragraphs on one screen.

It’s best to deal with paragraphs as part of the revision step in the writing process. Find places where the information shifts in focus, and put paragraph breaks in those places. You can do your best to paragraph as you draft but know you’ll address paragraphing more during the revision process.

Linking Paragraphs: Transitions

Transitions are words or phrases that indicate linkages in ideas. When writing, you need to lead your readers from one idea to the next, showing how those ideas are logically linked. Transition words and phrases help you keep your paragraphs and groups of paragraphs logically connected for a reader. Writers often check their transitions during the revising stage of the writing process.

Here are some examples of transition words to help as you transition both within paragraphs and from one paragraph to the next.


Transition Word / Phrase: Shows:
and, also, again More of the same type of information is coming; information expands on the same general idea.
but, or, however, in contrast Different information is coming, information that may counteract what was just said.
as a result, consequently, therefore Information that is coming is a logical outgrowth of the ideas just presented.
for example, to illustrate The information coming will present a specific instance, or present a concrete example of an abstract idea.
particularly important, note that The information coming emphasizes the importance of an idea.
in conclusion The writing is ending.

See It in Practice

In this videocast, our student writer takes a look at one of her paragraphs she has drafted for her essay. She discusses the transitions and transitional words she uses in her paragraph to help connect her ideas within the paragraph and to make a transition to the next paragraph in her essay.


Essay Writing

A college essay goes by many names: paper, research paper, essay, theme. Most of these names refer to a piece of writing in which you offer your own idea about a topic. This concept is really important. The purpose of most college essay writing assignments is not for you to find and directly report the information you find. Instead, it’s to think about the information you find, come up with your own idea or assertion about your topic, and then provide the support that shows why you think that way.

Another thing to remember about a college essay is that, in most cases, a writing process is emphasized. Following a thorough writing process, like the one described for you here,  will lead you to a better product. Although you may have some timed writings in college, most of your college essays will involve a writing process. When you use a strong writing process, you’re working to create your very best work!

The video below shows real students from a college writing class talking about writing for college and what they learned from taking a college writing class.

Traditional Essay Structure

Although college essays can offer ideas in many ways, one standard structure for expository essays is to offer the main idea or assertion early in the essay, and then offer categories of support.

Thinking again about how a lawyer makes a case, one way to think about this standard structure is to compare it to a courtroom argument in a television drama. The lawyer asserts, “My client is not guilty.” Then the lawyer provides different reasons for lack of guilt: no physical evidence placing the client at the crime scene, the client had no motive for the crime and more.

In writing terms, the assertion is the thesis sentence, and the different reasons are the topic sentences.


Thesis Sentence (assertion):
The 21st-century workforce requires a unique set of skills.

Topic Sentence (reason) #1:
Workers need to learn how to deal with change.

Topic Sentence (reason) #2:
Because of dealing with such a rapidly changing work environment, 21st-century workers need to learn how to learn.

Topic Sentence (reason) #3:
Most of all, in order to negotiate rapid change and learning, workers in the 21st century need good communication skills.


As you can see, the supporting ideas in an essay develop out of the main assertion or argument in the thesis sentence.


Traditional Structure Activity

An essay is based on a series of ideas and assertions in the thesis and topic sentences (which are like mini thesis sentences). But an essay is more than a series of ideas. An essay expands on its thesis and topic sentence ideas with examples, explanations, and information. An essay also leads the reader into the thesis sentence idea, supports that idea and convinces the reader of its validity, and then re-emphasizes the main idea. In other words, an essay has an introduction, body, and a conclusion.

The first interaction below will review your knowledge; the second will test your knowledge.


Rough Drafts

In this section, you have been learning about traditional structures for expository essays (essays that are thesis-based and offer a point-by-point body), but no matter what type of essay you’re writing, the rough draft is going to be an important part of your writing process. It’s important to remember that your rough draft is a long way from your final draft, and you will engage in revision and editing before you have a draft that is ready to submit.

