3.4 The Writing Process

Selecting and Narrowing a Topic

Sometimes, your professors will give you a topic that you must write about, but more likely than not, you will be given a choice of many topics to write on, or you may be asked to formulate a topic all on your own. Whether you are given a topic or are coming up with your own, however, one of the most commonly encountered challenges students face is how to narrow and focus the topic into something that is manageable. If your topic is too narrow or niche, you may have difficulty finding information about it. If it is too broad, you will find yourself overwhelmed with information and may find it hard to figure out how to pull it all together into a cohesive paper.

There is no one way to select and narrow a topic, but here are some tips to help you along the way:

Pick Something You Are Interested In

Even if there is another potential topic that looks less complicated, you are likely to write a better, more engaging paper if the topic allows you to explore a question or issue that you are genuinely interested in.

Talk It Out

Your professor is usually the best person to talk to if you are having trouble figuring out how to focus your research or if you want to know if the narrowed topic you are thinking of is in line with their expectations. This is exactly the sort of thing your professor’s office hours are for. However, it can also be helpful to talk about topics with peers, since it is the process of talking it out that often leads us to see new directions we would not have otherwise thought of.

Draw a Mind Map of What You Already Know

Start by writing down everything you know about a topic and then circle and draw arrows between ideas that you think are connected. The following illustrates connections between the cleaning service industry and low-wage work, workplace injuries, union involvement, and the fact that workers in parts of this industry tend to be first-generation immigrant women. Drawing on these connections, you might decide to start researching how first-generation immigrant women are engaging with unions to improve working conditions, or you may focus on how family structures are affected by women’s involvement in precarious low-wage work, or how examples of workplace discrimination are tied to the intersection of race, class, gender, and citizenship status (as an example, see Figure 2).

mind map illustrating connection between cleaning industry, feminism, unions, and low-wage work
Figure 3.4.1 Mind map example

Do Some Preliminary Research 

As we will discuss in more detail in Chapter 4, see an academic librarian about how to develop a search strategy, and then take some time to browse your university’s catalog and databases to see what and how much has been written about your topic.

If your professor has provided you with essay topics to choose from, then you will want to look for different perspectives that emerge in the literature. For example, if the topic asks you to explore the issue of digital divide and how it relates to poverty, you will need to develop a focus for your topic because otherwise, you will have too much information to wade through. You could, for instance, write about the different effects digital divide has on rural and urban poverty in Canada, or you could write about how government policies that reduce digital divide can help to alleviate poverty, or you could explore how the relationship between the digital divide and poverty is different among different age groups. The key is to figure out what your paper is going to zero in on so that you can explore a narrowed topic in more depth and so that you can more easily determine which research sources are worth delving into.

Creating a Working Thesis

A working thesis is an answer to your research question that you use as a launching point to guide your research. This thesis will likely change as you complete your research and draft your essay, but it will at least keep you focused and grounded with a sense of direction.

For the sample topic above about digital divide and poverty, a perfectly reasonable working thesis might be something like, “There are many ways in which digital divide affects urban and rural populations differently” or “To reduce both digital divide and poverty, government policies must address both issues instead of assuming that solving one issue will take care of the other” or “Digital divide among younger populations is more likely to be correlated with poverty than digital divide among older populations.”

Exploring Ideas

This is where you want to give yourself room for creativity. While you explore sources that look like they will support what you are trying to say, also challenge yourself to look at sources that look like they might say the opposite or something else entirely. Spend time sitting with and thinking about your research and what the significance of it is. See if there are common themes that come up in your readings that might point to well-established knowledge (or frequently referenced challenges and unknowns). Also, look at the citations and bibliographies that the authors of your books and articles have included to find some sources to expand your research.


Prewriting is the process of planning your paper and organizing your ideas. Often, prewriting takes shape as an outline, where you write your main thesis or argument at the top of the page and then write down your main arguments in point form:


Point 1

  • Supporting evidence
  • Supporting evidence
  • Supporting evidence

Point 2

  • Supporting evidence
  • Supporting evidence
  • Supporting evidence
  • Supporting evidence

Other ways you might do prewriting is by drawing mind maps that visually connect your ideas, by colour-coding your research notes (e.g., all notes highlighted in pink correspond to argument 1, all notes highlighted in blue correspond to argument 2, etc.), using sticky notes on a wall or desktop to move ideas around into different sequences, or by just quickly sketching out a couple of ideas on some scrap paper. The point of prewriting is to help you figure out the general layout and order of your ideas in your paper so that when you sit down to write, you have a good sense of where to begin and where to go from there.


