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The Process of Writing

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Open to: Grades 5 - 6
Prerequisite: CTY-level or Advanced CTY-level verbal score required
Challenge Level: High School Junior
Course Formats: Individually Paced  
Recommended School Credit: One-half academic year
Course Length:
 Typically 6 months
Course Codes: EM1 

Course Description

By approaching writing as a process, instructors encourage students to avoid closure on a piece of writing before exploring its full possibilities. The goal is for students to become personally invested in their work. By demystifying the elements of writing, instructors help students develop the confidence to take risks and challenge themselves.

Students use the writing process to accomplish three projects:

  1. a poem,
  2. a nonfiction narrative, and
  3. a fictional narrative.

For each project, students complete one assignment for each of the writing process' three stages:

  1. prewriting to discover an idea,
  2. drafting to see what you have to say about that idea, and
  3. revising to express that idea to readers.

Students also write an autobiographical sketch. As they write each assignment, students apply their instructor's extensive comments about their previous assignments. Exchanging letters with the instructor about the experience of writing and about each others' comments on the assignments is an important part of the course.

This course does not have any synchronous class meetings, but students may schedule one-on-one virtual meetings directly with the instructor.

Student contributions (e.g., projects, forum posts, etc.) may remain in the course after the student completes the course. These artifacts may be preserved to showcase student work or to continue important conversations.

Grammar Note

Skilled, careful writers follow the conventions of Standard Written English, but writing is much more than mere adherence to convention. Instructors discuss grammar only when it affects meaning. Writing courses are not remedial. Students must already be proficient in Standard Written English.

Materials Needed

Students are not required to purchase any additional materials or texts for this course.

Course Details

NOTE: This describes the individually paced version of The Process of Writing. For the session-based course description, you may go here.


You set the schedule!

The individually paced format uses a web-based course management system that delivers assignments, receives finished essays, and returns instructor critiques. Students and instructors use the course management system's messaging module and email to communicate.  The individually paced format does not include peer review workshops. As with the web-based format, it is not necessary for students and instructors to be online at the same time.

Students may enroll at any time during the year and progress at their own pace within their enrollment period, guided by instructors who strive to meet individual needs. Assignments may not be submitted closer than seven days apart. Enrollment and tuition are time-based, and students may enroll in a course for three, six, or nine months. 


Detailed Course Information

The Process of Writing



Prewriting a Narrative

choosing a topic
brainstorming for ideas
character description
setting the scene


selecting an interesting focus
including details

Drafting a Narrative

story openings
using details

Prewriting for Poetry

avoiding abstractions and generalizations
using metaphor and simile
using concrete images
brainstorming for ideas

Revising a Narrative

replacing static and vague verbs
using an imaginary reader

Prewriting for a Fictional Conflict and Resolution Piece

gathering ideas
physical vs. psychological conflict
free-writing to generate details
character description

Drafting a Poem

understanding line breaks
avoiding clichés
including specific details

Drafting a Fictional Conflict and Resolution Piece

beginning a narrative: 3 different ways
adding details
using dialogue
polishing the draft

Revising a Poem

replacing useless with useful description
showing, not telling
choosing what to eliminate

Revising a Fictional Conflict and Resolution Piece

cutting, rebuilding, and reshaping structure

Sample First Assignment




NOTES: Be sure to read this assignment all the way through before you start writing. Families should review:

  • How to format the files you will attach to e-mails in this course, below.
  • Technology Skills Students Need (& Parents Need to Ensure Students Have)

It is Sunday afternoon, June 12th, 1909, and my father is walking down the quiet streets of Brooklyn on his way to visit my mother. His clothes are newly pressed, and his tie is too tight in his high collar. He jingles the coins in his pocket, thinking of the witty things he will say ... My father walks from street to street of trees, lawns and houses, once in awhile coming to an avenue on which a street-car skates and gnaws, progressing slowly. The motorman, who has a handle-bar mustache, helps a young lady wearing a hat like a feathered bowl onto the car. He leisurely makes change and rings his bell as the passengers mount the car. It is obviously Sunday, for everyone is wearing Sunday clothes and the street-car's noises emphasize the quiet of the holiday ... My father has taken this long walk because he likes to walk and think. He thinks about himself in the future and so arrives at a place he is to visit in a mild state of exaltation. He pays no attention to the houses he is passing, in which the Sunday dinner is being eaten, nor to the many trees which line each street, now coming to their full green and the time when they will enclose the whole street in leafy shadow ...

From "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" by Delmore Schwartz

My mother started the San Francisco version of the Joy Luck Club in 1949, two years before I was born. This was the year my mother and father left China with one stiff leather trunk filled only with fancy silk dresses. There was no time to pack anything else, my mother had explained to my father weeks after they boarded the boat. Still his hands swam frantically between the slippery silks, looking for his cotton shirts and wool pants . . . When they arrived in San Francisco, my father made her hide those shiny clothes. She wore the same brown-checked Chinese dress until the Refugee Welcome Society gave her two hand-me-down dresses, all too large in sizes for American women ...

From Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Every family has a history, and this three-part assignment will give you the chance to bring a piece of that history to life. Eventually you'll write a three page essay in which you narrate a scene from an event in a family member's life. For the first part, Assignment #1, you'll do pre-writing exercises that are designed to help you find a subject and to generate material about that subject.

As I said, you'll be writing about an event from a family member's life. This might sound confusing, so let me give you some ideas and suggestions. First, though, you should read the two examples above a few times. In the passage from Delmore Schwartz, the narrator is describing his young father going to his mother's house on the day he asked her to marry him. In the passage from Amy Tan, a woman is describing her mother's club but also some details about her journey to America. Similarly, you could describe the moment when your parents got engaged or when your grandmother (or your mother or your great great grandmother) set foot on American soil. Or you could describe your father receiving his high school diploma or your uncle getting ready for his first date and your aunt going off to college.

