There are many metaphors used to describe and teach the writing process, but the most harmful might be the stoplight which breaks the writing process into three distinct steps: preparation, writing, revision. Frankly, anything that treats the writing process as a checklist or formula is problematic at best (harmful at worst). However, I have come to believe that even thinking about the writing process as a cycle or loop is not particularly helpful – especially to developing writers. Americans are entirely too enamored with employing a factory-model to every human interaction from education to health care to politics. In fact, I’m not too confident that applying it to the business world is even the right idea. However, we should not apply industrial terms or structures to health or education, and we certainly should not use a word such as “process,” which proscribes a set of steps or actions, to something as messy and individual as writing.
The Problem With Process
The problem is that too many of the folks who employ these metaphors and proscribe classroom interactions based upon them are not writers in the way we mean when we talk about writers in the National Writing Project. NWP writers are never done learning about writing and are constantly experimenting with writing. We also recognize that there are many different approaches available to writers. We challenge ourselves with new writing tasks and immerse ourselves in novel writing experiences and experiment with different approaches to familiar writing tasks. Yes, when I engage in a familiar writing task I often follow a stoplight writing process, because I know what I am doing because I have done it before — many times. There are many other writing tasks that are not as easy for me, but still fall within the realm of my previous experience (which includes decades of working as a professional writer and teacher of rhetoric and composition) and these tasks probably follow a more typical writing process that looks like a feedback loop or cycle. However, when I encounter a new writing task I find that my “writing process” looks nothing like those neat diagrams of stoplights or loops and, in fact, if I tried to map it out would more likely resemble a traffic snarl. No wonder so many students are unmoved and unmotivated (or just plain confused) when we teach the “writing process.” No wonder so many of those students lose confidence in themselves as writers and begin to believe they can never be a writer. We are harming our students by teaching writing as a process when engaging in so many writing tasks looks nothing like that regimented production line.
My own praxis long ago abandoned explicitly teaching the “writing process” and instead I organize my classes to support the development of ideas, engage in lots of low-stakes writing, and gradually shape that writing into a polished product. In our writing workshop we attend to the same stages included in the writing process described by others, but we allow a lot of room for each individual writer to find their own way. There are checkpoints and check-ins, but the writers in my workshop are not required to move in lock-step or even to make the same moves at all.
Recently I’ve been reminded of my graduate school mentor Rebecca Rickly’s metaphor concerning research (see The importance of harmony: An ecological metaphor for writing research co-authored with Kristie S Fleckenstein, Clay Spinuzzi, and Carole Clark Papper) and at first thought about employing the ecosystem metaphor to support a writing workshop classroom, but the more I think about it the more I think it might also be helpful for developing writers (and not just their teachers) to think about ecology rather than a process as a metaphor for their own writing work. I always introduce my students to the concept of their rhetorical situation, but I fear that some developing writers see that concept as too abstract to be useful.
However, if we immerse our students in a writing workshop ecosystem then we can gradually help them develop an understanding of the writing ecosystem then they will be able to attend to their own writing development long after they leave our classroom — which I happen to believe should be our goal as the teachers of writers instead of the creation of some arbitrary “mutt genres” (I will forever love Elizabeth Wardle).
A New Metaphor
So what do I mean by helping writers develop an understanding of the writing ecosystem? First the writer must understand their purpose. This is the problem with teaching mutt genres instead of authentic writing. If a writer is engaged in authentic writing then they understand their purpose. As writers explore their purpose and shape their writing goal to attend to that purpose they must consider their influences — their values and beliefs as well as their interests. It is not enough to allow a writer to engage with a topic that interests them, part of purposeful writing is thinking about how their writing will reflect them as a person. Of course one of the great failings of the formulaic writing process approach to teaching is that, unlike the rhetorical situation, there is not attention made to the reader. However, the reader is an essential component of the writing ecosystem. Each writer must attend to the reader’s purpose — why would/should the reader engage with this text (currently under construction)? In addition, the writer must consider the writer’s influences (interests, values, and beliefs) while composing the text. Not only is considering the reader’s purpose and influences essential to the writer, it is also important to attend to the connection between the reader and the writer. What interests, values, and beliefs do they share? Finally, the writer must consider the context of their text. What physical context (location and tools?) will the writer work in? The social context (or community) of the writer and reader are also important considerations. The cultural context (age, class, region, etc.) of the writer and reader should also be considered.
I do not give my students a writing ecosystem checklist, but instead gradually introduce each of these considerations to the writers in my workshop through various reading and writing exercises as we engage with a variety of texts. Sometimes we are writers, sometimes we read as writers, sometimes we write as readers, sometimes we are readers. As we work our way through multiple cycles of this approach (and in some cases over multiple semesters) students develop their own writing ecosystems — and that rather than their ability to create a polished perfect mutt essay should be the measure of their accomplishment and skill as a writer. There is no magic formula for making writers, because writing is messy and complicated, so stop trying to create writers with a reductive process. You do not need to teach your students the writing ecosystem metaphor, but I firmly believe that if you keep it in mind as you lead your writing workshop then the writers in it will benefit. What metaphor best supports the writers in your classroom?