We are reluctant to say that there is a “best” way to do any sort of writing because every writer comes to develop their own process that works best for them, but, in general, try to not overthink your first draft of an essay. Most of the time, it is the revising, editing, and proofreading processes that will take up more of your time, and your first draft is just a kick at the can to get you going.

If you are finding yourself daunted or overwhelmed at the big paper-writing task ahead of you, just dive in and write without paying too much attention to things like flow, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. The first thing you write will not be what you are handing in, but you need to get something on the page before you can work on improving it. At this stage, all you should really be worried about is putting your research and ideas into complete sentences and paragraphs.


Believe it or not, revising, editing, and proofreading are all separate processes. Revising is the big-picture stage, where you take a step back and reflect on the overall paper. Ask yourself:

  • Do I feel like these arguments have fully supported my thesis?
  • Are there any sections that still feel incomplete or underdeveloped?
  • Have I made any unsupported generalizations or assumptions that require more evidence?
  • Is everything presented in a logical order, or should I move some things around?
  • Is my paper too long? Too short?

The key here is to focus on the big picture without getting bogged down by the details just yet. This is a good time to make structural changes to your paper where you move arguments around or perhaps decide that you need to do some additional research to fill in some of the remaining gaps.


Editing is where we might make some more decisions about style, tone, and flow. After you have revised your paper, read it again and ask yourself these questions:

  • Does each paragraph have a topic sentence?
  • Have I adequately explained my arguments and evidence?
  • Have I cited all quotations AND paraphrases?
  • Is the connection between my ideas clear?
  • How well does my paper flow? Is the tone academic?
  • Do I have a lot of unnecessary sentences or words?

Often, it is helpful at this stage to read your paper out loud to yourself. Other strategies include getting a text-to-voice program to read your paper aloud to you, or to get a friend or peer to read it to you exactly as it is written so that you can hear what it sounds like. It can even help to change the font and print it out so that it looks and feels different as you read. The point is to do what you can to get out of the same head space and viewpoint you used to draft and revise the paper because by this point, you have been looking at your own writing long enough that you are likely to miss a lot of things you would otherwise notice if you were looking at things through fresh eyes (or ears!).


This is where you can finally start fine-tuning your writing by poring over your essay for grammar and punctuation errors, spelling mistakes, better word choices, etc.

Writers do not move through these processes quite so methodically, and it is perfectly normal to find yourself doing some last-minute research and revising even if you have already proofread your paper once or twice. However, if you can manage to not sweat the small stuff until the very end, you are likely to use your time more efficiently because whenever you make larger changes, you are probably going to have to go back and proofread all over again, thereby increasing your work.

Like editing, proofreading is something that gets harder the longer you have been looking at something. If you have used any of the techniques suggested above for editing, it is almost certain that you have already done some proofreading too because you will have noticed certain grammatical mistakes or awkward sentences when you saw them in a new light.

For your final proofread, try taking things one step further and reading your paper from the end to the beginning. Start by reading the last sentence, then the second last sentence, then the third last sentence, and so on. When we read this way, we take our sentences out of context, which is important when we are reading for grammar and punctuation. If you are always reading beginning to end, you are likely to miss mistakes because you know what you mean to say, so that is what your mind sees. Reading from end to beginning disrupts this flow and makes us better able to see what is really on the page.


A Note About Writers’ Block

Everyone suffers from writers’ block from time to time, so if this is something you are experiencing, do not panic. There are lots of things you can do to help get the creative juices flowing. Here are some suggestions:

Freewrite. Freewriting is when we allow ourselves to write without the fears and restrictions of producing a product or getting it “right.” If you cannot think of anything to say that is related to your topic and you are getting more and more frustrated, start writing about why you do not want to write this stupid essay. Or, start writing about the process you have followed up until this point. Just start writing something and let yourself keep writing for 5 or 10 minutes and see what happens. Often, it is when we remove the pressure of writing and just start writing anything that the thought process starts to move.

Talk. Try to explain your paper to a friend or family member. You can even explain it to your dog! Sometimes, it is hard to start writing if we feel we have not fully developed our ideas yet or if we feel like there is still a gap between our research process and our writing process. Talking about our ideas is a good way to help ourselves finish the thought processes that connect our research and writing.

Exercise. You would be surprised at how much thinking you can do when your blood is flowing, your lungs are full of fresh air, and you are releasing all kinds of pent-up frustration through physical activity.

Sleep on it. Sometimes, we have just been looking at something for too long and need to check out for a while before coming back to it. There is no shame in recognizing that you and your paper need a little time apart!



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Navigating an Undergraduate Degree in the Social Sciences Copyright © 2019 by Diane Symbaluk, Robyn Hall, and Geneve Champoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.