Questions About Writing–Answered!

This is a response to Andy’s post, in which he asks some thoughtful, tough questions about writing and prewriting. I responded at length, and I didn’t want people to miss it, so I am reposting here.

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Excellent post with some thoughtful questions (the best kind!). Let me respond to a couple of them.

does this process work universally for all individuals? Are specific methods (outlines, free writing, and making sticky notes) more suitable for certain people?

It would be naive to assert that there is a universal process, like a recipe, for prewriting that works for all people and in all contexts. That is an extreme position. But a more moderate position is that a lengthy academic paper is very difficult to write because it is conceptually difficult (which means the writer is usually still struggling with the concepts while writing); carries a very sophisticated logical argument (which is hard to produce on the fly); and carries a scholarly apparatus (e.g., references, citations, quotes, explanations of prior works). As a result, it is not an easy sort of text to author, in strong contrast to, say, a blog post. Writing an academic paper involves a LOT of management, and that makes the logical expression and development of sophisticated conceptual arguments very difficult to do. Prewriting techniques help decompose this problem into more manageable pieces. What constitutes “more manageable” will vary by person and their writing experience, which is why there is no recipe. But especially for people not accustomed to developing this sort of prose (and most students are relatively new to it), prewriting can make a huge difference in both the final quality of the paper and the humaneness (or misery) of the process.

This pre-writing process instead places the majority of emphasis in the beginning so fewer revisions will be needed upon completion of the paper. Does this progression produce a better overall paper?

Again, this is pushing toward a more extreme conclusion than is warranted. It is possible to write a superior paper through an inferior process–it will just take longer and possibly be more misery-causing. Again, to emphasize: the primary benefit of prewriting is to facilitate management of the process, saving more time to work through difficult ideas and arguments. Additionally, it is much faster to reorder prewriting notes than to reorder prose, because when you reorder prose, you typically have to throw away all of the original transitions and write a bunch of new ones.

I believe it to be only applicable given an educated set of eyes. Quite honestly, I can remember few times through my academic career where someone else has truly strengthened my paper.

I agree in the abstract, but again I think you state it too strongly. There are no uneducated eyes. If someone is completely missing your point, is it not possible that it is your responsibility for having failed to get them to the point? How many systems designers get mad at their ignorant users? Do we let that argument stand in HCI? A more constructuve way to think about this is to firmly identify a set of target readers, and anyone in that group is as “educated” as you have reason to expect. It is your job as a writer to anticipate misreadings and misinterpretations by explaining yourself clearly.

When I get comments back on writing, just like anybody else I find many to be misguided and frustrating. But I distinguish between (a) the fact that someone has misunderstood my text and (b) the actual suggestion they offer. It is often the case that whereas (b) is really dumb, (a) is legitimate. That is, if someone misunderstands me and suggests I do it another way, I’ll often disregard the other way they propose but still try to edit the place where they got mixed up, so I can preempt the misunderstanding or bad suggestion that followed.

UPDATE: I want to comment here on the conclusion of David Roedl’s entry on writing. He concludes:

I can’t say I’ve fully adopted pre-writing into my routine. But I am fully convinced of its usefulness and determined to change my habits with conscious effort and practice.

I think this is the right attitude. Prewriting is not a recipe or formal process; like design, it is the cultivation of personal habits that put you in a position to do good work. This “cultivation” comes about, as David says, through “conscious effort and practice.” Habits are hard to change, and they are particularly hard to change suddenly. But by become more conscious, or reflective, to what you are doing, you can almost experimentally introduce new strategies or techniques into your practice (that is, your system of habits). Over time, this will make you a more effective designer/writer.

I do not mean any of this to be critical. if you don’t ask skeptical questions like these, I can’t address them! So I really appreciate the tough questions and hope all of you will feel comfortable keeping them coming!


  1. jimmypierce

    Just curious…when you write, do you make a clear distinction between pre-writing and writing? Do you say, “ok, i’m done with prewriting..let’s start writing.”

    When I write, I often seem to gradually move from prewriting to a finished piece. Of course, I also notice that at a certain point my ideas do tend to get “locked in”, and I realize I’m working more on communicating then developing ideas. So I’m a little curious if you see any benefits to clearly distinguishing prewriting from writing. (especially given that I don’t consider myself a good writer)

  2. jeffreybardzell

    Just curious…when you write, do you make a clear distinction between pre-writing and writing? Do you say, “ok, i’m done with prewriting..let’s start writing.”

    I have two answers to this question.

    One is to answer as myself, speaking only for Jeff Bardzell as an individual who writes. Yes, I do generally separate prewriting from drafting. My general process typically includes these steps, in this order:

    Ideation (tables, comments, documents with nothing but good quotes from my readings, etc., data)
    The assembly of a fairly detailed outline (a 10-page CHI paper is written from a 6-7-page single-spaced outline)
    Sitting down and composing the prose (usually done very quickly; I can draft a fairly stable (i.e., needs only minor revisions afterwards) full paper (8-10 pages, 10 pt font, single-spaced) in about a day, which is only possible because of 1 and 2 above)
    Editing/revising and bibliography-doing.

    This is a process that I have developed over the years and practiced quite a bit. It is also similar to how I prep for class and formal presentations, so the point is I get a lot of practice in with it.

    Having said all of this, and this is the second half of my answer, I do not necessarily believe this process is generalizable to everyone. That is, I don’t see this as a methodology that can be replicated by others in all situations, but rather as a personal process I eventually developed for me.

    So I think there are elements that probably are generalizable–one of them is the general utility of getting your data, readings, and preliminary thoughts all in front of you at once–but how exactly one implements that step (e.g., exactly how much data, readings, and thoughts you put in front of yourself) is probably a very personal decision.

    One of my goals in this class is simply to call your conscious attention to the sheer complexity of writing an academic paper, so you understand why the last-minute crush is so hard to do. Like design, writing is an iterative process, and as such it needs to be managed, which means being cognizant of all the individual little steps and also having systems to manage all the many resources that go into an academic paper (quotes, concepts, data, references, etc.).


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