Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lit Review: Etymology of the Phrase "Writing Process"

Lit Review: Tracing the Etymology of the Phrase “Writing Process” in Composition
Ori Fienberg

With one month left in the quarter, advisors and instructors in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University are making a final effort to encourage students to take advantage of writing tutoring.  For the students we frame this as help polishing their final papers, but the hope is that they will find the support so helpful, that they’ll schedule regular appointments throughout the next term so that they can work on the “writing process”, a term used casually be instructors, tutors, and administrators.  Everyone has a general sense of what this means, usually having to do with the completion and review of drafts earlier than the day before an assignment is due, but the notion is largely one we use idiomatically, without much awareness of its origins. 

 To begin the search for the first use of “writing process” as its most commonly used today, I turned to the Writing Programs Administrator’s Listserve (WPA-L), and discovered others have wondered about it as well. On July 9th, 2013, Emily Issacs posed a question to the collective wisdom of the WPA-L with the subject “Writing is A Process.”  The body put the question “Who said it first?”.  Many people wrote back to suggest that it was Donald Murray, with several referencing his seminal 1972 article, containing the dictum in the title, “Teach Writing as a Process, Not a Product.”

Later in the day, John Wicker, a professor at Ohio State, provided several key citations focusing on the individual elements of Donald Murray’s dictum “process” and “product,” which are an indicator that while, tragically, many composition instructors and graders of writing still are very product-centric, emphasis on the importance of process dates back at least to the 1910s.  He notes an article by H.W. Davis in 1930 as having one of the earliest references to “writing process” as a distinct concept. In some respects searching for the earliest references to this phrase is a purely historical scavenger hunt, but by exploring the post-industrial texts that grapple with the same concepts and terms we discuss today, we can begin to plot the progress of composition as a discipline and reaffirm the importance of these concepts in the teaching of composition today.

While it may have been popularized in our current discourse by Donald Murray, article in 1972, “Teach Writing as a Process, Not a Product,” the term itself is at least as old as the field of composition.  Of course the origin of the field of composition is debatable, but rather than grasp at the straws of an exact date, it’s probably better to accept that most educational theory, pedagogical research, and anything to do with thinking or the mind has its roots in the birth of psychology. 

Early psychology was most concerned with physiological response than with the mind, so it’s little surprise that the first references to the “writing process,” in published research, apply to the motor skills necessary to physically hold and demonstrate writing with a pen/pencil.  Indeed reference to the “writing process” in motor terms dominates the discussion from about 1890 to 1910.  HH Bawden, in his Review of Ueber die Eigenschaften der Schrift bei Gesunden, identifies some key factors including “extent of stroke, rate, pressure, time occupied in the actual inscription, time consumed by pauses. . .” and these elements are thoroughly discussed in dozens of pamphlets, articles, and books concerned with teaching penmanship to school students (Bawden 420).  Curiously, after the turn of the century, another sedimentary layer of research concerning the writing process ties it to psychography, also known as automatic writing, which was treated as a topic for psychological study as late as 1915, when researchers sought to isolate and document the circumstances under which “mediums” were able to produce this effect (Downey and Anderson).

A shift in the literature on composition, both away from physical skill, and away from the occult happens roughly around the time John Dewey was working on, and then published, one of his best well known works “How We Think,” in 1910.  For instance, Edmund Burke Huey describes the writing process not only as physical, but as mental in his 1908 work “The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, with a Review of the History of Reading and Writing and of Methods, Texts, and Hygiene in Reading.” He traces the notion back to an in-between point on the continuum of writing and reading process, after mere consciousness, and as the “analytical process” begins (Huey 128). 

While these are early texts, it’s important not to discount them as out of date.  Huey’s research was cutting edge, and some of his studies of the physiology of the eye, using an eye-tracking technology he developed, and findings, such as that the eye pauses and stutters over letters and phonemes, rather than moving smoothly from right to left, have been confirmed through modern video recordings and computer analysis (Paulson and Goodman). Another example, which more closely ties to writing process, can be found in 1914, when Frank Nugent Freeman, an educational psychologist at the University of Chicago published “Experimental Analysis of the Writing Movement.”  His research could be read as a potential indicator of a psychomotor basis for linguistics, as he found that the learned movements of the fingers, hand, and arm, while tied to individual elements such as the writing of letters and the grouping of words are in fact “stages in the process of the organized whole” (Nugent 1).

The idea of the writing process, can be seen in an identical form, in HW Davis’ “Mastering Principles of Composition,” published in 1930.  The mere fact that there are principles to master suggests that many of the ideas in his article, possibly including the idea of writing process, which Davis uses very casually, are much older than this article.  Davis states that he “dimly recalls” learning the basics of English composition at university, and that they were likely based on early textbooks on rhetoric, published “sixty or seventy-five years ago” and relying heavily on Aristotle (Davis 796). Davis’ article is filled with humor and is eerie in the number of principles he subscribes to that still have major relevance in today’s field, holding forth on issues such as the importance of writing instructors also acting as practitioners, that errors are easier to grade than effectiveness, the value of doing your assignment before giving it to students, and even the role of will and desire in student success. 

Davis’ reference to writing process is presented less as a principle that composition instructors need learn or consider, but as a matter of fact, as he writes that teacher-assisted self-correction, “teaches the writers to observe and to know their own tendencies toward error, [and] it calls attention to the writing process rather than the finished product…”  There, imbedded at the end of the sentence, we can see writing process discussed in the exact same manner that Donald Murray presents it in 1972.  Given the casual nature of its use, it’s clear that we need to go back even earlier to determine who coined the phrase.