Sometimes, keeping this in mind can help you as you draft. When you draft, you don’t want to feel like “this has to be perfect.” If you put that much pressure on yourself, it can be really difficult to get your ideas down.

The sample rough draft on the right shows you an example of just how much more work a rough draft can need, even a really solid first draft. Take a look at this example with notes a student wrote on her rough draft. Once you complete your own rough draft, you will want to engage in a revision and editing process that involves feedback, time, and diligence on your part. The steps that follow in this section of the Excelsior OWL will help!

Rough Draft Example




See It in Practice

Using the information from this section on developing a clear structure for a college essay, our student has now established a plan for her essay and has created a visual to help illustrate what her final essay will look like. In the video, she discusses her introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.


Revising & Editing Process

a woman working on the computerRevision and editing are both important parts of the writing process, yet many students skip revision and don’t spend enough time editing. It’s important to remember that these steps are separate and that each step takes time. The following pages will help you develop strong revision and editing strategies for your writing process.


The revision process is an essential aspect of writing and one that you should build in time for before submitting your written work. Just when you think the production of your document is done, the revision process begins. Runners often refer to “the wall,” where the limits of physical exertion are met and exhaustion is imminent. The writing process requires effort, from overcoming writer’s block to the intense concentration composing a document often involves. It is only natural to have a sense of relief when your document is drafted from beginning to end. This relief is false confidence, though. Your document is not complete, and in its current state it could, in fact, do more harm than good. Errors, omissions, and unclear phrases may lurk within your document, waiting to reflect poorly on you when it reaches your audience. Now is not time to let your guard down, prematurely celebrate, or to mentally move on to the next assignment. Think of the revision process as one that hardens and strengthens your document, even though it may require the sacrifice of some hard-earned writing.

Revision means to “re-see” the piece of writing.

It isn’t just proofreading your paper or correcting grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors. Revision is stepping back and looking at your paper as a whole and seeing if you are effectively saying what you intend to say. It is giving your paper a thorough look to see how you can make it stronger. Your goal should always be to write clearly, concisely, and in an engaging way.

One way to go about re-seeing your writing is to do it in three stages. Many people skip the first stage, but looking at the big picture is crucial in making sure you have a well-developed essay that expresses your ideas.

Revising Stage 1: Seeing the Big Picture

The Grand Canyon - Looking from high upWhen you first begin your revision process, you should focus on the big picture or issues at the essay level that might need to be addressed. The following questions will guide you:

  • Do you have a clear thesis? Do you know what idea or perspective you want your reader to understand upon reading your essay?
  • Is your essay well organized?
  • Is each paragraph a building block in your essay: does each explain or support your thesis?
  • Does it need a different shape? Do parts need to be moved?
  • Do you fully explain and illustrate the main ideas of your paper?
  • Does your introduction grab the reader’s interest?
  • Does your conclusion leave the reader understanding your point of view?
  • Are you saying in your essay what you want to say?
  • What is the strength of your paper? What is its weakness?

    Revising Stage 2: Mid-View

    A chalk board with the words who, how, what, why, where, and when on itThe second stage of the revision process requires that you look at your content closely and at the paragraph level. It’s now time to examine each paragraph, on its own, to see where you might need to revise. The following questions will guide you through the mid-view revision stage:

    • Does each paragraph contain solid, specific information, vivid description, or examples that illustrate the point you are making in the paragraph?
    • Are there are other facts, quotations, examples, or descriptions to add that can more clearly illustrate or provide evidence for the points you are making?
    • Are there sentences, words, descriptions or information that you can delete because they don’t add to the points you are making or may confuse the reader?
    • Are the paragraphs in the right order?
    • Are your paragraphs overly long? Does each paragraph explore one main idea?
    • Do you use clear transitions so the reader can follow your thinking?
    • Are any paragraphs or parts of paragraphs redundant and need to be deleted?


