Why I Don't Post a Step-By-Step Writing Process Chart: Writing is a Recursive Process

Why I DON'T post a step-by-step writing process chart in my classroom!  This blog post describes in detail the recursive nature of the writing process.  We don't get students' best thinking when we force them through a lock-step process.  Rethink the nature of how writers write!
Hello again!
     Always happy to write about writing.  As I've been trying to pin more on Pinterest and post more on Instagram and Facebook to extend the reach of my blog, I keep noticing posts and pictures about the charts teachers make that show the "Steps of the Writing Process."  You know the ones.  They have something like:  Step 1: "Brainstorm" or "Prewrite" at the top, followed by Step 2: "Draft," then Step 3: "Revise," Step 4: "Edit," and Step 5: "Publish."  Heck, twenty-seven years ago I did something similar, but not quite as fancy as what's out there today.  Within my second year of teaching writing though, and as I became more of a writer myself, I learned this step-by-step characterization was a sham.  It's simply not how writers write.   Sure, we can force students to move through the steps one at a time artificially, but that's not how we get their best thinking and writing. 

Writing, instead, is a recursive process.  It's a back and forth, back and forth endeavor.  A writer might get an idea then immediately begin drafting to see where the idea goes.  After a few sentences she stops, rereads what she's written, and decides if it's working.  If not, she may change a few things here and there or change the direction of the writing entirely.  Wait!  She's already revising--she's reseeing her piece, however short it is at the moment, reenvisioning where it may go (or, on a smaller scale, where a sentence or phrase may go).  Let's say she changes just a few phrases, playing with her word choice to create desired effects or clarify meaning.   Then, she writes on.  She's drafting again.  Let's say today the writing seems to be flowing, so she writes a paragraph or two.  What now?  You guessed it.  She'll go back and reread.  Again, she's relistening to her words, rethinking her thoughts, testing the meaning, testing the effect, even thinking new thoughts generated through this process.  She may make more changes--more revisions.  It's very likely she comes across a mechanical error (or two or three) and fixes, or edits, those.  This back and forth drafting, rereading and rethinking, revising/editing, continues throughout the piece.  Revision and editing are not just tacked on at the end of drafting.  Teaching that these processes only occur after drafting may be the reason some students don't want to revise and edit; they think they are already done.

     Additionally, if our writer is part of a class or group, she may seek response along the way, looking for help to troubleshoot problem areas or just seeking connection and audience.  Most writers engage in some form of sharing or response-seeking along the way, again, not necessarily waiting to be 'done' with a piece before doing so.  In my classroom, we are constantly sharing, seeking response and trouble shooting as we write (I'll address the "how to" of this in another post or maybe a Periscope broadcast!). 

     Putting "publishing" as the last step in the process is misleading, as well.  We don't formally publish everything we write, in fact, that is a rare event and occurs only when we have a real purpose for doing so.  We write much more than we could ever formally publish, for if we didn't, we wouldn't be writing nearly enough.  We write across the curriculum, too, to build, clarify and solidify our thinking.  This type of writing is informal--it serves the purpose of augmenting learning.

    When researching a topic we plan to write about, we often do spend more time prewriting, identifying specific questions we'd like to answer, studying resources and taking organized notes (often on a graphic organizer).  We next rely heavily on oral language, talking out the information we've gleaned, testing to see if we understand it well enough or if more questions have surfaced that require us to, once again, loop back, and revisit sources.  As we begin to draft, we return to the recursive process again, and as we reread, we discover holes in our thinking or arguments that require rethinking, re-researching, and rewriting.  Forward and back, forward and back...tweaking all along the way.

     I guess if you post one of those step-by-step charts, you could add arrows going back and forth to better illustrate the process.  The best way to teach the recursiveness of writing, though, is to model it.  As I think aloud, students watch and hear me brainstorm, draft, reread, question, rethink and redo continually. It's part of my modeling every day.  In fact, when I'm done modeling, I'll often ask students what they just saw me do, encouraging them to put the strategies they've just seen into their own words.  This debriefing goes a long way to ensuring students are getting the most from the modeling.    
     Of course,  the more teachers write themselves, the more they understand the nature of the writing process.  It changes from piece to piece, depending on many factors.  But, it's always messy and rarely, if ever, lock-steppy.  

     I'd love to hear your thoughts.  Why is it important for students to deeply understand this process?  What would you add to this characterization of the writing process?  How does this understanding affect the way you teach writing and the set-up and day-to-day running of your Writing Workshop?




  1. Yes! This was great and made me stop and think!!

    1. Socalritts--Thanks so much for your comment. I'm glad to hear it might impact your thinking! That's why I write. I have such a passion for it and hope for the very best writing conditions for all of our students! Enjoy your summer! -Janiel

  2. Janiel, it's such a relief to find your site. I've challenged high school students to produce a diagram/chart of their own writing process, and almost all of them dutifully recreate the linear steps of brainstorm-draft-revise-edit-publish. Only 1 student in my career turned in a gorgeous, gloriously messy diagram of 38+ steps (including "change my mind & start over" "run out of printer ink" "remember the notes I made on my phone" and several capitalized REVISE steps, arrows going every which way)... I was searching my file folders for it this morning, and then searching the internet to see if I could find anything like it. Sadly, I see only the simplistic, brightly colored charts that make writing seem like making a paper airplane. I was so lucky to discover your page, though! I'd love to be in touch.


Back to Top