The Writing Process in the Humanities

Writing in the humanities requires more than putting down a few thoughts or feelings about something at the last minute. Here's a process that will help you produce your best work. The basic structure of this process is from Robert DiYanni, Writing About the Humanities. Pearson Education, 2004.

1. Prewriting

This is the brainstorming part. It will happen differently for different topics. I'll divide the discussion into the analysis of specific objects, and the analysis of ideas.

A. Objects

If you are analyzing an object, you have to decide how to write about it. Almost every type of object you encounter, artistic or not, has a history of analysis. People have written about sculpture, painting, architecture, as well as clubs, gardens, and just about anything else.

So the first thing to do is to think about how to understand the object in question. Let's take a painting, for instance. Do you simply "give your feelings" about it? That might be a place to start, but unless a professor actually asks for that, it's worth assuming that isn't the point of the assignment. No one can grade your feelings about something. They can grade your analysis.

But what if you don't know what you want to say about the object? This is where prewriting is important. This is where you work with your impressions and ideas about something. There are many things you can do to start generating ideas about an object:

B. Ideas

In a way this is more difficult, because there isn't something out there that can be the focal point of your discussion. How do you write about "justice", for instance, or the "omniscient narrator in fiction", or something like that?

It is important to realize that writing about ideas isn't just "subjective", that is, it isn't just whatever you feel about something. We can talk about justice, for instance, and it isn't just a personal opinion about something. The goal of writing about ideas is to recognize how they are used by people. Maybe you don't know how people use things - it's time you found out. A humanities scholar understands how the world works, and now is the time to get it.

So how to you prewrite about ideas? Some of the suggestions are the same as before.

2. Writing/Drafting

You will never have enough research to start writing. And yet, you have to start writing. That's the problem - there's always another book to read. If you run out of sources, you probably haven't framed your question well enough yet.

The first draft is not the last draft. In this age of computers, you should never think that whatever you've written on the page is somehow sacred. So, relax, and just start writing. The better you have a grasp on the question you want to ask, the better you'll have a sense of the structure of what you're writing. But, you won't be clear on that without starting. These things come together. So, just start.

As you start, you'll probably become clearer about structure.
Structure is very important in a paper. Ideas have to follow logically on previous ideas. At this point in your work, that structure may not be clear yet. But the goal is to have a paper that leads to a single clear idea or description, and in which all the paragraphs clearly support that idea and lead to it.

Our text (Robert DiYanni,
Writing About the Humanities) lists the following guidelines:

  • Be fair-minded. Try to avoid oversimplifying or distorting either the work or what others have written about it.
  • Be cautious. Qualify your claims. Limit your discussion to what you can confidently demonstrate.
  • Be logical. See that the various elements of your argument fit together and that one part of your discussion does not contradict another part.
  • Be accurate. Present facts, details, and quotations correctly
  • Be confident. Believe in your ideas and present them with conviction.

3. Revising

Many students think that the first draft of a paper is the only draft that is needed. This is a major mistake, and will guarantee that you write mediocre papers. You will also not really understand the humanities, because first impressions are rarely very insightful in the humanities.

What are you revising? For one, you probably will need to rethink your central question and thesis. Once you've written one draft, you may discover that you can't do what you thought you could. Maybe it's too big a topic. Maybe it turned out to be vague. Maybe it was boring or trivial (after all, why write a paper that argues "The Mona Lisa is a very influential painting"? Choose something worth arguing about).

Rethinking the central question & thesis will necessitate rethinking the structure of the paper. Are you really leading the reader to your conclusion using the best arguments and evidence you can? Have you stated your intention clearly and succinctly in the first paragraph (no starting with "Since the beginning of time, man has..."). Remember that stuff that you were told in high school about moving from the general to the specific? Forget it. Pose your question, state your thesis, and tell the reader how you intend to accomplish your task.

DiYanni has these guidelines/questions for revising:

  • To what extent are you satisfied with your idea, with your thesis as it is currently formulated? How might you change it to make it more accurate, more complex, and more interesting?
  • Are you satisfied with your organization? To what extent can you identify the overall organizational plan of your essay? Where does its beginning end? Where does the ending begin? And how is the middle set up, arranged, organized?
  • To what extent are your sentences concise and clear? Can you eliminate words without altering your meaning?
  • To what extent have you maintained a consistent tone? If your tone shifts at one point or another, was this by design, or was it an accident?
  • How can you determine whether your level of language - your word choice, sentence structure, idiom, and tone - is appropriate for your topic and audience?

4. Editing

Little irritates a professor more than a sloppy paper, one full of poor grammar and poor spelling. This stuff matters - good ideas do not come in bad form. Many people don't know what a good paper looks like, and don't recognize problems when they see them. Your professors may point these things out, but if there are too many, they may just give up on the grammar and look only for the content. That doesn't mean the grammar or spelling are good.

If you are uncertain about your ability to recognize good writing, there are some options. First among these is the
UCF Writing Center. It has resources, including consultations with someone who will look at your writing and suggest improvements. It can help with things like citation styles as well.

Editing guidelines/questions, again from DiYanni:

  • How can you check for grammatical errors, inconsistencies in verb tenses and problems with subject-object agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement, sentence fragments, comma splices, and the like?
  • To what extent do you need to check on tricky verbs such as lie and lay, on questions of usage concerning who and whom, on aspects of mechanics such as the use of capitalization and italics?
  • Why might it be necessary for you to check for errors in spelling or punctuation? How should you go about this checking?

5. Proofreading

One technique works very well for proofreading - getting someone else to read your paper. It has to be someone you trust to tell you where things need improvement. Furthermore, it has to be someone who can tell the difference between the argument you are making and the form in which it is made. In other words, just because your reader likes what you are arguing for, doesn't mean that you've argued clearly and well for it.

Proofreading guidelines, from DiYanni:

  • Read the final draft aloud to hear mistakes.
  • Read your final edited draft one line at a time, focussing on individual words and sentences rather than your ideas and examples.
  • Read some paragraphs backwards, last sentence first.
  • Look for omitted words in sentences and omitted letters in words.
  • If you discover too many mistakes requiring correction, retype individual pages - or the entire paper - as necessary.