The First Step in the Writing Process. Formal letter writing. Main principles

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Lesson 12.

The First Step in the Writing Process. Formal letter writing. Main principles.

Writing is one of the most common ways we communicate. To be a successful writer, you should practice the five steps of the writing process: prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publication.

The Paper

Chances are, you have experienced a moment of writer's block. You may have been sitting in class, writing your notes, and given the writing assignment. You freeze. Your mind goes blank, and you have that thought: 'I have no idea what to write about!' You stare at the blank screen or paper and watch the time go by. You write a word, erase, and start again. It seems like you will never be able to start.

All writers, even the most professional and published, have experienced this moment of panic. Writing can be a bit intimidating, until you know how to approach the topic and start your work. The writing process helps us focus, plan, and write our papers.

The writing process is divided into five steps: prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publication.

In this lesson, we will discuss the five steps of the writing process by following the student Susie taking these steps.


The first step of the writing process is prewriting or our planning stage. During prewriting, you are thinking about your topic, brainstorming, focusing, and developing a working thesis.

This step begins with the assignment. Let's say our student Susie has been given the assignment to write a personal story that shaped a point of view. She first spends time asking herself questions about the topic, such as: 'What do I want to write about?', 'What do I hope to achieve?', 'What personal views do I have?', or 'What do I want my audience to learn?'.

Susie's next step is to brainstorm some potential topics. There are many different ways to brainstorm, but some she could use would be make a list, journal write, or create a chart. Susie decides to make a list and writes down some potential personal stories that she could share. Eventually, she selects one of these that she feels confident writing about.

Finally, Susie makes sure that her topic is focused and writes down a working thesis, the central idea of her paper. One great way to make sure a topic is focused is to develop a rough outline. This does not have to be formal but, rather, just write down the thesis and the main ideas that the essay will explore.


Now that Susie has decided on a topic and plan, she is ready to begin the second step of the writing process: drafting her essay. It is important to remember that a draft does not have to be perfect! The goal of the drafting stage is to take your outline and to develop a paper. When you draft, do not worry about the mechanics of your paper, this will come later. Right now, just focus on the content and make sure that your ideas are clear and well detailed.

When writing her paper, Susie asks herself some questions that you too can use:

'Are my ideas organized?'

'Am I sharing strong details?'

'Should I include more information or take some away?'

As you write, be sure to keep asking yourself questions that will help further develop and support your thesis.

Remember that you can write more than one draft! Often times, you will write several before you begin the next step of the writing process.


The third step of the writing process is revising. During revising, you should read your writing and look at the content. You can think of revising as looking at the big picture. Do not yet worry about the mechanics of your paper, but focus on the content.

Before starting the revising and editing stages, it is important to set the right environment! Try the following tips:

  • You should try to take some time away from your paper. Set it aside for a few hours or even days. This way you are starting with fresh eyes.

  • Print out your paper. This way you can take notes as you revise and edit.

  • You could even change the format of your paper! It could be a larger, bolder font, which may help you find the errors in your writing.

  • Work somewhere without distractions. Turn off the phone and TV. Just focus on your writing!

Our student, Susie, is ready to start the revising stage.

First, she reads her paper out loud. While it may seem strange to read out loud, it is the best way to really hear your paper as you read.

Next, Susie asks questions. In this step, she is looking to make sure that her thesis, the main idea of her paper is easy to identify and is supported. Some questions she can ask are: 'Do I have good topic sentences?', 'How are my details?', and 'Do I have a good order to my paper?' By asking these questions, Susie is checking that both her content and her structure meet the assignment and present a well written, organized paper. In addition, she takes time to look at the style of her paper. Here she would check her tone, language, and sentence structure.

Finally, Susie focuses on making changes to her content. In this last step, she may add more details, take some away, and reorder her ideas. She may add more definitions for clarity, make sure that her pronouns are clear, and change the sentence order for more variety.


Now that Susie has looked at the big picture of her paper, she is ready for the small picture. It is time to look over the mechanics of her paper.

 The Writing Process: Activities

The below activities are designed to review students' understanding of the writing process and allow students to experiment with the writing process.

The Writing Process: Matching

Match the definition of the writing stage with its title.

  1. Writers begin by considering their topic, focusing their ideas, brainstorming, creating an outline, and drafting a thesis statement.

  2. Writers start to write their essay. In this stage, writers work on developing, communicating, and supporting their main ideas.

  3. Writers evaluate their content, focusing on the big ideas to ensure they are well developed and clear.

  4. Writers work on checking their grammar, spelling, and punctuation to make sure their mechanics are correct.

  5. Writers present their work.

  • Publication

  • Drafting

  • Editing

  • Prewriting

  • Revising

Answer Key: 1: prewriting; 2: drafting; 3: revising; 4: editing; 5: publication

The Writing Process: Writing Activity

Try your hand at completing each step of the writing process. Write a response of at least 500 words arguing either for or against the continued use of plastic straws (do some research if necessary). As you work on your writing, consider the challenges of each stage of the writing process. After you have written your response, answer the questions below on a sheet of paper:

  • What challenges did you face in each stage of the writing process?

  • What stage was the most challenging for you and why?

  • What stage do you rarely incorporate into your writing process? Why is it important to incorporate this stage in the future?


The writing process is something that no two people do the same way. There is no "right way" or "wrong way" to write. It can be a very messy and fluid process, and the following is only a representation of commonly used steps.