Revising Stage 3: Editing Up Close

A close up of a document being edited with red inkOnce you have completed your revision and feel confident in your content, it’s time to begin the editing stage of your revision and editing process. The following questions will guide you through your editing:

  • Are there any grammar errors, i.e. have you been consistent in your use of tense, do your pronouns agree?
  • Have you accurately and effectively used punctuation?
  • Do you rely on strong verbs and nouns and maintain a good balance with adjectives and adverbs, using them to enhance descriptions but ensuring clear sentences?
  • Are your words as accurate as possible?
  • Do you define any technical or unusual terms you use?
  • Are there extra words or clichés in your sentences that you can delete?
  • Do you vary your sentence structure?
  • Have you accurately presented facts; have you copied quotations precisely?
  • If you’re writing an academic essay, have you tried to be objective in your evidence and tone?
  • If writing a personal essay, is the narrative voice lively and interesting?
  • Have you spellchecked your paper?
  • If you used sources, have you consistently documented all of the sources’ ideas and information using a standard documentation style?

Specific Points to Consider

When revising your document, it can be helpful to focus on specific points. When you consider each point in turn, you will be able to break down the revision process into manageable steps. When you have examined each point, you can be confident that you have avoided many possible areas for errors. Specific revision requires attention to the following:

  • Format
  • Facts
  • Names
  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Grammar


Format is an important part of the revision process. Format involves the design expectations of author and audience. If a letter format normally designates a date at the top, or the sender’s address on the left side of the page before the salutation, the information should be in the correct location. Formatting that is messy or fails to conform to the company style will reflect poorly on you before the reader even starts to read it. By presenting a document that is properly formatted according to the expectations of your organization and your readers, you will start off making a good impression.



Another key part of the revision process is checking your facts. Did you know that news organizations and magazines employ professional fact-checkers? These workers are responsible for examining every article before it gets published and consulting original sources to make sure the information in the article is accurate. This can involve making phone calls to the people who were interviewed for the article—for example, “Mr. Diaz, our report states that you are thirty-nine years old. Our article will be published on the fifteenth. Will that be your correct age on that date?” Fact checking also involves looking facts up in encyclopedias, directories, atlases, and other standard reference works; and, increasingly, in online sources.

While you can’t be expected to have the skills of a professional fact-checker, you do need to reread your writing with a critical eye to the information in it. Inaccurate content can expose you and your organization to liability, and will create far more work than a simple revision of a document. So, when you revise a document, ask yourself the following:

  • Does my writing contain any statistics or references that need to be verified?
  • Where can I get reliable information to verify it?

It is often useful to do independent verification—that is, look up the fact in a different source from the one where you first got it. For example, perhaps a colleague gave you a list of closing averages for the Dow Jones Industrial on certain dates. You still have the list, so you can make sure your document agrees with the numbers your colleague provided. But what if your colleague made a mistake? The Web sites of the Wall Street Journal and other major newspapers list closings for “the Dow,” so it is reasonably easy for you to look up the numbers and verify them independently.


There is no more embarrassing error in business writing than to misspell someone’s name. To the writer, and to some readers, spelling a name “Michelle” instead of “Michele” may seem like a minor matter, but to Michele herself it will make a big difference. Attribution is one way we often involve a person’s name, and giving credit where credit is due is essential. There are many other reasons for including someone’s name, but regardless of your reasons for choosing to focus on them, you need to make sure the spelling is correct. Incorrect spelling of names is a quick way to undermine your credibility; it can also have a negative impact on your organization’s reputation, and in some cases it may even have legal ramifications.


Correct spelling is another element essential for your credibility, and errors will be glaringly obvious to many readers. The negative impact on your reputation as a writer, and its perception that you lack attention to detail or do not value your work, will be hard to overcome. In addition to the negative personal consequences, spelling errors can become factual errors and destroy the value of content. This may lead you to click the “spell check” button in your word processing program, but computer spell-checking is not enough. Spell checkers have improved in the years since they were first invented, but they are not infallible. They can and do make mistakes.

