Research on Composing Processes

Just as scholars within the computers and writing community have lost interest in word processing, so have composition scholars seemingly lost interest in what was once a central concern of the field: writing process. Early studies of process tended toward developing cognitive models of writing, and relied heavily upon think-aloud protocols, in which writers verbally described their activity as they composed. Janet Emig’s (1971) groundbreaking study of twelfth graders found participants describing processes that were more recursive and less linear than was suggested by the extant “stage model” of prewriting, writing, and revision (Rohman & Wlecke, 1964; Rohman, 1965). Linda Flower and John Hayes (1980; 1981) developed even more complex cognitive models of writing process, but enthusiasm for cognitive approaches waned by the end of the 1980s as the field took what has been described as a “social turn” (Nystrand, 2006). Scholars became less interested in what was happening in the heads of writers and more interested in the social contexts within which they wrote.

Nevertheless, the pedagogical mantra to “teach writing as a process not product” (Murray, 1972) remains a hallmark of the field, even as several “post-process” scholars have called into question the possibility of doing so. Thomas Kent (1989) argued that the work of “discourse production” is something that “cannot be codified and then taught” (p. 39). In a collection edited by Kent, Post Process Theory: Beyond the Writing Process Paradigm, Gary Olson (1999) asserted that “the vocabulary of process is no longer useful” (p. 9). In the same volume, however, David Russell (1999) claimed that moving “beyond” process would mean “to realize that there are many writing processes, study them, (re)classify them, commodify them, and involve students with (teach) them in a curriculum” (p. 88). This position seems less a rejection of the pedagogical value of a process approach as it is an insistence that process must be reconceived as multiple processes rather than a singular (and universal) writing process. 1 Russell’s view of “post-process” then is a call to reconsider what we mean by process rather than a rejection of the concept.

More recently, Paul Prior and a number of collaborators have employed cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) to frame writing processes as more complex and diverse than previous cognitive approaches have recognized. Prior and Jody Shipka (2003), for example, have detailed how writers “tune consciousness” (p. 228) by arranging workspaces, searching for inspiration in movies, gardening, and writing in between loads of laundry. Prior (2004) argued that research on writing processes is crucial if we want to understand “why a text is written as it is, how it might have been written differently, how it came to meet some goals but not others, how it could have been written better” (p. 167). From this view, writing is a purposeful activity not reducible to cognition alone. As Shipka (2011) has argued, the aim of research on process is not “the discovery of the whole truth about the composing process or even about a single, isolated instance of composing” (p. 38). Nor is the point to seek causal relationships between processes and writing quality, as if it might be possible to “teach novices to compose like experts” (p. 38). Instead, she says that

the point is to make the complex and highly distributed processes involved with the production, reception, circulation, and valuation of texts more visible. [It is about] highlight[ing] some of the ways twenty-first-century composers work, play, and go about the business of making and negotiating meaning in their lives. (p. 38)

In this webtext, we aim to answer this call for closer examination of writing processes by turning our attention to the roles played by computer software in composing practices. As writing researchers work to create frameworks that help us to “trace the dynamic, emergent, distributed, historical, and technologically mediated dimensions of composing practices” (Shipka, 2011, p. 36), we want to provide more comprehensive depictions of the varied tools, environments, and practices afforded by computer software for composing.

In focusing on computer software, we are following a long history of researchers who address the “tools” of composing practices from a cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) perspective (e.g., Haas, 1996; Prior, 1998; Russell, 1997; Shipka, 2011; Spinuzzi, 2003b). These researchers have typically focused on less conventional composing tools (Shipka, 2011) or examined genres as rhetorical tools for composing (Prior, 2009; Russell, 1997; Spinuzzi, 2003b). Software has been examined as a tool by Haas (1996) in her close analysis of the Andrew computer system at Carnegie Mellon and by Spinuzzi (2003b) in his research on GIS mapping programs. Given the recent increase in innovative programs now available to writers, we believe that attention to the mediating role of particular software programs on writers’ composing processes is necessary to develop the rich pictures of composing CHAT scholars aim toward. Toward that end, in the following sections we will outline the CHAT framework that informs our analysis in the other pages.

  1. A useful overview of the relationship between writing process and post-process theory can be found in Richard Fulkerson (2001).