These are "big moments" that everyone experiences. You could pick a "big moment," or you could pick something from a particular family story. For instance, my grandmother always like to tell me the story of how my mother, when she was seven, found a litter of kittens in the cemetery, brought them home, dressed them up in doll clothes, and hid them in her closet for a few days. Here's something important, though: You should chose an event at which you were not present. (Notice how in the two examples, the narrator was not present. Nor was I present--obviously!--when my mom brought home the kittens.)

Whether you decide to write about a "big moment" (a milestone such as a baptism, bar mitzvah, graduation, engagement, or marriage) or a particular family story, focus your writing on just one scene. This means that you should describe one particular moment, as in the Schwartz example with the narrator's father. Think of a scene as a "snap shot" in the story. Or as one event in the story. Thus, if I were to write about the story with the kittens, I might write about my mother and her best friend holed up her closet, putting the baby clothes on the kittens. Or I might write about the moment they found the kittens or the scene in which they sneak them into the house past my grandmother.

At this point, you might be wondering an obvious question: If I wasn't present at the event, then how am I supposed to write about it? This is a very good question, and the answer is this: Find out as much information as you can by asking questions. Then make up the rest. In fact, I expect you to make up a lot of the details. Details are those small pieces of information that bring a piece of writing to life. Look again at our examples from Schwartz and Tan; details are things like the jingling coins, the slippery silks, and the motorman with the handle bar mustache.

So here are the pre-writing exercises for assignment #1. You should do these in order and you should stretch them out over a few sittings. Be sure to look at the formatting instructions for the file you will attach to your e-mail. They're at the end of this assignment.

  1. Write down at least ten ideas for possible family stories. You may want to ask your parents or relatives about their lives or about good stories. However, it's probably not necessary to talk to them. You already know a lot about your family, and I'm sure you already have a story that you could tell, whether it's a "big moment" or a particular story. Remember that the story you tell should be one at which you were not present.
  2. Underline the two ideas that sound the most interesting to you. Now, free write on each of those ideas for fifteen minutes apiece. What do I mean by free write? You should set the timer and write non-stop about your subject. Write down whatever comes into your mind and don't stop to judge, correct or edit your words. Keep writing even when you think you don't have any ideas left; just keep writing. If you get stuck, think of one scene and write down as many sensory details that pop into your head. For instance, right now I am thinking of the scene in the closet with the kittens, and a sensory detail that pops into my head is the smell of the closet. I am not thinking of my own closet, but my grandmother's closet, which smells of mothballs and wool. I am now thinking of the way the clothes feel as they brush up against my mother's face as she is sitting in that closet, holding the kittens. Remember, that you should free write on each topic for fifteen minutes (total free write time=30 minutes). At the top of your page, write down your start time and at the bottom write down your finish time.
  3. Now chose from those two ideas the one that seems clearest and most interesting to you. Write down at least three possible scenes. Remember that a scene is like a photograph; it's one moment in the story. If I did the kitten story, I might write: Finding the kittens in the cemetery with her friend Barbara, sitting in the closet with the kittens, and sneaking the kittens into the house and up the stairs past her parents.
  4. Now chose one of the possible scenes and do two more fifteen minute free-writes. If you have less than 150 words on each topic, keep writing until you meet this minimum. Here are the two topics:
    1. The person you're writing about. Remember that we don't know this person, so you're going to have to describe her or him to us. How old is she or he in this scene? What does he or she look like? What is her or his personality like? What are some things that interest her or him most at this moment? What are some aspects of his or her personality? Write down as much as you can, and don't worry if you make some of it up
    2. The setting of your story. Where is this scene taking place? List as many details as you can about this place. If it's indoors, then what kind of room is it? What's the furniture like? The lighting? What's on the walls? If it's outdoors, where is it? What's the weather like? Are there other people around? What's happening
  5. Finally, write me a letter about this assignment. Was it hard to write down family story ideas? How did you choose the topic you chose? What are your plans for writing the essay?

I look forward to reading this assignment!

Due according to the schedule in my first email:

  1. Ten story ideas
  2. Two fifteen-minute free writes
  3. Three possible scenes for the best story idea
  4. Two more fifteen-minute free writes (150 words each minimum)
  5. Letter

See below for file formatting information.

Note: You do not have to understand everything below in the next 15 minutes. You have two weeks during the academic year and 4 days during the intensive summer program, to figure this stuff out. A lot of it, you learned in elementary school computer class.


Whether you compose on paper or keyboard, you need to send all of your exercises as one file. At the beginning of the file, please key in your name, the assignment number, and the date. Example:

Ben Reynolds
Assignment #1
February 4, 2015

For each part of the assignment (except the first), please insert a page break.

  • In Word, click Insert, then break, then Page break.
  • In WordPerfect, click Insert, then Page Break.

Now key in a title from the Due list. Example from Assignment 1 Due list (pretend you've inserted a page break here):

2. Two fifteen-minute free writes

Save the file as yourfirstnameyourlastnameassignmentnumber.doc Example:


Your file must have a three-letter extension (.doc) in order for your instructor to read it. Most files will be automatically saved as .doc. Right-click renaming the file extension if Windows does not save it in the appropriate format. Use Save As... to change the file type.

If you cannot save your file as a .doc, save it as Rich Text Format (the document extension is .rtf). You will see a drop down box that allows you to choose the appropriate format.

how to save as . . . a .doc or .rtf


Technical Requirements

This course requires a properly maintained computer with high-speed internet access and an up-to-date web browser (such as Chrome or Firefox). The student must be able to communicate with the instructor via email. Visit the Technical Requirements and Support page for more details.