A Practical Guide on Writing
August 15, 2023 · Alex Ulbrich
Table of Contents
Work in Progress
Hello! This page is still evolving. The information published is
well-researched, but there is more to do, and always more references
Some things I still need to do:
- Review introduction
- Write “Register” section (elocutio canon)
- Write “Polish” section
- Discuss analogy between learning and memoria canon
- Discuss feedback in writing process
- Examples: product requirements, lecture slides, journal papers, resume
Have you ever wondered how to get started with writing or how to get better at it? Are you designing writing assignments for your students and don’t know where to start? Do you simply want to know more about writing as a process? This post is for you!
Writing is not a one-shot process. It’s an iterative process to achieve a communication objective. We’ll explore a framework to write, from defining what you want to write to polishing the final draft. We’ll also look at several examples. Finally, you will resources to dig deeper into specifics.
🙋Why this blog post?
I recently completed a Writing Intensive Curriculum (WIC) Seminar at Oregon
State University. The goal of the seminar is to support instructors in
teaching WIC classes to college students. I thought it would be a great
exercise to write about it, using the same tools I learned during the seminar.
At the same time, I had just completed the Uncommon Sense Teaching
specialization on Coursera. The specialization and seminar completed each
If you are looking for more information about writing, there are great resources online such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL).
What is Writing?
When you write, you’re trying to persuade. Persuasion takes many forms, from informing to motivating, from one audience to another. The art of persuasion is known as rhetoric. It applies to all forms of language. We will focus on the writing.
To be effective persuaders, we want our text to be read by the right audience. Hence, we need to carefully craft the text so that it meets the expectations of the audience and keeps them engage to achieve desired outcome.
There are many ways to write for different purposes and audiences, and we will not cover all of them in this post. Instead, we will tackle the fundamentals of writing as a rhetorical medium.
What is Important in Writing?
You might know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . When depicted as a pyramid, the most fundamental needs are at the bottom and are required before achieving higher-level needs. Wether you adhere to this psychological idea or not is up to you; this is for illustration purposes.
How does that relate to writing? Well, rhetorical needs (i.e., what is most important when writing to persuade) can also be ranked by their degree of importance. This is the hiearchy of rhetorical concerns.
Reproduced with modifications from the Writing Intensive Curriculum Seminar 2022 by Dr. Sarah Tinker-Perrault at Oregon State University.
Genre, developement, organization, register, and polish are our rhetorical concerns, in order of importance, the genre definition being the most important. If you don’t know why, what, and for whom you are writing, your piece is on shaky grounds.
At the top, we have polish. Polishing your piece during the writing process is great if you don’t revise your text. But seldom is a text great on the first pass. Hence, you’ll polish your draft, re-write it, polish it again, and again. Want to save time? Do it only once at the end.
What Persuades an Audience?
Ancient philosophers spent a lot of time thinking about and delivering speeches and written pieces. They came up with four principles to appeal to an audience that are still relevant today:
- logos: the logical appeal,
- pathos: the creation of emotions in the audience,
- ethos: the credibility of the writer or speaker,
- kairos: the opportune moment, the time and space context.
An Iterative Process
Whether you are writing for an audience or designing assignments for students, great writing is not a one-off. It is an iterative process.
It’s then time to get into the truly iterative part of the process, and write the first draft. That first draft is always going to be terrible, so don’t worry about it.
Iterate on the development of the text, its organisation, and its register. You’ll write some things, come up with evidence, add something else, re-organise your ideas, realise one word is too harsh, and so on. That’s OK.
Inspired from the Writing Intensive Curriculum Seminar 2022 by Dr. Sarah Tinker-Perrault at Oregon State University.
Lay the Groundwork
Everytime I think of or question something, I jott it down in my notes app. I have a serious collection of questions, thoughts and ideas. Every now and then, I clean it up and group together similar items.
At one point, I might feel like one idea is worth deep diving into. I will focus for a while on it: reading books, articles, or consuming media such as podcasts or videos, and talking about it with peers.
🏀Pre-Writing Exercise: Stasis Theory
Statis theory was first formulated by ancient greece rhetoricians and further developed by Roman ones.
It’s a method that encourages critical thinking by investigating four different aspects of the issue:
- What are the facts?
- What is its meaning or nature?
- How serious is the issue?
- What should we do about it? How should we handle it?
For more information, including how to apply stasis theory to research or teamwork, check Stasis Theory from Purdue OWL, and for more information on classical rhetoric, start with Inventio on Wikipedia.
Define the Genre
Here are the things to consider before getting started with your written piece. This will help identify the genre, word choice, style, tone, level of details, … anything to focus your writing and make it successful.
This implies that you have a pretty good idea about what you will write about, for example you just finished your experiment and need to write a journal article about it, or you are applying for a job and need to design your resume and write a cover letter.
Other times, the piece of writing is either collaborative or involves other stakeholders. Product and software engineering documents are often like that.
🙋Writing as a product?
It is worth considering your piece of writing as a product. In that case, start by asking yourself what problem you are trying to address. This is your “why”.
Brainstorm on the problem until you can properly define it. This in turn will help identify the readers, the people that are looking for an answer.
Once the problem is defined, design the solution. The “what” of the solution is the writing itself. The “how” corresponds to the core iterative process of writing: development, organisation, register, and polish.
If you plan to write in the future, I advice you to have your notes (app or notebook) always at hand. Every time you think, read, or find information about a topic you want to write about, jott it down. You will progressively collect more and more information, and you can come back to it when you start writing.
Here’s the elements to think about before writing.
