Permission to Find Your Own Writing Process

I’ve been thinking about writing more than usual because, as you’ve no doubt heard, the National Day on Writing is October 20. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the writing process, what an individual thinks it is and how, as teachers, we need to respect and encourage students’ individual processes. In fact, in my courses, my practice after every writing assignment was to focus a class session on each student describing the process that student used for the assignment and how that process worked for them—and how it didn’t. I’m not surprised that one of the beliefs in NCTE’s Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing  is “Writing is a process.”

Acquainting students with their own writing processes, with others’ processes, and with different processes that may work better in certain instances is one of the best things we can do when teaching writing. And, students and others who may have a look at student writing in-process, need to recognize that the process is individualistic and can be messy—that what is written first may or may not stay first or stay at all, that clean-up happens way later. Writers and particularly their early readers need to know that, as the first of the NCTE Beliefs about the Students’ Right to Write states, “The expression of ideas without fear of censorship is a fundamental right.”

I have consulted a few famous people about writing process and found, of course, that it’s highly individualistic and that writers look at writing, their own and others’, differently. I found a few of these in a wonderful project, “By Heart” in The Atlantic. I’d like to share what they have to say.

Celeste Ng notes, “When I was teaching, many of my students were beginning writers who were nervous about starting a story. To get them going, we’d play a kind of word-association game. I’d ask them to list two people, a location, two objects, an adjective, and an abstraction. I’d write everything on the board, then give them five minutes to try to work everything into the beginning of a story.”

Angela Flourney  talks about a technique Zora Neale Huston used, “But Mules and Men is a book that’s unapologetically messy. . .To me, that’s one of the most appealing things about Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction: She’s never been big on cleaning up black lives to make them seem a little more palatable to a population that’s maybe just discovering them. She’s just not interested in that. Even today, in 2015, I know a lot of writers probably struggle with wanting to represent us in a “good light.” The fact that she didn’t care, 80 years ago, is just amazing.”

Laurie Halse Anderson  describes her writing process as a “terrifying, a hot mess with a lot of tears involved …taking long walks with index cards in my hands…”


Ben McKenzie who describes his writing process for the TV show Gotham gives us a last word, “It’s like being a racecar driver, but you’re also a mechanic,” McKenzie says, in a very writerly moment.
“You can get into the engine and fix it, if you need to.”


About Millie Davis

Millie Davis is Senior Developer for Affiliates, and Director of the Intellectual Freedom Center at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). In addition she works on NCTE’s communications efforts, particularly on social media. Millie's passion is working with literacy teachers across the country and beyond whose passion for their students and their students' learning is their reason for going to work each day.

One thought on “Permission to Find Your Own Writing Process

  1. This is a great perspective on the idea of the writing process! The part about it being unique to each person makes complete sense. I can’t help but think of all the students I have worked with over the years and how rigid we made the process. I like that it is okay to be messy!

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