Key Articles on Writing and the Writing Process

A special kind of person enjoys reading articles on teaching composition.  Most people would likely think that it’s a rather dull enterprise, and I suppose, like other things we do and get involved in, it can be.  Watching mud wrestling and televised food fights are super exciting, I suppose, but at a certain point one eventually finds other occupations to pass the time.  Be that as it may, certain articles and books truly make a difference–they stimulate thought and create conversation–and at heart they are motivated by a genuine interest in making the world a better place, one writer at a time.  Over the holiday break I was completely immersed in Richard E. Miller’s Writing At the End of the World (U Pittsburgh), which helped me consider the role of composition in the humanities, and it also gave me a mental forum to negotiate my ambivalence in light of recent school massacres.  Also, I have been recently stimulated by another important article that appeared in Harper’s Magazine a few years ago about teaching humanities to the poor–Earl Shorris’s “On the uses of a liberal education as a weapon in the hands of the restless poor.”

Yes, yes.  But who cares about this stuff?  Freshman composition is BORING!  I HATE reading and writing! I feel absolutely clueless in school!  Perhaps these articles will help address your concerns a bit.

As far fetched as it may sound, I was also gripped by an article on sentence and syntactical rhetorics–on the decline of stylistics in composition studies.  As it turns out, a debate has been raging for several decades on the issue of teaching students to write sentences before they work up to writing essays or larger bits of discourse.  Well, why not teach students sentence craft?  Why not focus on atomic parts of writing?  To my surprise I discovered that there are a lot of concerned parties and I have not been privy to the discussion.  I wasn’t aware that a discussion was happening–or rather, had already happened.  Apparently, the dust has settled on the sentence rhetoric debate and all participants have gone home.  Sentence rhetoric has three main strains: imitation, sentence combining, or Christensen’s ‘generative grammar.’  Studies galore have been performed, debated, touted, and rejected.  You can find the details in Robert Connors’s “The Erasure of the Sentence.”  The article can be found online as a PDF.  It’s simply magnificent and is as riveting a read as Ahab’s beef with a certain sea mammal.  It had me on the edge of my seat… literally.   Another text to be aware of in this debate is James Moffett’s Teaching the Universe of Discourse.

In my experience, I have wittnessed students reap much benefit from process pedagogy (see Lad Tobin’s “Process Pedagogy” –PDF available online).  Here is a cute YouTube clip on the writing process.  I realize that process is supposed to be passe these days–it’s somewhat like talking about the merits of driving a Ford Pinto or the compact Geo Metro–and we’re all supposed to be thoroughly “post-process” now, which is really a statement that recognizes the usefulness of process, it has been revamped, reworked, and revised in various ways.  One way of revising process theory is by introducing it to the “contact zones.”  Another way is by adopting a “writing across the curriculum” perspective.

The queen of process and basic writing is Mina Shaughnessy.  A lot of compositionists court controversy because of their fervent leanings, but Shaughnessy is respected by all partisans.  Here is her essay on basic writing.  You need to study her Error and Expectations–a classic in the field, if there ever was one.  The book even has it’s own Wikipedia entry.

Regardless of these developments and various studies on the composing process,  I still return to the process camp: Peter Elbow, Donald M. Murray, Ken Macrorie, among others.  I frequently invite my students to read PETER ELBOW.  Here is his discussion of FREEWRITING.  Then his discussion of “writing as growing.”  Then his “writing as cooking” (Page 48).  You can read about his writing struggles as a student in his “Illiteracy at Harvard and Oxford.”  Very compelling.  Here are his discussions on REVISION and READING ALOUD to improve sentences.  His “looping” technique is famous.   And have you ever played Elbow’s Believing Game?  Elbow has written two very influential writing books: Writing Without Teachers and Writing with Power A very interesting debate between Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae on the teaching of academic writing has yielded many responses and articles, including this one.

If you haven’t watched Elbow on YouTube, then you’re in for a treat.  It’s mesmerizing (at least for me).  It’s like listening to a great guru in a desolate ashram meditate on the meaning of life.  Here is Elbow on writing. Here he is on grammar and spelling.  Here is a funny animated clip that summarizes Elbow’s problems with “academic discourse.”  And here is another animated clip on Elbow’s argument on prioritizing writing over reading.

Ken Macrorie’s work is important and powerful.  He’s the writing teacher who was first credited with discovering the value of freewriting.  He focused on writers developing genuine voices.  He coined the term ENGFISH to describe lifeless, stale prose.

Another one of my favorite writing teachers is Donald M. Murray.  His work on revision is crucial (See also his “Making Meaning Clear: The Logic of Revision”–available as a PDF online).  Here (scroll down to page 1) he focuses on process rather than product.

Nancy Sommers discusses revision strategies of experienced and student writers.

William Zinsser isn’t necessarily a process guy, but many writing teachers value his book Writing Well.

Mike Rose is an important figure in composition studies and education.  Check him out.  You need to read his Lives on the Boundary.  Here is a chapter from the book.  Here is a Bill Moyers interview with Rose about the book.  An interesting paper discusses the impact of the book in a composition classroom.  Here is his discussion of writer’s block and the writing process.  Here’s a good review of his work on writer’s block.

What is the Latino education crisis??  Find out more about it here.  A provocative and inspirational book on the subject is Felix Padilla’s The Struggle of Latino / Latina University Students: In Search of a Liberating Education (Routledge).  A review of Padilla’s book can be found here.  For an excellent article on the educational experiences of Hispanics, see “Stories of Struggle and Hope.

In addition to Mike Rose’s valuable work, I have greatly benefited from Ira Shor’s Critical Teaching and Everyday Life.  It’s one of the best books ever written on education.  Here is one of Shor’s important articles– “Our Apartheid.”

David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” is a controversial landmark essay (a cleaner PDF is available online).  I discuss it in a previous blog post.  His “Study of Error” is also crucial reading material.

Sandra Perl’s cognitivist perspective on the composing process has been valuable for process theorists.  And so has the important contributions of Flowers and Hayes.

Here are other essays that I regularly assign in my transfer-level composition classes:  Min-zhan Lu’s “Writing as Struggle,”  Fan Shen’s “The Classroom and the Wider Culture,” George Orwell’s “Why I Write,”  “Politics and the English Language,” Richard Rodriguez’s “Aria,” Gloria Anzaldua’s “Taming a Wild Tongue,” Paolo Friere’s “The Banking Concept of Education,” and Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue.”  Also, you need to read Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa’s Becoming Dr. Qhis remarkable story of being an “illegal” migrant farm worker in California’s Central Valley who went on to become a renown brain surgeon.  Dr. Q discusses his book in a YouTube clip.  He offers an absolutely energetic, exciting, and inspirational story.  I’ll never forget reading his book on the treadmill at the gym–I couldn’t stop reading it–I was so touched when he discusses his various experiences while attending UC Berkeley.  In particular, he had a formative experience while talking with a TA at my favorite Caffe Strada (on College and Bancroft) across from the Cal campus.  It’s a heart-rending narrative.  I highly recommend it!

Finally, here is a good compilation of articles on the writing process.  There are a lot of composition studies anthologies out there, but here are two of my favorites: T.R. Johnson’s Teaching Composition and Elements of Teaching Writing.  Erika Lindemann’s A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers is indispensable.  These will help you become a better student of writing and perhaps a more effective composition teacher…

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