Section 2: Writing as Cognitive Process & Social Practice

We define writing as cognitive process and social practice.

Writing is always the result of the complex interactions among writer(s), readers, texts, and contexts.

As cognitive process, writing is developmental and recursive, and is most often represented graphically as

Writing Process

Considered only developmentally, writing evolves through stages of initial motivation, discovery and exploration, planning, drafting, revising, and editing. But the process is almost always recursive, not linear: writers move back and forth among the stages as they work toward publication.

As social practice, writing is context-specific and context-dependent, and is most often represented graphically as

Rhetorical Triangle

Before writers begin, and as they move back and forth through the process of composing, they are always sensitive to and assessing the needs and expectations of readers and considering how their writing will contribute to the larger ongoing discourse in which they will be participating.

When writing is seen in these ways, effective writers are those who know about and know how to choose and use a wide range of strategies that will aid in the expression of critical thought, the understanding of discourse conventions, the reasons for communicating graphically, and the production of an effective piece of writing.

Writing as a process means several things. Most obviously, writers use processes to produce a finished piece, and one goal of any program's courses should be to help writers develop explicit knowledge of and control of effective processes to add to their writerly repertoires. In this sense of writing as process, there exist a wide range of activities from which writers choose as they work through a rhetorical problem.

Included in this array of activities would be the following:

  • analytical heuristics to help writers map rhetorical situations
  • strategies for invention, discovery, and exploration
  • strategies for planning, conducting, and using results of various kinds of research, including primary and secondary research
  • multi-stage/multi-level revision strategies that would include questions and concerns on which writers might focus throughout the composing process
  • drafting, editing, and proofreading strategies
  • various methods of eliciting and using effectively feedback to work in progress, whether from others or as a critical reader of one's own work
  • strategies that help writers understand the conventions of specific discourse communities, such as exploring and choosing appropriate arrangements, determining appropriate evidence or support, choosing appropriate stylistic conventions

Less obviously, but perhaps more important, writing is a cognitive process in the sense that individuals never wholly “get it” or develop to a point where “writing” can be automatic. In other words, writers are all always learning about writing and developing writerly repertoires. In this respect, learning about writing, as one of several core literate practices, is always an ongoing process, and that writers' apparent competence will fluctuate from performance to performance.

For example, writers whose performances in ENG 101 are 'good' may struggle with assignments in ENG 102 when they are confronted with more complex writing situations or when they attempt to participate in a new discourse community. They may struggle with skills with which they were comfortable in previous writing situations as they grapple with an increasingly complex array of choices and demands and constraints on their writing in a different situation.

Likewise as students advance through their coursework—when the cognitive or intellectual stakes change—they will need continued practice to produce effective writing in these new contexts. And if students do no writing for a period of time—it is not uncommon for students to report that they do little or no formal writing between their first-year composition courses and their 400-level courses—obviously their performances will be less effective. They will have stopped the learning process for several years, and they will be attempting to use skills and abilities that have atrophied from disuse.

Writing as social practice means several things, as well.

Writing is purposeful and context-specific. Writers write for reasons, to accomplish things, to DO something. Thinking of writing in that way necessarily makes visible and explicit that writing is always invoking or addressing reader(s), that writers write in contexts that include readers and that include some prior, or ongoing conversation or discourse or dialogue about a topic or subject. Writers are thought of as joining a conversation, using language to participate in an ongoing conversation. Thus the products of composing acts are not considered only as artifacts; they are part of, participating in, an active constructive process.

To follow the conversation metaphor further, writers are always joining conversations or forming and participating in communities of discourse. We define discourse communities as groups of individuals communicating within and through approved channels of discourse, well-established or diverse, regulated or openly competitive, marked or amorphous. Equally important, discourse communities are defined by a body or lore of knowledge familiar to all members, knowledge that is used to limit, prioritize, or valorize the membership. In other words, communities of discourse establish what can be discussed, how it can be discussed, why it needs to be discussed, where the proper arena for discussion lies, and who has the proper authority to write (speak); thus effective participation means that writers/participants understand and use the conventions that define that community of discourse, and these conventions range from the most global to the most local concerns.

Thinking of writing in this way clarifies that one of the goals of writing classes and assignments is to help students develop the skills and habits of mind that help them participate in the wide range of discourse communities they will encounter, as students and as citizens. This may mean something as simple as understanding the conventions of a job application letter or a letter to the editor of the local newspaper; it may be more complex, too, such as understanding the epistemological and formal conventions that inform/govern the publication of an engineering report or a grant proposal or a legal document or understanding the differences between a history essay and an environmental science essay.

Therefore, writers, writing, and writing processes should never be defined as a lone individual composing alone. Writers may be alone as they type or pen their words, but the texts they have read motivate and shape their own, and the scene of their writing (who will read what they write and what those readers will do with the text) is always a factor in what they produce.

This text was originally written in collaboration with Glenn Blalock and Sylvia Biershenk.