Writing Process

The writing process (aka creative process) refers to the composing strategies writers engage in when composing  (e.g., prewriting, writing, revising, editing). Learn about research and scholarship on the writing process so you can find your fluency as a writer, speaker, knowledge maker.  
a robust writing process includes writing with others and sharing critiques and ideas

"Students with Professor" by The University of the South, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

a robust writing process includes writing with others and sharing critiques and ideas

What is The Writing Process?

The writing process refers to


  1. In Writing Studies, the writing process may also be referred to as the composing process. (See, e.g., Sondra Perl’s The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers.)
  2. In the arts and creative writing, the writing process may be framed as the creative process. (See Brewster Ghieslin’s The Creative Process: Reflections on the Invention in the Arts and Sciences.)

Related Concepts: Composition Studies; Mindset Writing Studies

Why Does the Writing Process Matter?

  1. Your writing process plays a crucial role in determining whether your texts accomplish your desired purposes.
    • For instance, if you procrastinate and fail to engage in strategic searching,  your text  is likely to be vague and underdeveloped. Writing documents, particularly longer texts that address complex topics, can be challenging. When people struggle to express themselves, when they receive critiques from others, they may falsely assume they lack the prerequisite competencies needed to write well. Or, they may assume that writers are born, not made.

Steps of the Writing Process

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in Composition Studies, the academic discipline that focuses its investigations on composing, tend to disagree with one another regarding just how many steps there are in the writing process and whether the concept of steps is even the best metaphor to discuss composing.

However, since the early days of Composition Studies when SMEs were trying to turn the focus in the classroom away from the product to the process — it has been commonplace to conceptualize the writing process as being composed of four major steps–or, activites:

  1. Invention
  2. Drafting (aka Composing or Writing)
  3. Revising
  4. Editing

Yet in the wild, in reality, writing can be far more complicated than that. For instance, when confronting a challenging task, your writing process may include

  1. determining whether to respond to an exigency, a call to write, by rhetorically analyzing the communication situation and rhetorical reasoning
  2. prewriting and freewriting and other acts of invention
  3. conducting informal research, textual research, and empirical research
  4. using existing genres or remixing genres
  5. collaborating with others, particularly seeking critiques or collaborating
  6. revising drafts to adopt an appropriate rhetorical stance, voice, tone, and persona
  7. self-regulating your mindset so you stay positive while facing challenges and obstacles when
  8. editing drafts
  9. publishing your ideas in multiple media.

The complexity of the processes you employ as a writer is chiefly determined by your level of commitment, purpose, and rhetorical situation.

Recursive Writing Process

The term recursive writing process simply means that writers jump around from one activity to another when composing. For instance, when first drafting a document, a writer may pause to reread something she wrote. That might trigger a new idea that shoots her back to Google Scholar or some other database suitable for strategic searching. Or, she might notice a particular word and then question whether she’s misread the register, if it’s time to go back and check the tone at the global level. Maybe her voice is all wrong. Perhaps her diction is too informal. Then she might hit on a new study that gives her a totally new idea, which then obviates all the past work. That might lead to a crying jag or at least to an attack on the ice cream that’s left in the freezer, which is then replaced by a coffee chat with her closest buddies. That’s recursiveness.

The Writing Process & Rhetorical Theory

In contemporary Writing Studies, the processes a writer employs are assumed to be dialogical: in other words, writers are thought to be in dialogue

  • with themselves
    • about what they are writing, what they know about the topic, and what they need to know
  • with others
    • via scholarly conversation, the ongoing conversation of humankind.

This sort of perspective is relational—it’s rhetorical.

In the classical rhetorical tradition, the writing process a writer chooses to employ — either unconsciously, innately, as a matter of habit, or consciously, as an act of rhetorical awareness — is determined by the rhetorical situation, 

The Writing Process & Expressionist Theory

Sondra Perl has theorized that writers choose their composing strategies, their writing process, by listening to their intuition. Extending the work of Eugene Gendlin, Perl contends that writers begin writing “only after they have a felt sense of what they want to say” (Perl 1980).

