Process writing: mixing it up


As the name suggests, process writing is an approach to writing which focuses on the process rather than the end product. The argument goes that, just as writers in the ‘real’ world go through a process of editing and revising what they write, so should our students.

The typical structure for a process writing lesson might be:

1 Brainstorming ideas.

2 Plan the structure of the writing

3 Write first draft

4 Get feedback on first draft from teacher or peers (or self-evaluation)

5 Write second draft (and third if appropriate after feedback)

I think there is a lot to be said for taking a process approach to writing:


Generally speaking, whatever colour ink we use and whatever correction code we use, we often might as well have not bothered marking written work. No-one reads what we’ve written on their essays. At best, they look to see how much we’ve written, and they might glance at any final comment.

For most students, once something has been written and handed in, it’s over: out of sight, out of mind. One of the great things about taking a process approach is that feedback doesn’t come at the end. It’s an intrinsic part of the writing process, and as such, there is a much better chance of some of it actually being taken on board.

Peer feedback is often used in a process approach, and that can be great both for developing students’ ability to criticise constructively and for giving a genuine sense that the learner is writing for an audience.

Students also develop their ability to self-evaluate, which is something they can go on to use independently. It chimes with that crucial part of being a good teacher- making yourself redundant.

Task repetition

Just as in speaking, repeating a task gives more opportunities to notice and appropriate new language. Through a process of drafting and redrafting, it is that much more likely that language will be acquired.

However, there are also some issues with process writing (at least if done in the traditional way outlined above):

Not all students (indeed not many at all in my experience) are very keen on brainstorming, planning, drafting and redrafting their work. An awful lot seem to want to chuck something down on paper and hand it over for you to sort out. Now, of course, part of our job is to encourage them to take more responsibility for learning, but it is nonetheless a downside that it’s such an uphill struggle (is that a mixed metaphor?)

Even if your students are enthusiastic, going through the process cycle is necessarily very time-consuming. There is also the question of how you manage to give detailed feedback on several drafts and actually get anything else done. It may work well in a pre-sessional context, with small groups and 5 hours of tuition a day, but maybe not so well in 2 x 90m a week or less.

Peer feedback can help with the time issue, but research shows that students tend to concentrate almost exclusively on lower order feedback, or focusing on surface errors like spelling and grammar. It’s hard to get students to be able to give feedback on content or organisation or discourse level stuff.

And last, but not least, traditional process writing doesn’t take account of the fact that the actual process of writing has changed dramatically since the advent of technology. People simply don’t write drafts in the same way anymore. See this interesting article from the Guardian, ‘Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?’

Equally, tools such as spell check and grammar check have completely changed how writers deal with surface errors.

So, given the positives and the drawbacks of the process approach, what can we take from it, and how might we mix it up?

Keep it small scale

Process writing doesn’t have to be carried out on 250 word plus essays. You could focus on just a paragraph. This will make the stages move along more quickly, allows you to really drill down into the details, such as using a an effective topic sentence and giving reasons and examples, and the perfect paragraph produced can then be used as a model for further writing.

Change the staging

You don’t have to start with brainstorming ideas and planning. You could incorporate a feedback and redrafting stage into a lesson which takes a genre approach, or you could just get students writing straightaway (more ideas on this next post), and then get them to look again at what they’ve written and make changes.

More imaginative brainstorming and planning

Getting ideas and planning is a key part of successful writing, but how can we make it seem less of a chore?

Brainstorming an essay using a mindmap on the board is not a new idea, but try blu-tacking a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour to each bubble of the map. Then give groups a set of rods in the same colours and ask them to use the rods to make a visual plan of the essay. Somehow adding a visual and physical element to structuring the essay seems to engage many students more.

Or try moving from speaking to writing to get ideas. For example, if you want students to write a letter of complaint, try roleplaying a complaint first, or if it’s an informal letter, try it as a phonecall first. This should help learners to anticipate what their audience will want to know or how they might react, which should help with making the writing as effective as possible.

Change who gives feedback and how they give it

As well as the teacher or a partner, experiment with some different models. For example, a recent twitter discussion with @cerirhiannon started me thinking about using ‘carousels’. Put the students into small groups and pass round a piece of written work done by someone in the group (anonymous if preferred). Each group has to give a comment on an aspect which has not been covered by a previous group before passing the work onto the next group. This could be a good way of encouraging students to look beyond surface errors as discussed earlier.

Emphasize the audience

Learners are more likely to want to plan and draft if there is a real reason for writing the best possible text that they can. So using a real life context, such as those discussed in this recent post , can provide some genuine motivation.

Use technology more

Students may not have access to computers in class, but they probably will at home, so you can ask them to consciously use the correction features to make changes, and underline spelling or syntax that the computer has highlighted that they aren’t sure how to correct. You can then focus on these areas in class or individually.

Online corpora, or even google, can also be useful tools for students to check their intuitions about collocations. See this article for more indepth discussion of this.

And, using a screen capture tool, such as Jing, you could give verbal feedback on their writing rather than writing comments. There is a useful presentation from Russell Stannard on this here.

Add a sense of humour

The notion of process writing can be terribly earnest. You could work on the skills of correcting and redrafting by giving learners, for example, the worst job application letter in the world and asking them to rewrite it so that the person has at least SOME chance of being invited for interview.

Or give learners some real examples of writing from young native speakers. For example  and ask them to correct, revise and redraft.

While the traditional staging of a process writing lesson may be something you don’t want to do all the time, the principles behind it are something which could be used effectively in any lesson with a writing focus. You just need to mix it up a little.


