Overview of the Process of Writing a Paper

Introduction to the Writing Process

Learning to write is like following a recipe; there is room for creativity, but you need to know the basics.

Learning Objectives

Outline the steps of the writing and revision process

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Each step of the writing process helps to build a strong paper.
  • The steps of the writing process are prewriting/choosing a topic, researching, outlining, drafting, revising, editing / proofreading, and the final review.
  • As you become familiar with the “recipe” of writing and its components, you will feel increasingly comfortable and creative in the writing process.

Key Terms

  • recursive: Pertaining to a procedure that can be used repeatedly. In composition, a writer may return to the tasks of a previous stage once informed by the activities of a current stage.
  • expository writing: Derived from the word “expose,” expository writing seeks to expose, explain, describe, define, or inform.
  • writing process: A series of overlapping steps writers use in composing. The process may differ based on the purpose and form of the composition.

The Writing Process

In high school, students usually submit their work in multiple stages—from the thesis  statement to the outline to a draft of the paper, and finally, after receiving feedback on each preliminary piece, a completed project. This format teaches students how to divide writing assignments into smaller tasks and schedule these tasks over an extended period of time. In college, it is your responsibility to break large assignments down into smaller projects so you do not have an unmanageable amount of work at the last minute.

We should first address the common resistance to form. Beginning writers often protest that imposing formal rules on writing contradicts the notion of writing as a creative art. Sometimes, however, working within a form actually enhances creativity. Approaching the process of writing the same way each time builds facility and ease into your writing. You become familiar with the progression of the project, knowing that each stage has a specific purpose in the creation of a strong final product.  

A Recipe for Good Writing

The seasoned baker no longer pulls out the cookbook every time she wants to bake a cake. In fact, she might charge into the pantry looking for new and interesting ingredients, like chili powder for the chocolate icing. But there was a time when she followed the recipe step by step and by doing so learned exactly what happens when you leave out one ingredient or overdo another. Think of the following chapters as your cookbook for writing a successful paper and look forward to the day when you can focus more on being creative with spices than on learning the recipe.

Here, then, are the steps of the writing process: our “recipe” for good expository writing. As you read them, consider what might be entailed in each step. Imagine what you’ll be doing and why it could be useful in creating a successful final paper.

  • Step 1: Prewriting and Choosing a Topic
  • Step 2: Researching
  • Step 3: Outlining
  • Step 4: Drafting
  • Step 5: Revising
  • Step 6: Editing and Proofreading
  • Step 7: Completing a Final Review

Can you figure out why you might need each step? Start thinking of some questions to ask as you move forward. Your question might be “Why in the world would I want to spend precious time outlining?” You might ask, “Why does there need to be a step for revising and then a separate step for editing and proofreading?” You might wonder how to approach the drafting phase without feeling overwhelmed, or you might be curious about the brainstorming methods we recommend.

It’s important to recognize that writing is a recursive process. Just as you taste when you cook, then go back and add more of something to enhance the dish’s flavor, while you are writing you’re regularly going back to earlier stages or jumping forward in the process as needed. Though there are reasons for using the particular steps above, they are part of a flexible process that’s there to serve you, the writer.

Techniques in Depth

Once we’ve explored each of these steps, we’ll delve deeper into some of the more nuanced techniques involved in creating a strong argument.  

Section 3 examines the process of developing a thesis from the brainstorming stage through to the final statement. Everything in a paper is organized around the thesis statement. How do you know when you have one that is strong enough to hold a paper together?

Section 4 guides you through building a narrative that makes sense for your topic and purpose. The narrative is where the writer creates a kind of magic with the power of persuasion. What are the practical tools behind this mysterious process?

Section 5 looks at the supportive use of quotations and paraphrasing, answering questions about formatting, appropriate use of quotes, and other issues. Is there skill behind the choice of when to use a quote and when to paraphrase, or is it a random selection?

Section 6 addresses the strategy of incorporating into your paper possible objections to your argument. But is it wise to make your opponents’ argument for them, and if so, should you weaken their arguments in order to strengthen your own?

Try looking at each stage of the writing process as a necessary ingredient for a cake, and you’ll begin to respect each step for what it offers your final product. No one would want to eat flour by itself, but leaving it out of the mixing process would spell disaster for dessert (unless you are making flourless cake). Similarly, while you may find the idea of researching or proofreading distasteful in isolation, you’ll learn to appreciate and even enjoy each step of the process for what it contributes to the whole.

Introduction to the Thesis Statement

A strong thesis statement is specific, focused, and holds tension between ideas.

Learning Objectives

Distinguish between a defensible thesis statement and a fact

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • One of the key elements of a good thesis statement is tension between two ideas. 
  • The focus of your thesis should be narrow enough for you to be able to cover the topic thoroughly.
  • Your thesis should be specific, in order to grab the reader’s attention.
  • Once you have a thesis statement, you’ll want to gather evidence both for and against the statement.
  • Creating a thesis and researching go together. One process informs the other, and you will often need to go back and forth several times to create a solid thesis that can be backed by research.