Perl’s observations of writers at work led her to conclude that 

  • writers have a feeling deep within their bodies about what they want to say before writing
  • writers develop feelings about ways to revise work while writing that they cannot express in words
  • writers re-read their work while composing to question whether what they’ve written captured that feeling.

Research on The Writing Process

How Do Investigators Study the Writing Process?

The Writing Process is something of a black box: investigators can see inputs (e.g., time on task) or outputs (e.g., written discourse), yet they cannot empirically observe the internal workings of the writer’s mind.

Investigators can use research methods to record a writer’s eye tracking or other writing behaviors, yet at the end of the day they have to jump from what they observe to what is really going on in the writer. And even if investigators ask a writer to talk out loud about what they are thinking as they compose, they can only hear what the writer is saying: they cannot see the internal machinations associated with the writer’s thoughts.

To be more concrete: if a writer goes mute, freezes, and just stares blankly at the computer screen, what does that really mean?

The bottom line is that investigators can only speculate about how the brain functions. They can only speculate about how psychocultural experiences and cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies impinge on composing and writing development. 

    This artists' rendering of morning stars evokes multiple processes embedded in a context

    This artists’ rendering of morning stars evokes multiple processes embedded in a context

    The Writing Process & Process Pedagogy

    Donald Murray’s call to Teach the Process not the Product represented a sea change on the part of middle schools, high schools, and universities in the U.S. In addition to teaching great works of literature, the process movement catechism exhorted teachers to give some class time to coaching students through the writing process. Rather than putting the focus on a literary work, the canon, teachers were encouraged to put the emphasis on the student text. Teachers broke larger assignments down to parts instead of assigning one long project and wishing the students luck. Rather than grading a student one time from a summative perspective, teachers embraced the role of coach and provided formative feedback. (For an example of process pedagogy, see one of my undergraduate courses, such as professional writing, which breaks the processes involved in writing a recommendation report down into a 15-week schedule.)

    Since the 1980s, the Process Pedagogy movement has transformed writing instruction throughout the U.S., from K-12. Now it is commonplace for writing instructors to coach students from prewriting and invention through multiple revisions and edits.

    This Model of Process Pedagogy illustrates the role of feedback in document development

    Sample Model of Process Pedagogy (Moxley 2015)

    The Cognitive Model of the Writing Process

    In 1980, John Hayes, a cognitive psychologist, and Linda Flower, a professor of Writing Studies, speculated about the role of cognition in the writing process. In the first iteration of this model, as illustrated below, Hayes and Flower theorized attention or consciousness, which they called a monitor, oversaw three major cognitive activities:

    1. planning
      1. which involved accessing the writer’s long term memory
    2. translating (moving ideas into words)
    3. reviewing.
    Hayes & Flower 1980

    Hayes & Flower 1980

    Hayes and Flower’s cognitive process is recursive: they speculate writers shift their attention back and forth between the task environment (the assignment prompt and current draft) and the writer’s memories (e.g., knowledge of genre, composing processes, grammar, etc.).

    Later, in “Modeling and Remodeling Writing” (2002), Hayes explains revisions to the cognitive process model he and Flower originally proposed in their earlier article Cognitive Processes in Writing (Hayes and Flower 1980). More specifically, Hayes explains his rationale for deleting the concept of the monitor and for introducing the concept of layering to the writing process.

    Hayes (2012)

    Hayes (2012)

    More recently, working with international colleagues and employing scholarly, case study of a professional writer, and formalist methods (observation, interviews, logbooks, social network analysis, and keystroke logging), Hayes introduced new elements to the model:

    Leijten, Van Waes, L., Schriver, K., & Hayes, J. R. (2014)

    Leijten, Van Waes, L., Schriver, K., & Hayes, J. R. (2014)

    The Writing Process & Metacognition

    Reflect on Your Writing Processes

    Historians and philosophers are fond of saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This observation is equally valid in regard to your development as a writer.

    The final writing activity for many people involves submitting their work to clients, co-workers, or supervisors. For students, primary audiences tend to be instructors or other students.

    Whether you’re writing for an instructor or a client, criticism can often be painful, so it is understandable that many of us try to avoid hearing or thinking much about our critics’ comments. Nevertheless, your growth as a writer is largely dependent on your ability to learn from past mistakes and to improve drafts in response to readers’ comments.