More than ten years earlier, Edward William Dolch Jr refers to the “writing process” in his 1918 Thesis Manuscript for the University of Wisconsin, “Some Objective Methods of Measuring Excellence in English Composition”.  Some of his objective methods involve the evaluation of excellence by calculating “Change in Probable Errors” and the measurement of “Median sentence length,” and so perhaps there’s a good reason why EW Dolch’s work in Composition has not persisted; however, this provides another example of a casual use of the “writing process,” again suggesting an even earlier origin (Dolch 26).

Roughly another ten years earlier a reference can be found in HE Conrad’s Mechanization of the Writing Process in Ohio Educational Monthly, Volume 56, 1907.  While the title may lead the reader to suspect that this is another dreary work on how to properly hold that singular technological achievement, the pencil, Conrad in fact mentions the writing process several times in nearly ecstatic tones.  He first notes that even, and maybe especially for the youngest students “… freedom of speech must be given, the floodgates of thought must be lifted and a desire for both oral and written expression must cause a spontaneous flow of language before the first steps of the writing process are taken” (Conrad 372).  Unfortunately, though this reference feels like the first step toward a new conception of the term, soon after Conrad has taken us back to the title, professing that “the copying of correct script and print models in both prose and verse is of great value in the early days and months of learning the writing process” (Conrad 374).  

Even so, it still seems that Conrad is on the brink of a new understanding of the phrase, as he rails against “busy work” and copying texts that bore students.  In his conclusion he declares that in order to effectively teach the writing process, “Thought is stimulated, and desire for expression is created by use of the child’s personal interests, observations and experiences before writing is attempted,” and later writes that “the pupil [should be] led to become his own critic as soon as possible and as far as possible… to arouse that self-activity so essential to the learning process,” (Conrad 376).  By alluding to both inspiration to write and proofreading of writing, Conrad neatly identifies two core steps that are a part of Donald Murray’s aforementioned essay in 1972.

After Conrad’s reference, the trail goes cold for a time on that specific phrase, though it’s clear that even if it wasn’t being discussed in exactly those terms, the idea of process in composition, aside from the small hand movements necessary to produce it, was still prevalent. 

For instance, Percival Chubb writes in his 1902 work, The Teaching of English, In the Elementary and the Secondary School, that “If the medium is words, oral or written, the child is engaged in the process of literary composition [emphasis added]” (Chubb 173).  He emphasizes his point by adding, “The task of the teacher is to help the child refine this natural process, and to raise speaking and writing to the dignity of an art. . .” (ibid).  Chubb alludes to the motor process of writing, but as separate from higher order mental activity (Chubb 73).  He is much more focused on processes as mental steps, and separating drill exercises and intuitive writing from the task of leading children to “ the conscious, ingenious mastery of the most elaborate and difficulty forms,” such as presumably the structuring of a classical argument or an analytical review (Chubb 195). 

While the trail runs cold before the turn of the century (without digitization, it’s hard to find the textbooks from the 1860s and 1870s that may have informed HW Davis’ use of the term), in many respects this is a semantic exploration rather than pedagogical: no matter the exact form of the term, it’s clear that “process” or “development” has been important part of the discussion on writing pedagogy going back specifically to the turn of the century, more generally Aristotle’s discourses on rhetoric, and possibly even further.  Despite the depth of agreement among professionals, students still fail to understand writing as a process rather than a product.  Possibly this is because without context, students don’t hear the wisdom of multiple generations of teaching scholarship, but instead just another overused educational term.   

With more context and explanation, rather than repetition of terms, students may begin getting the support they need to develop and clarify their written arguments and research, not just in the last weeks, but from the beginning of each term, and the moment they begin the physical aspects of the writing process, by putting pen to paper or fingers to keys.  As H. Heath Bawden said, “it is a beginning in the right direction and promises much” (Bawden 422).

Work Cited

Bawden, H. Heath. “Review of Ueber die Eigenschaften der Schrift bei Gesunden.” Psychological      Review. Vol 7(4), Jul 1900, 420-422.      

Chubb, Percival.  The Teaching of English in the Elementary and the Secondary School. New York:          The Macmillan Company, 1902.

Conrad, HE.  “The Mechanization of the Writing Process.” Ohio Educational Monthly. Volume 56.    Pp. 372-377.

Davis, H.W. “Mastering Principles of Composition.” The English Journal , Vol. 19, No. 10. December          1930. Pp. 795-803.

Dolch Jr, Edward William. University of Wisconsin: “Some Objective Methods of Measuring          Excellence in English Composition.” 1918.

Downey, June E. and John E. Anderson.  “Automatic Writing.” The American Journal of Psychology.     Vol. 26, No. 2. April 1915.

Freeman, Frank N.  “Experimental Analysis of the Writing Movement.”  Yale Psychological Studies, II    (New Series), Psychological Monographs no.75.  1914.

Huey, Edmond Burke. The psychology and pedagogy of reading: With a review of the history of     reading and writing and of methods, text, and hygiene of reading. New York, NY: The    Macmillan Company. 1908.

Isaacs, Emily and John Wicker, et al.  Writing is A Process: Who said it first? Writing Program        Administrators Listserve (WPA-L). Digest: July 9th 2013.

Murray, Donald. “Teach Writing as a Process Not a Product.”  The Leaflet. November 1972.

Paulson, Eric J. and Kenneth S. Goodman.  “Influential Studies in Eye-Movement Research.”        International Reading Association. Posted January 1999.  Accessed March 18th, 2014.

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