What is "process writing"?

        Simply put, "process writing" is the set of interlocking composition strategies that modern college-level composition teachers attempt to teach to their students.  It differs from earlier strategies of composition teaching which you may have encountered in high school, like "modes of writing" (comparison-contrast, definition, argument), rhetorical formulae ("the five-paragraph theme," "the concession paper"), and "stage-theory writing" (first you brainstorm, then you draft, then you edit, and then you're done, always in that order).  Although those ways of teaching composition can produce predictable results and solve some writing problems, they also can seriously damage student writers' ability to adapt their writing to adult, professional tasks.  Real-world writing, outside the classroom, rarely fits simply into their categories of "mode" or "formula," and the "stage theory" simply does not conform to what experienced, successful writers actually do when they write.  Recently, because of standardized state-mandated proficiency tests, even some teachers who believe in the "process writing" model have retreated to teaching rapidly developed forms of the "five-paragraph theme" because it helps students do better on the short, time-limited essays the tests require.  Their jobs are held hostage to the numerical results on those tests, but rarely are adult professionals forced to compose a completed document in a twenty- to sixty-minute sprint.  Communicating original insights about complex knowledge takes time and it occurs in repeating loops among many functions we might call "research," "composing," "editing" etc., but the loops repeat until the process is complete because the writer is satisfied, not until some person in authority calls "time!"  In colleges, where state laws do not apply, the "process writing" movement largely displaced all these older ways to teach because scholarly research changed our way of understanding how writers learn to write, and how experienced writers differ from inexperienced writers.

        Since the 1960s, the study of how people learn to write has undergone a revolution.  Instead of asking novelists or poets how they write, or listening to "prescriptive grammarians" or "prescriptive rhetoricians" theorize about how people ought to write, scholars began studying actual student and professional academic writers using scientific methods of data gathering and evaluation.  The results of this research motivated a series of changes in how writing is taught which still affect most high-school curricula today, and which are standard in almost all college-level writing instruction.  The first major result, the 1963 Richard Braddock et al. study of the actual results of teaching formal grammar in high school, discovered that it had no discernable positive effect upon the grammar found in students' papers.  It did help them score higher on grammar tests, of course, but that was not the point.  It was useless instruction and displaced other kinds of teaching that might have done students more good.  More observation of actual students learning to write by Robert Graves (my teacher's teacher) and others led to greater acceptance of "made-up spelling" and free choice of topic for students just learning to write, changes which enabled students to learn to understand and control their own, personalized composing processes.  Using the terminology borrowed from Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1974), composition scholars called what had happened a "paradigm shift," a fundamental change in the rules for what a profession will accept as valid reasoning or relevant and sufficient evidence.  That paradigm shift produced the concept known as "process writing."

        In the period before the paradigm shift, beginning writers were taught that there was a single "writing process" which consisted of three clearly differentiated "stages": pre-writing, writing, and revising.  The new paradigm is based on research which showed that experienced writers perform tasks associated with "early" stages quite late in the actual process of creating a document, and they often perform very "late" kinds of tasks early in the process.  Instead of a rigid, linear process, which students were taught to imitate whether it worked for them or not, researchers saw that the most successful adult writers engaged in a series of processes that were "recursive," that is, they were repeated many times until the document was done, and the processes assisted each other in a variety of ways.  "Brainstorming," a list-making or diagram-creating strategy which used to be taught early in the process, could occur near the end as the author turned from lining up support for a thesis and wondered what to say as the paper concluded.  "Outlining," often taught as the necessary first step in actual writing (with full sentences, Roman numerals, etc.), came to be seen as more commonly used in moments of stock-taking or revision, to help writers remind themselves how the parts of the evolving document fit together.  "Editing," usually reserved for the last stage in the process, was observed to be something experienced writers did periodically, throughout the document's growth.  The "three-stage" model of the composing process came to be seen as the process-equivalent of the "five-paragraph theme" in writing product, a needless constraint on writers which produced easily measured but inflexible, inadaptable habits.  That last problem is very dangerous to freshmen and sophomore writers.  If you cannot adapt your composing process to the new intellectual challenges your instructors pose for you, college level thinking will be very difficult and college level writing will be impossible.

        The big process-difference between experienced writers and less experienced writers appears to be that the inexperienced believe there are only a few "correct" ways to solve every writing problem.  They strive to avoid "mistakes" which they "correct" almost continuously as they compose sentences.  Experienced writers, odd as it seems, give themselves permission to write badly, at first.  This allows them to start writing sooner to find out what they have to say, and to return to the writing many times before it is done.  Both of these advantages allow all the recursive components of their composing process the chance to engage each other in unique patterns for every new writing task.  They know there are many ways to compose sentences and to organize paragraphs.  They know good writing takes time and perfection is something to strive for over time, not something that appears in one sitting.  They learn to tolerate some productive mental disorder while working because they know the mind typically seeks to impose old, familiar, inappropriate forms of order on unfamiliar knowledge, like substituting an old saying ("It takes all kinds to make the world.") for a complex new idea ("The principle of 'equal rights under the law' enables a culture's ethnic variety to stimulate creative economic and aesthetic development.").  Striving for too much order too soon actually can prevent learning even if it helps the writer write a coherent sentence quickly.  The experienced writers' lesson of patience and concentration takes time to learn, but the whole point of English 104 and English 105 is that it can be learned if we give you enough time and practice.  That is one major reason why Goucher requires most incoming freshmen to take two semesters of composition training.  The other has to do with respect for and understanding of intellectual property, which is English 105's special task to teach.

        If you learn to become a successful writer, and if you are interested in joining the study of how writers learn to write, you might be interested in English 221, the course which trains tutors for the Writing Center.  You have to be nominated by a faculty member before you can be interviewed for the course, but if your writing has been getting enthusiastic praise from more than one instructor, do not feel shy about asking them to nominate you for the course if they think you are good enough to take it.  For more information, you can see this "Frequently Asked Questions" page, or the English 221 course web site.