ESL: The Writing Process

From the ESL Student Handbook, by Young Min, PhD


Many instructors emphasize the importance of approaching writing as a process. What does this mean? Basically, it means that you use the activity of writing as a tool for learning, as a tool for inquiry, and as a tool for discovery. By writing, you can develop more solid ideas on the topic, which will ultimately improve your learning of the subject. The idea of writing as a tool for learning across the curriculum is a very important aspect of college education in the US.

If your experience with writing in English has been limited to timed-essay examinations (e.g. the TOEFL, TOEIC, GRE, etc) before you came to the US, the idea of writing as a process may seem strange at first. The two key ideas that are essential when it comes to the notion of writing as a process are “reflection” and “re-vision.” Your instructors will constantly ask you to reflect on the process of your engagement with a certain assignment and incorporate your reflective thinking into your writing. Although it may not be the case with every class, many of your instructors will ask you to revise your paper and integrate what you have learned from the revision process into your writing. Remember that the “re-vision” means much more than simply fixing some grammatical mistakes or typing mistakes.

You do not need to do the reflection and revision alone. Many of your instructors will strongly encourage you to take your assignments to the Writing and Communication Center and engage the tutors in each stage of your writing, whether you are brainstorming, researching, drafting, revising, or editing. By engaging other people (e.g. Writing and Communication Center tutors, classmates, librarians, research participants, etc) in the development of your work, you will ultimately become not only a better learner but also a better communicator in both spoken and written English. Developing academic writing skills takes a long time; there is no “one best way” to hone your writing skills. Here are some practical strategies you want to use to approach your writing assignment as a process.


Remember that planning is the key to the successful completion of your assignment. Mark the due dates of the assignments on your calendar and plan the times you need for reading, researching, writing, and revising. Also, include your meeting times with your instructor, Writing and Communication Center tutors, librarians, etc. Remember that you can utilize the Writing and Communication Center in each stage of your writing process. (See the section on the Writing and Communication Center for further information.)

Understanding the Assignment

First of all, it is crucial that you understand your writing assignment before you start to write. Make sure you understand the specific requirements of the assignment. Then, think about how much you already know about the topic, where you can find more information about the topic, how familiar you are with the specific genre, why your instructor created such an assignment, etc. Let your instructor know as soon as you can if there are certain aspects of the assignment that you do not completely understand or if you need extra time to complete the assignment. If you are still not sure about the assignment, you may ask your instructor to give you a successful example of the assignment from his/her prior classes. You can also bring your assignment sheet to the Writing and Communication Center and ask your tutor about specific aspects of the assignment on which you need more guidance and help.

Getting Feedback on Your Early Drafts

Some international students may not know that it is common for instructors in the US to provide comments on students’ early drafts without grading them. Students are encouraged to revise their early drafts based on the feedback they have received from their instructor. Instructors also often give verbal feedback on students’ work during individual conference with students. The individual conference is a great opportunity for you to find out if you are on the right track. If an individual conference is not scheduled, you can also visit your instructor during his/her office hours and let them know the specific aspects of the assignment about which you need further guidance or explanation.

Peer Review

Peer review refers to a process where students read and respond to each other’s work. Active participation in peer review will bring you multiple benefits. Some of you may not be very familiar with the idea of peer review. Those of you who have never done a peer review in your home countries may feel quite embarrassed about showing your writing to other students. You may feel that other students may look down on you if there are some grammatical mistakes in your writing. However, you will quickly learn that native speakers also make grammatical mistakes. You will find, in certain contexts, you can explain certain grammatical rules much more systematically than native speakers.

When the assignment involves international issues, it can be a great opportunity for you to share your cross-cultural perspectives with your American classmates. The more you talk to your classmates in a smaller group setting, the more confident you will become in sharing your views with the entire class. More importantly, by seeing how other students think and write about the same topic, you will learn to look at your own writing from a different perspective. In other words, by critiquing your peer’s work, you will learn various aspects of academic writing—both content and writing issues—and you will be able to strengthen your own arguments and edit your own work more effectively. So, utilize the opportunity to get comments on your early drafts from your classmates. Make sure you mark your peer review dates on your calendar and prepare a draft of your paper by the due dates!

Going to the Library

You should familiarize yourself with the library system as soon as you can. The UW library system is one of the largest public library systems in the country. If there is a librarian assigned to your class, introduce yourself to the librarian at the beginning of the class. You will find our campus librarians eager to work with students and enjoy being part of their research and writing projects. Make sure you bring the assignment sheet with you when you meet with the librarians. You will find your sessions with librarians very useful, especially when you are brainstorming, researching a topic, and finding sources for your paper. Remember that it is critical that you improve your ability to locate, evaluate, use, and synthesize sources effectively for any genre of paper you will be writing during your college career and beyond!

Writer’s Block

Perhaps some of you may have thought “I have really great ideas, but I just cannot express them in writing.” Or, “When I want to write down my ideas, I feel blank.” Or, “I just don’t know what to write in English.” Some of you may have developed writing anxiety because of your experiences writing in formal test situations or because the structure of your native language is vastly different from the structure of the English language. But remember that we all have experienced some sorts of writer’s block or writing anxiety. Successful writers often confess the agonies and struggles that they have gone through writing up their articles, books, anecdotes, reports, etc. The agony and struggle is part of our writing and learning processes.

Many international students tend to have writer’s block because they are overly preoccupied with the grammatical aspects of writing (e.g. sentence structure, vocabulary choice, mechanics, etc.). The grammatical aspects of writing are definitely important because they directly affect the tone of your writing. However, it is more important to focus on the other aspects of writing that are concerned with the ways of developing your argument, organizing your ideas, synthesizing sources, and representing your identity. But remember that if you are preoccupied with sentence level issues during the early stage of your writing, you may end up deleting all the sentences that you worked so hard to compose.

Some of you may also have experienced writer’s block because you wanted to come up with a clear outline before you began your writing. Some may think that you should write a powerful introduction first, a solid main body, and then a memorable conclusion. However, if you really think about it, it is very difficult to come up with a clear outline while you are still developing your ideas. Many successful writers jot down the main ideas that will eventually constitute the body of the paper before they attempt an introduction. In fact, it is an effective strategy to write your thesis statement after you have written the main body. For more help, take a look at this handbook's sections on brainstorming and revision strategies. 


Created by Young-Kyung Min, PhD

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 Contact Young Min, PhD
 Lecturer, Education