It’s easy to put off writing until the last minute. Most of us have done it – starting a paper the night before it’s due or waiting until the day before a presentation to figure out what we’re going to say. Unfortunately, this approach often leads to stress, writer’s block, and subpar final products.

However, you can reduce the likelihood of these undesirable outcomes by planning your writing projects ahead of time. By making a plan, you can break research and writing tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks and leave yourself plenty of time to think, revise, and edit.

Many textbooks offer this seemingly simple plan: 1) state your thesis, 2) write an outline, 3) write a first draft, 4) revise. While each of these steps can be helpful, they’re not always enough, so below, we offer additional strategies.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation


Adapted from Richard Bullock, The Norton Field Guide (NY: Norton, 2006), p. 332-33

One of the most helpful things to do first is to consider the situation in which you are writing. Here are some questions to consider:

Purpose: Is this project part of an assignment – and if so, does it specify one purpose? If not, what is your broad purpose? To inform? argue? entertain? A combination?

Audience: To whom are you writing? What does your audience likely know about your topic, and is there any background information you’ll need to provide? What opinions or attitudes do your readers likely hold? What kinds of evidence will they find persuasive? How do you want them to respond to your writing?

Genre: Are you writing to report on something? to compose a profile? to make a proposal? an argument? What are the requirements of your genre in terms of the number and kind of sources you must use?

Stance: What is your attitude toward your topic? What accounts for your attitude? How do you want to come across? Curious? Critical? Positive? Something else?

Media / Design: What medium will you use? Print? Spoken? Electronic? Will you need to compose any charts, photographs, video, presentation software slides, or other visuals?

Breaking Writing into Stages

Below are some strategies you can try to help you with the various stages of writing. This is not a set of instructions or a formula, however, so remember that you might only use some (or none) of these and will likely jump back and forth between stages and strategies.

Stage 1: Before You Write

  • Make sure you fully understand your writing task.
  • Consider purpose and audience.
  • Designate a place (e.g., the web, a flash drive, a folder) to store resources, drafts, notes, etc. Some people still like to use note cards to keep track of the sources they use or ideas they have. Others are more comfortable using social bookmarking websites such as del.icio.us or diigo.
  • Make a schedule or timeline for yourself. (You might find this assignment calculator helpful.) Leave yourself plenty of time to collect sources, write and think about drafts, and revise your writing based on new thinking. You probably also want to leave yourself time for someone else to look at your work (a teacher, writing center tutor, friend/colleague).
  • Choose a research method, if research is necessary. For example, will you conduct interviews, distribute surveys, or read journal articles?
  • Find out which documentation style (e.g., MLA or APA) is appropriate or expected.

Stage 2: Writing a First Draft

  • Get your ideas flowing:
    - Brainstorm. Just start writing. Jot down everything – ideas, suggestions, examples, tentative thesis statements, even material you think you might throw out. It’s much easier to eventually cut bad ideas than to come up with only good ones. Continue adding ideas at any time they come to mind. In the end, you may end up using sentences or even paragraphs you drafted during brainstorming. (This is one reason having a place to store everything is important.)
    - Ask questions. Try to identify what you know and don’t know about the subject.
    - Talk to someone – a friend, colleague, teacher, writing center tutor. Not only can these people offer you helpful ideas, but having to articulate your points to someone else can be a great way to determine what makes sense, what is interesting, and what needs work. Making yourself put your thoughts into words at least once before writing a draft can greatly help with idea development and organization within that first draft. Additionally, you will likely discover that some ideas don’t work, which can save you time in the end.
    - Talk to your audience, or pretend someone is interviewing you about the topic you’re writing about. This will help you consider your subject from different perspectives. Also, if you imagine questions your audience or interviewer would ask, you can deal with those in your writing and, likely, make it clearer and more thorough.
    - Pretend you are teaching the subject to a group or class. This can help you find your most important points. Of course, you may have to think about how your actual audience is different than this imaginary one and consider how that affects your writing.
    - Find an analogy that helps you think about your topic in a new way. You might compare your topic to something it is not usually compared to. This should help you find new ideas, patterns, or associations.
  • Take a break and let all of your initial writing and ideas simmer. After staring at a computer screen or thinking about the same topic for too long, your brain needs to rest. And often after some distance you can come back to your topic with not only more energy, but also new perspectives and ideas.
  • Summarize your whole idea (perhaps during your “break”). Tell it to someone in three or four sentences. This can help ensure you are focusing on the most important information. And, again, having to put your ideas into words for someone else can help you sort things out.
  • Diagram your major points somehow. Pictures and charts can offer new perspectives and help you see new connections.
  • Make a tree, outline, or whatever helps you to see a visual representation of what you have. You may discover the need for more material in some places.
  • Color code any prewriting using a different color for different ideas or points. This will help you to see patterns of thought and (help you begin to think about how to organize these ideas).
  • Write a complete draft.
    - Ignore the editor or censor in your head. As with brainstorming, it can be helpful to just keep writing, even if you think what you’re writing is bad. This way, at least you have something to work with, and you can always go back and revise and edit later.
    - Begin anywhere you want. Sometimes it’s easier to start writing the middle or the end than the introduction.
    - Don’t worry about editing or proofreading. At this point, it’s much more important to develop your ideas and get them on paper. You might end up taking out entire sentences or paragraphs later, so it’s not worth editing them yet.

Stage 3: After Your First Draft

  • Let your draft sit – for an hour, a day, a weekend, depending on how much time you have. Then read it aloud to yourself, paying attention to sections that are confusing or need more information.
  • Have someone else read your writing and offer comments and suggestions. Be sure to ask them any specific questions you have, or ask them to concentrate on specific sections that concern you. They may, of course, point out something you didn’t even think of, but giving them some guidance can help you get more/better feedback than “it’s good” or “I like it.”