Personal note: I’m posting this because a handful of graduate students separately insisted that I do so. This isn’t particularly well-researched or founded in anything other than my personal observations. The graduate students responsible for this were each frustrated that they couldn’t conform to their advisor’s expectations of their writing (to produce outlines, to have coherent first drafts that followed a linear structure, to quickly figure out the order and structure to set out their multifaceted arguments, etc.), and they felt guilty and embarrassed that all the work they were putting in still wasn’t enough. After hearing my diatribe about writing processes, each person said I had fundamentally changed their understanding of the situation. To me, it seemed obvious that they were simply a different type of writer than their advisor, and they were struggling to communicate with each other about that. In fact, all the students were web thinkers, who have the hardest time fitting into the “normal” or linear writing process everyone’s expected to follow. So, for those who are struggling with your writing, I hope this helps!
In the last ten years, I’ve worked with hundreds of students, from Community College students working on two-page essays, all the way through Graduate students finalizing their dissertations. One thing that’s obvious is no two people have the same writing process. Each person thinks through the content and formulates that into a written structure in a different way.
But, as teachers, we often operate as though there’s only one way to write. Time and again, I’ve heard students frustrated that their teacher or faculty advisor is asking them for an outline of their future paper, and the student is just flummoxed as to how to give an outline without first doing all the research and having a pretty solid idea of what their final argument will be.
In my experience, there are 5 main styles of writing (or maybe I should say thinking?) processes:
This is the traditionally accepted style of academic writing. The progression of a paper and your arguments logically follows from the main argument and an outline of subpoints. Linear writers pick a topic, do a tiny bit of reading or research, write a thesis statement based on what you’ve seen so far, figure out what your main supports are, create an outline, do the bulk of the research, and finally write each section of the paper in order. Perhaps if you’re a skilled or experienced linear writer, you go back and rewrite the introduction before considering your first draft done.
This is how we tend to encourage students to write, and how we scaffold early writing assignments as teachers. But, it’s not how most people naturally approach writing.
It does have a lot of advantages. Linear thinkers almost always start with an outline before they proceed to writing, which offers an easy entry point for others to offer feedback early in the process. They know exactly where they’re going before they do most of the research or writing. Their thoughts flow very logically and are ordered somewhat automatically by the structure they start early on. It’s fairly easy for them to follow a writing schedule and for them to plan their work. Editing drafts is often easy, requiring little reworking of the actual structure of the argument.
A linear writing process also has some serious drawbacks, though. It’s very difficult for linear thinkers to see connections between topics, or to recognize influencing factors in their analysis that are more distant or seemingly unrelated. If they find information that’s not relevant or does not support their initial thinking, the information is often ignored or overlooked. More experienced linear writers learn to include this contrary information as counter arguments, but it rarely, if ever, actually changes their mind or stance on the issue at hand. Linear writers can also get stuck in the minutiae of each point in their outline while writing, which makes seeing the forest for the trees, or connecting back to the main issue, more and more challenging the longer a piece is. It is also very challenging for them to have to restructure a paper when necessary in edits, making them feel like they’re “starting over.”
The wanderer knows where they want to begin, and sometimes, where they want to end, but doesn’t really know where the middle will take them. Their process often looks a bit like the linear thinker from the outside. They are fairly rare, at least that I have seen, or perhaps they camouflage so well as linear writers that I haven’t noticed them as frequently.
Wanderers pick a topic, do a tiny bit of reading or research, and write a thesis statement based on what they’ve seen so far. They often can write an outline, but may feel like it’s for the sake of the assignment or teacher, rather than a genuinely helpful part of their writing process. In fact, early outlines will probably be remarkably thin in the supporting points or midsection of a paper, or their final paper may differ significantly from the supports provided in an outline. Wanderers then do most of their research and come to a pretty good understanding of the issue before beginning their writing.
Wanderers are easily guided by teachers or experts in the area because their research and focus in developing papers can be directed early in the process. Once they have done the reading or research, they write fairly quickly, without much need for pause, reflection, or rewriting before a draft is completed. And, their writing progresses logically and clearly from their thesis, and they often wander towards really insightful connections in the midst of their papers.
The process of writing is less predictable for them, though, and so it’s harder to plan, especially for lengthier pieces. In this way, their work habits are often somewhere between a linear writer and a web writer. Their first drafts are often more windy, for lack of a better word. Invariably, they’ll have included some tangential or less relevant ideas, and potentially included overlapping or related information in different sections of the paper. Wanderers can sometimes have difficulty editing their papers later because they have to trudge new logical pathways between ideas they previously hadn’t connected.
Web thinker and writers are some of the most insightful people and brilliant writers, but their process requires the most time, particularly with new subjects. On a new topic, web writers will spend easily 4 or 5 times the amount of time a linear thinker would spend. With expertise in an area, they can become prolific and extremely quick writers, though – taking a fraction of the time the rest of us spend. (Can you tell I’m a little jelly?)
