Every writer, whether student or professional, has a process for the journey from ideas to finished product. How the writer learns and interacts with that process is the topic discussed in both Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers by Nancy Sommers as well as Teaching Writing as Process Not Product, by Donald Murray. Both pieces provide insight and inspiration collected through many years of experience.
Nancy Sommers led Harvard’s Expository Writing Program for 20 years and established the Harvard Writing Project. She is a renowned researcher and the author of several books on compositional studies. In Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers, Nancy Sommers outlines several theorists that support writing as a linear process connected mainly to the function of oration. She then takes the reader through the portal of her case study which investigates the relationship to revision in student and experienced writers.
The essay outlines the significant distinctions that contrast approaches to the stages of writing in student writers verses experienced adult writers. The students tended toward a “thesaurus philosophy of writing,” with their main focus on cleaning up the word choices and checking for redundancy. The thesis statement was acting as a cage with a suffocating component rather than a structure on which to build. On the other hand, the experienced writers tended toward a relationship with revision that was not linear, allowing and inviting each change impact the whole. The process involved honing the argument and refining lines of reasoning. It often engaged the perceived reader as a collaborator as the writer transforms the content into a thesis. The thesis is part of the evolution of the product becoming a structure on which to build further. The reader arrives soundly on the other side; with the understanding that revision is not just a rewording activity. Through the work accomplished in this case, study Sommers redefined revision as “a sequence of changes in a composition. Changes which are initiated by cues and occur continually throughout the writing of a work.”
Donald Murray was a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and columnist for The Boston Globe. He was a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire for twenty-six years as well as a writing coach for several national newspapers. Donald Murray’s mission was to demystify the process of writing. He explored the habits, processes, and practices of writers and took seriously his role of the coach; generously sharing his findings. Murray divides the writing process into three distinct stages: prewriting, writing and rewriting. Although his outline follows the seemingly linear format that Sommers’ critiques, Murray’s presentation of the process is anything but linear.
Murray adds and emphasizes the human touch of the teacher. He presents the importance of the educator’s role in influencing the relationship a student develops to their writing. An educator must consistently redirect and re-engage the student in the process of seeking out their truth. Murray encourages the reader to teach process not product and create curriculums from this vantage point. He places listening and interaction at the heart of compositional studies and reveals ten implications of teaching in this style which include student-driven text, unique subjects and language, multiple drafts as needed, creativity and functionality side by side, individual exploration, alternatives without limitation, time, mechanics and in the end a grade. Murray emphasizes the importance of time and space to allow a process to unfold before completing a final product. Even then, the writer is never finished.
Although I found Nancy Sommers’ case study very interesting as a starting place, it fell short for me in several regards. I would argue that the variables were only subjectively distinguished. In separating groups by age and experience, many other questions were opened and left unaddressed. I would like to test long-term studies to see what stages are contingent on the development of the frontal lobe of the brain and a result of matured executive functioning. I would also like to track more specific distinctions in learning style using the seven different styles that have been outlined by Mainemelis, Boyatzis, and Kolb: visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, and solitary. Working with a similar process to Sommers, I would like to analyze data through the lens of these learning categories.
I would also like to find a way to isolate the significance of mentorship and coaching in the development of writers from student to experienced writer. Inherent in Sommers’ study is the idea of making independent writers. Relationship to the teacher is implied, but not directly connected to the data. Murray emphasized this component in his work. I believe mentorship and human interaction is a vital part of the process is. That is where the art of teaching comes in to play. Even in a classroom setting each writer can and should be addressed as an individual with a unique process. I believe this is what Murray meant when he said: “respect the student .” By nature, students are result/goal oriented. It’s the nature of the education system because grades have been an essential way to codify and measure learning.
In some ways, I think the process is just as it should be. Every so often each learner comes upon a mentor that shifts the process from autopsy to a living and connected experience. These moments are magical, precious and select. I always heard that it takes ten years to no longer be a beginner at anything. In my experience, writing has stages to pass through. I see each stage as a rite of passage each time I go through the process. I love the loose way that Murray outlines the stages and then infuses the personal touch.
Questions about the content of the articles:
1). Maturity is progressive, and executive functioning develops as the frontal lobe of the brain matures. For most this process continues into the mid or late twenties. Perhaps to teach these more evolved forms of “revision” will create more opportunity for stress and frustration. Is the linear process necessary for young writers to become the more developed experienced writer?
2). Regarding inspiring student writers. How much of that is the teacher’s responsibility and how much the student’s responsibility to be present, open, and engaged?
3). The question of time. How much of it is a lack of time?
4). Is the problem the fact that students think it is supposed to be easy? How do we teach process without suffocating creativity? How do you inspire? How do you engage? How do you find the “truth?”
 Sommers, N. (1982). Responding to Student Writing. College Composition and Communication, 33(2), 148-156. doi:10.2307/357622 p381
 Sommers, N. (1982). Responding to Student Writing. College Composition and Communication, 33(2), 148-156. doi:10.2307/357622 p. 381
 Villanaueva, Victor. Cross-Talk In Comp Theory. A Reader. Urbana, Illinois. “Teaching Writing as Process Not Product.” Donald Murray.
 Mainemelis, C., Boyatzis, R. E., & Kolb, D. A. (2002). Learning Styles and Adaptive Flexibility: Testing Experiential Learning Theory. Management Learning, 33(1), 5–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350507602331001
Further reading that I would like to connect to these two essays:
- James Zull
- Learning styles:
Regarding end of they year group project:
I love the idea that seems to be settling of a potluck website. My understanding is that we each pick a theme to submit and then everyone will make an entry on each of the themes.
The theme I would like to put forth is the idea of inspiring students to write and revise. I am interested in how each person in our class would present an assignment that leaves the space and time that Murray referred to in his essay. How would you create an assignment that both leaves room for a search for the truth and develops the skill of mechanics and argument simultaneously. So the assignment should have room for three revisions as Sommers presented in her study.