The academic writing process is like sketching a portrait.

You need preparation and planning for what you will draw.  You sketch, and then erase and change what you’ve drawn, and then show it to others.  As you continue to work, you grow as a sketch artist.  The academic writing process is the same.  You prewrite, write, revise, edit, and create a final draft for others to read. Then you advance your academic writing knowledge and skills.  

Writers use the writing process for all writing projects—novels, short stories, blog posts, essays, and research papers. I am using it now with this post.  Yet, is the writing process for fiction, nonfiction poetry, and blogging the same as the academic writing process?  Almost.

The difference isn’t in the phases, but in the tasks, you need to add.  Prewriting includes not only brainstorming but also finding research and taking notes. There are differences in editing too. So, today I’m giving you a step-by-step guide on how to go through the academic writing process.


The Academic Writing Process

There are 5 crucial steps you need to go through on the path writing a thoughtful, well-researched piece of academic writing: Prewriting (brainstorming, note-taking, and planning) Writing, Revising, Editing, and Publishing. 

5-Step Academic Writing Process


Prewriting has 3 parts to it: coming up with an idea, researching a topic, and planning what to write.  The first piece is finding a topic. 


Finding a Topic

The best way to find a writing topic is to dedicate a set amount of time to consider the question:  What can I write about it? 

Then brainstorm, freewrite, or create a mind map that focuses on answering the question.  If you brainstorm, list every idea you have (don’t judge your thoughts as good or bad).  At the end of your brainstorm, select a concept that intrigues you and has research about it.

Freewriting is where you write whatever is in your mind without stopping, and if you get stuck, write about that feeling until you get back on track.  I recommend doing this for at least 10 minutes, but 15 or 20 minutes is better.  At the end of your freewrite, you would select an idea that interests you and is also a topic that has sources you can find. 

You can take each of these steps further.  Check out my last blog post: 6 Super Prewriting Activities for Academic Writing to see how you can use brainstorming and listing and freewriting and looping to come up with more details.


Finding sources and taking notes

If you are working on an essay, you will not need to spend days on this task, but if you are writing something longer than you will want to go into the research phase with a strategy.  In my free guide, How to Write a Research Paper That Will Blow Your Professor’s Mind, I take you through the process of creating a research strategy and taking notes.

When you are doing research, start with a question/s about your topic and look for sources that will help you answer that question.  Take notes from your sources that are relevant to your main question/topic. 

As you take notes, include at least 4 parts:

  1. Author or abbreviated title of a source.
  2. Page numbers or location in the source
  3. Slug—this is a few words that describe the note.
  4. The quote, paraphrase, or summary of the fact, evidence, etc.

Note: For APA and Chicago Style Research Papers include the year the text was published. 



After you have your notes, analyze the evidence you have.  Ask yourself:  What does this evidence mean? What viewpoint does it support? How does this answer the question/s I have?   These questions lead you to your thesis statement.

Next, organize your notes into an outline or some other organized system from which you can write the first draft.

If you have written slugs describing what your note is about, then you can group your notes based on those topics.  Look for what relates to each other.  Then see how your notes support your thesis statement. 

Organize your notes, so that they start with your thesis and every piece after that supports it.  As you are doing this, include citations.



The better your notes, the easier it is to write your first draft.  The How to Write a Research Paper That Will Your Professor’s Mind guide includes note-taking and outline templates, but any form of notes will help you write your draft.

When you write your first draft, don’t worry about beginning with a thorough introduction. You can start with your thesis statement and write the body of your project and a conclusion.

When you revise, you will flesh out your introduction.  As you write the first draft, write without stopping to change things.  If you find you are missing something or you want to replace part of your writing, make a note of it in your text.  You can write in your text what you want to do (if you do this change the color of your font) or use the commenting feature to add your note. 

Focus on getting your ideas on paper in a logical organization.  Also, add in-text citations in your first draft so that you don’t forget them when you revise. 

Another piece of advice is to take breaks while you are writing.  I suggest using the Pomodoro approach, which is where you work for 25 minutes, take a break for 5 minutes, work another 25 minutes, and take a break for 20 minutes.  Repeat that process until you are done writing your draft.  While this is my favorite, any technique where you set aside time to write and then time to take a break helps you.



The difference between revising and editing writing is that revising focuses on changing the content and organization of what you write.  Editing is where you fix mistakes: grammar, spelling, omitted words, punctuation, vocabulary, citations, and references, etc.

There are 2 types of revision: self-revision and peer/teacher/coach revision. When you revise, read your writing, and analyze the content.  Ask yourself:


  1. Does everything is your essay or paper connect to your thesis? Does it prove it? Is it off-topic?  
  2. Do you have enough content to support your thesis? If not, find more evidence.
  3. Does the organization of your essay or paper make sense? 
  4. Do you have an engaging introduction that sets up your essay, research paper, etc.?  Is your conclusion powerful? 


When you have another person help you revise, ask them to read your work and give you feedback on the content, organization, clarity, and things they like and suggestions about what to improve.  Read my blog post,  for more tips about what to revise in an essay or research paper.



Editing is where you fine-tune your essay, research paper, or another project.  It is looking at the small details that make your writing grammatically correct and easy to understand. 

Editing a piece of academic writing involves the same things as other pieces of writing: sentence mechanics and variety, grammar, punctuation, and spelling.  It also includes looking for omitted words or wording that is confusing, or vocabulary that doesn’t make sense.

What makes editing academic writing different is that you need to look for mistakes with citations, references, and any charts and graphs that you include. You’ll want to make sure that you are following the correct reference system for your subject (MLA, APA, Chicago Style, Turabian, etc.).   



Publishing is the last phase of the academic writing process. It’s where you take your piece of writing and share it with others (your classmates, colleagues, professors, online or in a book or journal).  What is essential about publishing is you’re sharing your ideas and knowledge with an audience.  You have the chance to change what people think, how they act, and open their eyes to things they never knew before. 

You are making your mark on the world through your writing. 


How the Academic Writing Process Helps You

The academic writing process is a roadmap. If you drive through it (without speeding), you’ll arrive where you need to with a piece of work you can share with your professor, classmates, or colleagues.  

It also makes you a more talented and confident writer. Each time you prewrite, you become better at coming up with ideas and finding research. Each time you write the first draft, you advance the quality of your writing.

As you revise and edit, you learn how not to make mistakes and when to change the content, organization, or correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes.

You become the academic writer you always wanted to be. 

Want to advance your academic writing?

Join me for the free webinar,  How to Excel at Academic Writing, and Succeed in College and Graduate School!  Click to sign-up