Typically, your incorrect word may in fact be a word, and therefore, according to the program, correct. For example, suppose you wrote, “The major will attend the meeting” when you meant to write “The mayor will attend the meeting.” The program would miss this error because “major” is a word, but your meaning would be twisted beyond recognition.


Punctuation marks are the traffic signals, signs, and indications that allow us to navigate the written word. They serve to warn us in advance when a transition is coming or the complete thought has come to an end. A period indicates the thought is complete, while a comma signals that additional elements or modifiers are coming. Correct signals will help your reader follow the thoughts through sentences and paragraphs, and enable you to communicate with maximum efficiency while reducing the probability of error (Strunk & White, 1979).


Learning to use good, correct standard English grammar is more of a practice than an event or even a process. Grammar involves the written construction of meaning from words and involves customs that evolve and adapt to usage over time. Because grammar is always evolving, none of us can sit back and rest assured that we “know” how to write with proper grammar. Instead, it is important to write and revise with close attention to grammar, keeping in mind that grammatical errors can undermine your credibility, reflect poorly on your employer, and cause misunderstandings.



By revising for format, facts, names, spelling, punctuation, and grammar, you can increase your chances of correcting many common errors in your writing.

Revising & Editing Tips

Exclamation Point in a yellow triangle

Revision Tips

One great way to help you with revision is to try something called the post-draft outline. Here’s how it works: Outline your paper, jotting down your thesis statement and the topic sentences in each of your paragraphs. See if this skeleton of your paper reveals a clear, logical flow of ideas and organization. If not, you know you need to make some changes. Having this visual representation of what you have actually written in your essay is a great help when you are trying to revise effectively.

Editing Tips

It’s important to remember that a good editing process takes time. You can’t edit well in one big editing pass. You should be prepared to spend the time it will take to edit in several passes and use strategies that will you slow yourself down and edit thoroughly.

Read your paper aloud.

Reading aloud gives you the opportunity to both see and hear what you have written—and it slows your eyes down so you’re more likely to catch errors and see what you have actually written, not what you think you wrote. It’s also helpful to have someone else read your paper aloud so you can listen to how well it flows.

Read your paper backward

Start with the last sentence. Read it first. Then, read the second-to-the-last sentence. Continue this process for your whole essay. This strategy really slows you down and helps you see each sentence on its own, which is key to effective editing.

Review the Grammar 

Review the Grammar for known struggles you have with grammar, punctuation, and other errors. Then, with that information fresh in your mind, edit your paper just looking for those known issues. For example, if you know you have struggled with commas, review the information on commas in, and, then, immediately edit your essay with special attention to commas. With the rules fresh in your mind, you’re more likely to catch any errors.

A Tip for Both Revising and Editing

Finally, a good tip for both revision and editing is to use the resources available to you for feedback and help. If you’re on a campus with a writing center, take advantage of it. If your online college offers an online writing tutorial service, submit your essay to that service for feedback. And, take advantage of in-class peer reviews. Your peers understand the writing assignment you’re working on and can provide helpful reader feedback.

Seek help when you need it, and ask questions of your professor. A good revision and editing process involves using all of the resources available to you.



How do you get the best out of your revisions and editing? Here are some strategies that writers have developed to look at their first drafts from a fresh perspective. Try them throughout this course; then keep using the ones that bring results.

  • Take a break. You are proud of what you wrote, but you might be too close to it to make changes. Set aside your writing for a few hours or even a day until you can look at it objectively.
  • Ask someone you trust for feedback and constructive criticism.
  • Pretend you are one of your readers. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied? Why?
  • Use the resources that your college provides. Find out where your school’s writing lab is located and ask about the assistance they provide online and in person.