Key Terms

  • thesis: A claim that a writer must use evidence to defend.
  • defensible: Capable of being defended or justified.

Imagine you’re having dinner with a few friends. Over dessert and coffee, one friend says, “Professor Ellis is my favorite.” His statement might elicit a few nods and a comment or two. Another friend takes it up a notch: “I think Dr. Ellis is the best professor at the school.” With this statement, your friend has taken a stand, which can inspire some interest and debate. In response, another friend says, “You guys seem to think that being a good professor is all about how available and nice he or she is to the students, but I think it has a lot more to do with the professor’s commitment to scholarship. In fact, I think that while Dr. Ellis might be the most popular professor, Dr. Cassidy is, objectively speaking, actually the best.” Is this last statement a little more provocative? Might your guests pour a second cup of coffee and stay a little longer? Why?

Making a Claim

Strong academic writing takes a definitive stance on the topic it is covering. Rather than simply reporting details, academic writing uses details to try to prove a point. This point is often called your “thesis statement,” a sentence that expresses your point of view on the topic, which you will support with evidence and research. The key element of a thesis statement is that it is not a fact: it is a claim, something that you have to use evidence to prove. Your thesis is the backbone of your paper, and every fact and idea you add to your paper will support it.

At the dinner party, your friend will give reason after reason why crotchety Dr. Cassidy is actually the superior professor, supporting each reason, we hope, with facts he can back up. By the end of the evening, you may go home with a new respect for Dr. Cassidy’s body of scientific research, his ability to make students strive much harder than they do in Dr. Ellis’s classes, and his consistent grading policies. If so, your friend will have changed your mind. And it all began with his provocative statement: his thesis.

Elements of a Strong Thesis Statement


You’re going to need to make your case within the scope of one paper, so the focus should be narrow enough for you to be able to cover the topic thoroughly. If you’re writing a three-page history paper about the Vietnam War, don’t set out to prove an enormous claim about the entire conflict. Pick a sub-sub-topic you are interested in, like guerrilla warfare in tropical climates or the use of military helicopters in rescue missions, and focus your thesis statement on what you can prove about that smaller chunk.


You want the reader to be drawn in immediately to the heart of the argument. That means naming names — for example, not “One theme in Hamlet, is vengeance…,” but “In Hamlet, Fortinbras, Laertes, and Hamlet all seek to avenge their fathers…”  

The “So What?” Factor

Good writing makes readers care about the topic. When you set out to write and prove your thesis statement, don’t simply have the goal of saying, “This is my claim and here’s evidence to support it.” You’ll want your writing to boil down to, “This is my claim, here’s why it matters, and here’s evidence to support it.” 

Crafting Your Thesis

There is more than one way to write a thesis statement for an academic paper. The most important element is that you are making an original claim and then using facts and evidence to support it. However, there are many ways to express your claim. All of these ways engage with the currently existing body of academic writing, but add something new: your ideas, framed as a claim based on evidence.


One technique for writing a thesis statement is arguing against an existing view. Think of the construction as, “While ____, actually ____.” Your guiding thread through the paper will be to convince those who think the first thing that the second thing is actually true.  

Here are two examples of thesis statements with embedded tension:

like the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan may pose a real danger to individuals and the fabric of an integrated society, the tenets of democracy demand that their right to free speech be protected by the American Civil Liberties Union.

While the American Civil Liberties Union has a responsibility to protect free speech, this responsibility is based on preserving democracy and should therefore not be extended to hate groups like the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan, groups which have as their aim the segregation and division of society.

Whichever side of the issue is taken, you can see that there is inherent tension because of the “While ___, actually ___” construction.


Another way to introduce a defensible thesis statement is to refine an already existing idea: take a generally accepted conclusion and stretch it further. There are as many opinions as there are people in the world, and it can be useful to use someone else’s idea as a foundation for your own. However, remember that good theses are based on original opinions. Avoid parroting someone else’s; rather, reference and build upon it.


Thesis statements can be used to provide your own original analysis of something, whether it is a historical event, a piece of literature, or a scientific phenomenon. A thesis statement can be a hypothesis, which you set out to prove through evidence. It can be a connection that nobody has ever thought of before. The key element here is that you are looking at already existing facts and opinions, and then putting them together to prove your idea.

Addressing Counter-Arguments

Once you have a thesis statement, you’ll want to gather evidence both for and against the statement. You might even want to create, as was done above, a thesis statement that is the opposite of yours and look for research proving both of them. (This is a debating technique that allows the debater to skillfully parry any counter-argument.) Including counter-arguments in your paper is a technique we’ll discuss in the drafting section. For now, be sure to collect information on both sides of your thesis.

Make a list of the strongest arguments for and against your thesis statement. You’re not thinking so much in terms of numbers here but rather strength. If you can’t make several strong points, you may want to re-work the thesis.

Creating a thesis and researching go together. One process informs the other, and you will often need to go back and forth several times to create a solid thesis that can be backed by research. Just keep following your interests, your curiosity, and the process will stay enjoyable.