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Teaching methodology, Writing

15 Responses to Process writing: mixing it up

  1. Nice article Rachel, I really like your suggestions on how to deviate from the usual. It’s a great feature of your blog posts.

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  3. Simon Marshall

    Another thought provoking and practical article. Thank you, Rachel. I am particularly impressed by the fact that you don’t genuflect to the “correction code,” which seems to have been an ELT holy cow since I took up the profession shortly after the second crusade! Doubtless it is a well intentioned approach but it is, nonrtheless, a “code” which learners are then asked to “decipher.” Even though the symbols are made clear, e.g. “gr” for grammar, the learner still has to go through the laborious preocess of tracing their own errors. Also there is also no guarantee that they will be able to do this, especially if they ARE genuine “errors” and therefore not self-correctable by definition. The teacher has the option of focusing on these errors during class time but I have found this to be a rather dull and unwieldy approach as well as learners make a whole host of different error types and, perhaps more importantly, feel that the teacher is “doing homework in class” and lose motivation.
    I very much like all of your suggestions, especially focsing on genre and digital writing. I have often used the Word “new comment” facility to completely re-writew a SMALL section of original student text. I also add something subtle to my new draft like, “I think this is a better way of expressing X.” I know this is using a “product” type model within the overall “process” writing framework but I have found that learners will actually READ what I have written and noticed key chunks, syntactical pattern etc that I prescribe. Hopefully, these highlighted sections will embed themselves in subsequent texts produced by the learner(s). After all, if I spend a significant amount of time correcting student text, then i very much appreciate it if they actually READ it and even BENEFIT from it! Meaningful correction needs to consider its audience too. Could “genre based correction” become a new shibboleth on teacher training courses?!?

  4. Thanks so much, Simon, for your comments and ideas. I agree, I have never felt very comfortable with the correction code. It makes us feel better as teachers that we’ve done something, but it rarely has much impact on students in my experience.
    I also think there’s a lot of value in rewriting/reformulating a short section for students, though I’ve never thought of using the comments function- good idea.

  5. Some interesting ideas to bring into multiple drafts of writing – thanks for sharing Rachel (and Simon). I have to admit to a lot of interest in student writing and feedback on it ever since I heard about the tiff between the academics Truscott and Ferris. In case anyone reading is unfamiliar, Truscott says error corrective feedback is a waste of time and Ferris says it isn’t. The truth is, it hasn’t been proven one way or the other because no-one seems to have researched this area with a large enough group of learners with a proper control group and a consistent type of error corrective feedback (a point Rod Ellis tries to start to rectify . However, what does seem to be the case is that feedback on the final draft is largely a waste of time – as you say, it doesn’t get looked at (unless you set a task…).

    Having said that, I am still an advocate of feedback but not with a focus purely on error correction. Why? Well, quite simply because I have seen some turgid pieces of writing that are grammatically accurate and I have seen writing improve from one draft to the next without the piece becoming more accurate. And when the shoe is on the other foot and I ask colleagues for feedback on some writing I plan to submit, i.e. a meaningful piece of writing I care about, the most useful feedback is on structure and content.

    Another area I focus on with feedback is what is good about that particular draft – both holistically and focusing in on specific uses of language which stand out as particularly sophisticated or complex. I know I do this because I looked back at feedback I had given on a distance writing course and analysed it using the typology Rod Ellis set out and saw there were some parts of my feedback missing from the error-correction categories. To see how this might be important, I have worked closely with students on their out-of-class self-directed learning. There are only a few who choose writing as a goal but a recent student really could not see the progress she was making because the well-meaning feedback she received always highlighted her mistakes and very little attention was given to what was successful with her writing. Perceptions of competency are key to motivation, and error correction therefore needs balanced with positive feedback that is specific.

    The one last place I give additional feedback is when a piece of language is accurate but the student seems to have played it safe. Here I’ll urge him or her to try to be more sophisticated/complex.This may push them from accuracy into the realm of errors…. that’ll learn them!

    Just to clarify, I do actually give error corrective feedback but my feedback goes further. With the error corrections I use codes (ww = wrong word, wf = wrong form, mw = missing word etc) and more direct instruction (this time phrase and this tense cannot go together / do not use contractions in IELTS / etc) in any drafts before the final draft using MS Word ‘comments’, in a similar way to Simon. For the final draft, I proofread using track changes. Potentially this is a waste of time as noted above, however, there is a post-final-draft task… “highlight and note down any useful language (phrases or structures) that you might recycle in your next essay/letter/etc”. From this students pull out not just the teacher’s changes from the final draft but also the good bits that they were responsible for.

    Well, I think I’ve well and truly moved away from the blog on ‘process writing’ to discuss feedback more – two sides of the same coin, I guess.

    Sorry for any errors in this response, hopefully the content will allow readers to overlook those minor infringements.

    • Thanks so much for such a rich comment. I am planning to add a post specifically on feedback, and you and Simon have given me plenty to start getting my teeth into! I completely agree about the most useful feedback being on structure and content but, as you imply, this is also the hardest area to give feedback on. Partly I think this is because it simply requires more knowledge and experience, but also, I think it is somehow more personal, isn’t it? Feedback on spelling mistakes doesn’t really criticise what the person was trying to say, higher order feedback may be perceived this way.

      • Simon Marshall

        Thanks for this Brian and Rachael. This is certainly becoming a rich seam of enquiry. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there might just be an article out there in-search-of-an-author called (something like) “Correcting and Editing: Giving Constructive Feedback on Learners’ Written Work.”

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