Web writers begin with a basic topic, the center of their web. From there, they have to research outward to find connected topics, or potential spokes to their web. At this early stage, web thinkers have a vague sense of the directions – and it is always multiple directions – their research needs to go in. They see all of those areas as connected, but can’t yet articulate how. They resist giving outlines, overviews, or abstracts at this point. They will often do at least half of the research up front, before an outline is even conceivable to them. As they do the rest of their research, they write smaller segments that look a bit like a wanderers’ paragraphs, but they won’t be connected logically from one to the next the way the wanderers’ are. The web writer is plotting out their thoughts on discrete topics, sometimes not knowing where in the final paper it will wind up. They may obsess about the wording of a sentence at one point and blaze through whole paragraphs at another. Once they have many fragments of their thoughts written out, and most of their research completed, they will struggle for some time to figure out what order things should be in. This is one of the most challenging tasks for a web thinker. It is at this point that web thinkers will feel comfortable providing an outline, and they often need to be encouraged to do so. You will rarely ever see a web writer’s true first draft materials. Instead, once an order or outline is decided, web writers tend to rewrite the entire essay or piece, rather than simply editing their separate pieces together. While this seems inefficient from the outside, it allows the web writer to refine their thinking on the subject, and often articulate the point more clearly than initially imagined.
As I mentioned before, web thinkers are the most likely to make the most novel and insightful connections between ideas. They easily tie together disparate issues in a way that seems flawless and obvious. The clarity of their language choice, and their ability to articulate their points in their final drafts will be stunning. And, once they know a topic well, or become an expert in a field, they can prolifically and quickly write in various forms, for various audiences, with complete ease.
Web thinkers also face the most challenges when trying to operate in a classroom or with an advisor or teacher who assumes a linear writing process. Time and again, I see distraught web thinkers completely flummoxed with trying to write an outline before they’ve completed their research. They also spend so much more time than everyone else struggling through a topic, reading and researching all the nuanced material about it, and figuring out how to put all those pieces together in a linear writing style.
Constellation writers store information about a whole lot of small topics that are held somewhat discretely or separately. Much like the stars in the sky, they plot out a lot of points of information, and then find a – to them, somewhat arbitrary – path between these points to create a linear progression of thought. Constellation thinkers will begin with a topic range, rather than one topic alone. It will be a cluster of ideas that seem close to one another. They can form outlines at this point, but, like the wanderer, it’s not genuinely helpful for them. Instead, they need to dive into research on those various topics. Once they have a firm grasp of them, they will choose the star or topic that shines the brightest for them, and then trace a path – one that is, for them, a bit arbitrary – from their main point on through supporting details. They will struggle at this point to write the introduction and conclusion, feeling a bit like these are unnecessary or inconsequential to the details of the information presented.
Constellation writers fair well in linear classrooms because they can connect the dots at any point in their research process – with just a couple pieces of information, or with a mind full of stars/points of information. So, offering outlines early in the process won’t be a challenge. They are also usually happy to edit the structure of their papers, even at a later date, as the order that the thoughts are presented in matters little to them. Most of them are also very open to feedback and guidance on what pieces of information should be included in the final paper. For them, it is the details of the argument or information that is the most interesting, and much of their time writing and editing will be spent refining the subtleties of their articulation of particular concepts within the paper.
The biggest challenge for constellation thinkers is seeing the larger picture, understanding why they are focusing on a topic, and why it matters. They will often struggle to determine what points are strictly relevant and which are not, opting mostly for the points that interest them the most, rather than what is logically or thematically most necessary. Their focus on the details within a paper can also detract time and energy away from building structure and arguments between the points.
Database writers can take in a tremendous amount of information about a plethora of topics in a short amount of time, and their brain automatically sorts it into organized and ordered layouts of information. Database thinkers are one of the most rare writing styles. I have not met many of them.
Database thinkers can start with a topic – to them it doesn’t much matter what the topic is – and with very little reading or research, produce a perfectly ordered outline, much like a linear thinker. Their research process is a bit different, though. It is very compressed. Database thinkers need to do most of their reading or research before writing, ideally in one long session, so they can intake as much information as possible before beginning writing. While intaking information, the database thinker will automatically begin making connections between pieces of information, and organizing the structure of the paper without much active thinking. Pretty immediately after doing research, database thinkers need to write or they will lose much of the details of what they just took in (though, they’ll probably still retain the overall structure of the topics). Database writers will write in a storm, usually in one long session without much interruption. If they physically could, for longer papers, they’d prefer to write for days on end, rather than splitting up their work over time. When writing, the information will come out in clearly structured form, though they may need to refer to pieces of their research to fill in details.
Database writers do well within a linear writing structure. They can mimic linear writing processes, and seem to be incredibly efficient writers. They’re about as adept at making connections between disparate concepts as wanderers and constellation thinkers. Database thinkers can definitely be guided at any point in the process in terms of what information to incorporate, but will heavily resist attempts to reorganize the information. When given time and space to write, they can write prolifically, as long as they have sufficient information to work with.
It sounds like the best of all worlds to be a database thinker, but doing this work is often incredibly energy-intensive for them, requiring a lot of rest before and afterwards. It is also often difficult for them to have sufficient time away from all other obligations to do the work that needs to be done, particularly with longer pieces. They lose track of information and where they were last with writing every time they step away from their work for a long period, requiring them to “restart” the process by taking in where they were. Database writers often appear to others (and may feel themselves) like procrastinators, as they have to compress their work to be most effective. They will often have difficulties writing about the same topic multiple times and in various ways. Each time, they will have to start anew with reading and research, unless they have developed strategies to help them retain or quickly regather that information.
In my experience, pairing up writers from different styles can yield some fantastic results, as long as everyone is aware of each others’ writing processes, and their strengths and weaknesses.
The trouble is that we tend to assume that everyone is a linear thinker. Most wanderers, constellation, and database thinkers have been incredible at mimicking a linear writing process, but it’s not what’s most helpful to them. And, web thinkers are just perpetually frustrated trying to produce in a linear structure.
Imagine what could happen if we encouraged people to follow a writing process that works best for them.