  •   Make sure you understand your assignment. See Research Papers or Essays

  •   Decide on a topic to write about. See Narrow your Topic

  •   Consider who will read your work. See Audience and Voice

  •   Brainstorm ideas about the subject. See Prewriting Strategies


  •   List places where you can find information.

  •   Do your research. See Evaluating Sources and Primary vs. Secondary Sources

  •   Make an Outline to help organize your research. See Outlines


  •   Put the information you researched into your own words. See Paraphrase and Summary

  •   Write sentences and paragraphs even if they are not perfect.

  •   Read what you have written and judge if it says what you mean. See Thesis Statements

  •   Write some more. See Incorporating References

  •   Read it again.

  •   Write some more.

  •   Read it again.

  •   Write until you have said everything you want to say about the topic.


  •   Read what you have written again. See Revising Content and Revising Organization

  •   Rearrange words, sentences or paragraphs.

  •   Take out or add parts.

  •   Do more research if you think you should.

  •   Replace overused or unclear words.

  •   Read your writing aloud to be sure it flows smoothly.


  • Be sure all sentences are complete. See Editing and Proofreading

  •   Correct spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.

  •   Change words that are not used correctly or are unclear.

  •   Make sure you are using the appropriate Style formatting.   
See for MLA: Purdue OWL MLA Style Introduction
See for APA: Purdue OWL APA Style Introduction
See for Chicago: Purdue OWL CMOS General Format

for examples. Have someone else check your work.

Revised: 07/18

1Adapted from The five steps of the writing process.


Use these tips when writing a formal letter

In today's Internet- and email-driven society, the need to write a formal letter arises less often than in the past. However, it is still occasionally necessary to present a formal letter to obtain information, to apply for an academic program or a job, to write a complaint letter, or simply to express your opinion in an effective and coherent manner.

Be concise

State the purpose of your formal letter in the first paragraph and don't veer from the subject. Try to avoid flowery language or long words. Keep the letter short and to the point. This excerpt from Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (4th edition) provides the perfect rule of thumb:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Use the right tone

A business or formal letter should be written in a tone that is slightly more formal than your everyday language. Avoid the following: slang or jargon; contractions such as I'mcan'tit's; and vague words such as good and nice. Be polite and respectful, even if you are complaining. Take a look at our formal letter example to see what tone is appropriate.


Proofreading is so important. Once you have written your formal letter, check the grammar and spelling carefully. Use the spell-checker on your computer and then read the letter over yourself as the spellchecker will not catch every errorUse a dictionary or thesaurus, if necessary. Check the grammar and punctuation for correctness and make sure the sentences are complete.

It is a good idea to have someone else proofread your formal letter, even after you have done so, as you may have overlooked errors in something that you have read over many times. If this formal letter is important enough for you to take the time to write, don't rush its completion. Errors will diminish the impact of the statement or impression you are trying to make.

Use proper format and presentation

Remember that the first impression is the one that lasts. Use good quality paper and a matching envelope for your formal letter. Make sure the recipient is addressed properly and that his or her name is spelled correctly. Equally important—don't forget to sign the letter! Check out our letter writing ebook, which features several examples of formal letters. You can also search for free templates online.

Present your ideas properly: Formatting a formal letter

Adhering to the standard conventions of good formal letter writing and presenting your letter attractively will ensure that your thoughts are seriously considered by the recipient and given the attention and consideration they deserve. Here are a few formatting tips:


The heading consists of your address (but not your name) and the date. Telephone numbers and email addresses are not usually included here, but they are acceptable. Using block format, the heading goes in the top left-hand corner of the page.

123 Elm Ave.

Treesville, ON M1N 2P3
November 23, 2008

Inside Address

The inside address consists of the name and address of the person to whom you are writing. You should try to address the formal letter to a specific person, but if you do not know his or her name, at least try to include his or her title. This address is usually placed four lines below the heading if a word processor is used or one line below the heading if the letter is handwritten.

Mr. M. Leaf (name)

Chief of Syrup Production (title)
Old Sticky Pancake Company
456 Maple Lane
Forest, ON 7W8 9Y0


Skip one line after the inside address and then type the salutation. Your choice of salutation depends on whether or not you know the intended recipient of the formal letter. The most usual greeting is


followed by the person's name and punctuated with a colon. If you don't know whether the person you are addressing is a man or a woman, you may begin with

Dear Sir or Madam:

again followed by a colon.


may be used if you don't know the marital status of a woman. Furthermore, if the person has a specific title such as


make sure that you use it. Here are some examples of each salutation:

  • Dear Mr. Trunk:

  • Dear Ms. Root:

  • Dear Mrs. Branch:

  • Dear Dr. Acorn:


Skip one line after the salutation and begin typing the body of the formal letter. This is the main part of the letter. Keep in mind the rules outlined above regarding brevity and coherence. It is best to use short, clear, logical paragraphs to state your business.

Closing and Signature

This is the end of the letter. Skip one line after the last paragraph of the body of the letter and type the closing. Only the first word of the closing should be capitalized. It is punctuated with a comma. Leave several lines after the closing and type (or print) your signature. Your actual handwritten signature is to be inserted between these two printed lines, written in ink.

Yours sincerely,


Ezra Twig

Your typed signature marks the end of your letter, and while you can write a postscript (P.S.) containing additional information, it is better to include all pertinent details in the body of the letter itself so nothing is accidentally overlooked.

Now that your formal letter has been written, read it through in its entirety to ensure you have communicated your points thoroughly and accurately. Then, it's ready to be sent off to its recipient!

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