- Topic What are you writing about? How detailed do you plan to be? Are you tackling the topic from a specific perspective? What are you not covering? What are you intentionally leaving out?
- Purpose Why are you writing? What is you objective? How will you measure success?
- Audience Who are you writing for? How knowledgeable is your audience? What are the values, belief system’s, and interests of your audience? What is the right jargon (if any)?
- Format How will you structure your piece of writing (outline)? Are there expectations? Does a standard exist for this type of writing? How long should it be? Will you include visuals? Is it aimed for printing (e.g., a book)?
- Writing Plan When will you work on what part? How will you sequence the writing? Do you have deadlines?
🏀How to qualify your purpose? Here are some ideas to try out.
- Summarize a longer written piece
- Argue and Persuade others on a viewpoint
- Narrate a story or events
- Evaluate the value of something
- Analyze relationships between components
- Respond to another written piece (dialogue)
- Examine and Investigate objectively a topic to discover facts
- Observe and Describe someone or something
- Solve a problem
If you are designing writing assignments for your students, in the addition to the above, you should also communicate about:
- Evaluation Criteria What will be evaluated? How will you evaluate the writing at each stage? Do you have good and bad examples to illustrate grading?
- Feedback Plan When will feedback be provided? Who will provide it?
You can always come back to this list and improve it during the writing process, or refine it based on students’ feedback. Writing being iterative, you might decide that the scope of the piece is too large, the audience too broad, or the evaluation criteria unclear, for example.
In this stage, start jotting down ideas, rough and short sentences in the right sections of your document. You can re-use your notes and write down anything else that you think of. The goal is to fill those empty spaces with something. Brainstorm. The “Define” stage should have paved the way for that.
Here are some things you might want to jott down as well:
- references (articles, books)
- links to media (images, videos, websites)
- sketches and diagrams
- examples and quotes
This is not the step to worry about form, grammar, or spelling mistakes. However difficult it might seem, try not to look at these: focus on writing down everything related to the topic and purpose.
Anything goes in this first draft. It is going to be terrible. But it’s easier to later remove the bad parts than thinking only about good ones.
Don’t try to link things together just yet. When you think of something new, when moving from one idea to another, start from the essence of it.
Here are some more questions to help you start writing: Prewriting (Invention) General Questions from Purdue OWL
🏀What is cubing? How can it help you learn, think critically, and write?
Choose one key concept in your field. Let’s call that concept X.
Consider X from six different perspectives:
- Describe X.
- Give an example of X.
- Analyze X. What are its parts? Where did it come from? What is its purpose?
- Compare X to something else. What is it similar or different from?
- Apply X. What are its uses?
- Argue for or against X.
Cubing was taught to me in a Writing Intensive Curriculum seminar at Oregon State University by Dr. Sarah Tinker-Perrault. 
There are two sides to consider when organizing your text:
- Local: paragraphs (one paragraph, one idea) and transitions (between adjacent pieces of content).
- Global: overall structure, i.e., creating a story for your reader and support the argument.
Depending on the writing (see you Define stage), the overall structure might vary widly. You will not have the same structure for a research article compared to an advertising essay, for example.
Nonetheless, many texts follow this more or less generic framework to break down information, inspired by dispositio in classical rhetoric :
- Statement, facts, description, problems
- Confirmation, analyses, proofs, solutions
- Refutation, discussion, alternatives, benefits
Many articles or essays will have a similar outline, even if not stated as such. A scientific article could have a body composed of: the state of the art or experiment description, followed by the analyses, and finally the discussion. A product requirement document could state the problem being adressed, come up with solutions, and discuss the benefits.
The are many ways to organize information. Each discipline have their own and we’re free to come up with new ones. Think about your audience, put yourself in their shoes, and get early feedback.
🏀Reverse Outlining: A Tool for Iterating on Organization
With reverse outlining, you go through your text and write down, for each paragraph, the following:
- the topic or idea (it must be clear and focused),
- the contribution to the argument (it must fit the orverall organization).
This helps addressing both local and global concerns. Iterate this process until you are satisfied with the organization.
Don’t forget: writing is an iterative process, and organization is no stranger to
iteration. Go back to the Define stage if you feel that something is not clear or
that the scope is too large. Go back to the Develop stage if you need more data or
need to perform additional research or analyses. Fill the gaps and create meaningful
Once you feel that your story makes sense, it is time to refine your style.
Style is defined as a combination of word choice (diction) and sentence structure (syntax). The level of style is influenced by the audience, aims, and media. Levels of style can be broadly categorised as:
- plain, informal, often not evaluated,
- middle, semi-formal or neutral, unofficially evaluated,
- high, formal, generally officially evaluated.
For example, the plain style is generally expected in casual conversations with friends, the neutral style expected in national media, and the high style for research papers. It does not mean that a very plain text cannot be evaluated or be used for official purposes, or that a high text is systematically reviewed.
Choosing the right words (diction) invloves balancing the dictionary meaning (denotation) and what the audience understands by it (connotation).
The sentence sturcture (syntax) involves length and complexity.
Depending on the
Levels of style, has an effect on diction, tone, syntax, …
Style, diction (style of writing as dependent upon choice of words), jargon (language, vocabulay peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group), level of formality (formal, semi-formal, informal), i.e., conventionality, accordance with required or traditional rules, procedures for given audience or context
Grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling
Learning and Memory
Asking for Feedback
Product Requirement Document
 The Writing Intensive Curriculum (WIC) Program at Oregon State University
 Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)
 Gottschalk, M. and Hjortshoj, K., 2004. The elements of teaching writing, Boston, Bedford, St. Martin’s Editors.
 Inventio (incl. Topoi and Statis) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inventio