General Revision

General revision requires attention to content, organization, style, and readability. These four main categories should give you a template from which to begin to explore details in depth. A cursory review of these elements in and of itself is insufficient for even the briefest review. You may need to take some time away from your document to approach it again with a fresh perspective. Writers often juggle multiple projects that are at different stages of development. This allows the writer to leave one document and return to another without losing valuable production time. Overall, your goal is similar to what it was during your writing preparation and production: a clear mind.

Evaluate Content

Content is only one aspect of your document. Let’s say you were assigned a report on the sales trends for a specific product in a relatively new market. You could produce a one-page chart comparing last year’s results to current figures and call it a day, but would it clearly and concisely deliver content that is useful and correct? Are you supposed to highlight trends? Are you supposed to spotlight factors that contributed to the increase or decrease? Are you supposed to include projections for next year? Our list of questions could continue, but for now, let’s focus on content and its relationship to the directions. Have you included the content that corresponds to the given assignment, left any information out that may be necessary to fulfill the expectations, or have you gone beyond the assignment directions? Content will address the central questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how within the range and parameters of the assignment.


Evaluate Organization

The organization is another key aspect of any document. Standard formats that include an introduction, body, and conclusion may be part of your document, but did you decide on a direct or indirect approach? Can you tell? A direct approach will announce the main point or purpose at the beginning, while an indirnotebook with pencilect approach will present an introduction before the main point. Your document may use any of a wide variety of organizing principles, such as chronological, spatial, compare/contrast. Is your organizing principle clear to the reader?

Beyond the overall organization, pay special attention to transitions. Readers often have difficulty following a document if the writer makes the common error of failing to make one point relevant to the next or to illustrate the relationships between the points. Finally, your conclusion should mirror your introduction and not introduce new material


Evaluate Style

Style is created through content and organization, but also involves word choice and grammatical structures. Is your document written in an informal or formal tone, or does it present a blend, a mix, or an awkward mismatch? Does it provide a coherent and unifying voice with a professional tone? If you are collaborating on the project with other writers or contributors, pay special attention to unifying the document across the different authors’ styles of writing. Even if they were all to write in a professional, formal style, the document may lack a consistent voice. Read it out loud—can you tell who is writing what? If so, that is a clear clue that you need to do more revising in terms of style.

Evaluate Readability

Readability refers to the reader’s ability to read and comprehend the document. A variety of tools are available to make an estimate of a document’s reading level, often correlated to a school grade level. If this chapter has a reading level of 11.8, it would be appropriate for most readers in the eleventh grade. But just because you are in grade thirteen, eighteen, or twenty-one doesn’t mean that your audience, in their everyday use of language, reads at a postsecondary level. As a business writer, your goal is to make your writing clear and concise, not complex and challenging.


You can often use the “Tools” menu of your word processing program to determine the approximate reading level of your document. The program will evaluate the number of characters per word, add in the number of words per sentence, and come up with a rating. It may also note the percentage of passive sentences and other information that will allow you to evaluate readability. Like any computer-generated rating, it should serve you as one point of evaluation, but not the only point. Your concerted effort to choose words you perceive as appropriate for the audience will serve you better than any computer evaluation of your writing.



The Writing Process in Review

The writing process has several important stages, and you may find yourself having to engage in some of the stages more than once. You may also have to go back and repeat certain stages. This means the process is recursive. The writing process is not necessarily linear, as good writers often have to go back and repeat several stages of their process. For example, once you revise, you may realize you don’t have enough information on a topic and need to go back to do a little brainstorming or freewriting to help you get more ideas. Think back to the Slinky® metaphor. The parts of the writing process connect and loop around each other.

Remember, a thorough writing process will make your writing better! You may continue to have struggles when you write. We all have areas in which we need to improve, but a good writing process will make your writing stronger than it would be otherwise. When you take advantage of each stage of the writing process, you’re helping yourself do your best work!

Listen as these college students talk about what they learned about writing and what they continue to struggle with as they continue with their journeys.






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English 102: Journey Into Open Copyright © 2021 by Christine Jones is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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