    Reflect on the questions below to gain some insight into your strengths and weaknesses as a writer when it comes to managing writing projects–both individual projects and group projects.

    1. What assumptions about writing and research do you hold that intrude on regular writing?
      • For example, do you assume that you first need to do the research and then the writing? Are you uncomfortable writing without having thoroughly completed the research?
    2. What social supports can you establish to promote regular writing?
      1. Have you developed a network of friends with whom you can exchange critical feedback?
      2. Do the people you live with respect your need for quiet time when developing projects?
      3. Do you know people who can provide you with encouragement when you are feeling discouraged about the worthiness or potential of an idea?
    3. What strategies can you employ to help you accomplish your writing goals?
      1. For example, can you demystify the composing process, overcome negative thoughts, structure your time differently, engage in more (or less prewriting), separate editing from revising, and spend more time revising documents?
    4. How would you describe your typical writing voice, persona, or style? When you sit down to write a research report, what sort of style do you hope to present?
      • The biggest editorial problem that readers have identified with my work…
      • The problems that I want to work on are…
      • Readers always tell me I should…
      • What changes can you make in your environment that will help you achieve your writing goals? For example, can you find a way to minimize distractions, or is your writing environment too quiet for you? Do you need a better light or a software upgrade?
    5. What self-talk can you identify that intrudes on your productivity?
      • For example, does a small voice within you whisper that your ideas lack originality or that the instructor or editor will dislike your manuscript? Do you tell yourself that you lack the time or ability necessary to get the work done?
    6. What myths about writing or textual research do you hold that intrude on regular writing? What changes in how you write will help you achieve your writing goals?
    7. How has rejection in the past influenced your perception of yourself as a writer? How has the fear of rejection influenced what you write about?
    8. Are you open to flow? In what ways do you attempt to work with your intuition when writing? If a seemingly unrelated thought occurs to you when you are writing, do you tend to ignore the thought or do you pursue it and question how and if it relates, after all, to your subject?

    Is There an Ideal Writing Process?

    At times composing may be fairly simple

    Some rhetorical situations require little planning, research, revising or editing, such as

    • a grocery list, a to-do list, a reflection on the day’s activity in a journal
    • documents you routinely write, such as the professor’s letter of recommendation, a bosses’ performance appraisal, a ground-water engineer’s contamination report.

    Other times, however, composing may be challenging

      • when you are unfamiliar with the topic, genre, medium, discourse community
      • when the thesis/research question/topic is complicated yet needs to be explained simply
      • when there is insufficient time to engage in all needed composing strategies, from planning, revision, to editing
      • when your are endeavoring to synthesize other’s ideas and research

    There is no one ideal writing process. People differ with regards to how they compose and create. Ultimately, you have to experiment with different composing strategies to really understand what does and does not work for you.

    Summary of Helpful Composing Strategies

    While there may be no one ideal writing process, there are some best practices that can help you work smarter and not harder:

    Works Cited

    Emig, Janet. (1971). The composing process of twelfth graders. National Council of Teachers of English.

    Ghiselin, B. (Ed.). (1985). The Creative Process: Reflections on the Invention in the Arts and Sciences. University of California Press.

    Hayes, J. R., & Flower, L. (1980). Identifying the Organization of Writing Processes. In L. W. Gregg, & E. R. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive Processes in Writing: An Interdisciplinary Approach (pp. 3-30). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. 

    Hayes, J. R. (2012). Modeling and remodeling writing. Written Communication, 29(3), 369-388. doi: 10.1177/0741088312451260

    Leijten, Van Waes, L., Schriver, K., & Hayes, J. R. (2014). Writing in the workplace: Constructing documents using multiple digital sources. Journal of Writing Research, 5(3), 285–337. https://doi.org/10.17239/jowr-2014.05.03.3

    National Research Council. (2012). Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.https://doi.org/10.17226/13398.

    Murray, Donald M. (1972). “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.” The Leaflet, 11-14

    Murray, Donald M. (1980). Writing as process: How writing finds its own meaning. In Timothy R. Donovan & Ben McClelland (Eds.), Eight approaches to teaching composition (pp. 3–20). National Council of Teachers of English.