The process theory of composition (hereafter referred to as “process”) is a field of composition studies that focuses on writing as a process rather than a product. Based on Janet Emig’s breakdown of the writing process, the process is centered on the idea that students determine the content of the course by exploring the craft of writing using their own interests, language, techniques, voice, and freedom, and where students learn what people respond to and what they don’t. Classroom activities often include peer work where students themselves are teaching, reviewing, brainstorming, and editing.
The ideas behind process were born out of increased college enrollment thanks to the GI Bill following World War II. Writing instructors began giving students more group work and found that, with guidance, students were able to identify and recognize areas that needed improvement in other students’ papers, and that criticism also helped students recognize their own areas to strengthen. Composition scholars such as Janet Emig, Peter Elbow, and Donald Murray began considering how these methods could be used in the writing classroom. Emig, in her book, The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders, broke down writing into distinct parts; these were later simplified into a basic three-step process by Murray: prewriting, writing, and rewriting (also called “revision”).
Process theory had many philosophies behind it following its creation. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, scholars such as Richard Fulkerson and Nancy Sommers, have explored ways to teach their students more effectively and studied the guidance needed for the teachers to improve their students’ writing.
Process also gained prominence in the collegiate world as a reaction against the formalism composition methods, sometimes called “current-traditional” methods, that encouraged adherence to established modes of writing, such as the five-paragraph essay.
Process can be taught using a variety of methods intended to strengthen the relationship between students and instructor. In other words, classroom discussion and activities center on students’ ability to mimic what has come before in hopes that they will understand what good writing is and learn to mimic it. Some of the methods include:
Prewriting activities. These could include brainstorming and/or other freewriting activities, drawing conceptual maps, participating in an ethnographic study, research, and more.
Drafting. Class time can be spent writing papers, and students can ask instructors for ideas or help.
Revision. Instructors can designate class time for the revision of drafts and direct students to focus on rhetorical strategies.
Portfolio-based assessment. Students are given a deadline, such as the end of a semester, and a goal, such as demonstrating skills like rhetorical awareness, conventional thinking, and source acceptance and integration. The intervening time is spent drafting and revising papers. Composition instructors serve as final authorities on the quality of work, helping students explore areas foreign to them, rather than more free wheeling teachers who tell students how to express their individuality. From among the papers they work on in the semester, students choose the papers the instructor considers to be their best and put them in a portfolio, which is graded by the instructor. Often students are graded on their drafts during the semester as well as on the work they produce at the end of it.
Reflection on the writing process.