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2.2: Product and Process Theories of Writing

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    In order to become critical writers and researchers capable of adapting to various writing situations, we must know not only the “how’s”, but also the “why’s” of the theories and methods we try to use. Therefore, let us begin with an overview of the differences between process and product based writing. This will help us make informed decisions about our writing process and choose the best method for writing given our specific rhetorical situation.

    Before we begin, though, I'd like to offer a disclaimer. While having a lot of time for writing, revising, and discussing your work with others is, of course, a good thing, there will be situations in every writer's career when producing one version of a text for an upcoming deadline is all we can do. Such product-based writing can be of high-quality, and experienced writers know how to produce such high-quality writing. Typically, they do that by carefully analyzing their rhetorical situation before and during the writing act. Such writers typically spend more time and effort planning and developing a piece in their mind than on paper. At the same time, process-oriented writing which allows for multiple revisions, for "stepping back" and considering the text from multiple points of view, and for discussing your work with others, is likely to result in a better-developed message. As you gain experience with writing a variety of texts for a variety of rhetorical situations, you will discover which method, or combination of methods, work for you.

    Product-Based Writing

    Here, I'd like to tell a story from my own writing career. Some years ago, before I became a writing teacher, I worked in a job which required me to write and publish a monthly newsletter which described and promoted the services we offered and and try to establish a connection with our customer base.

    Writing the newsletter seemed like an easy enough job. After all, I knew well what our organization did and, I thought that I could easily write several pages per week describing that to my readers. So, one afternoon I sat in front of the computer and tried to compose the first issue of our new publication. I had it all in my head: the contents, the style, even the layout of the final draft. I thought I had a vision for this thing, and I really wanted to do a good job with it.

    And then, writer's block hit me. I just couldn't write that first sentence. I wrote the beginning of it and wasn’t happy with it. So I deleted it and started over again. The next version was no better, so I deleted it, too. After about an hour, I realized that I was in trouble: I had written three sentences out of five or six pages that I had to produce. Even worse, the whole thing was due on my boss’s desk the next afternoon.

    So, where and how did I get into trouble with my assignment? I thought I knew perfectly well what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. My problem was trying to get every word and every sentence “just right” the first time I wrote them. I had a picture of the finished newsletter in my head, but I just didn’t know how to get to that picture. Somewhere along the way, I became unable to translate my writing plans into words, sentences and pages. I focused too much on the product of my writing that I had envisioned but that did not yet exist. I was not thinking enough on the process of getting from a blank computer screen to the finished text. 

    Now I know that I followed the product model of composing that day. As its name suggests, the product approach forces the writer to concentrate on the finished text, or the product of writing, at the expense of the steps and stages necessary to arrive at that product. Finishing the piece quickly, efficiently and in one sitting is what counts. This desire to write everything perfectly the first time can demoralize and incapacitate the writer, especially an an inexperienced one.

    Here are some of the main features of product-based writing:

    • It assumes that writers produce texts in "one sitting," without revising or taking pauses in their work
    • It forces the writer to “think before writing.” Product-oriented writers must have a clear plan for writing in our heads before composing.
    • Producing only one draft forces them to settle for what came first, which may or may not be their best work.
    • In product-oriented writing, there is little or no opportunity for feedback from others

    When someone tells us to “think before we write,” we are being asked to believe that meaning can be fully formed in our head before we commit it to paper. It is as if we were forced not only to construct the paper fully in our mind, but also to memorize it. According to the product approach, only then can we begin to write. If this is correct, then writing means only transcribing existing information, ideas, and opinions on to paper. 

    A writer who follows the product model gets only one opportunity to formulate and express his or her thoughts. Whatever meaning that writer has created in his or her head by thinking about the subject of his or her writing gets transferred on to paper or computer screen as the final version. The quality of such writing (as well as the quality of the ideas which gave birth to it) may be passable, but it is hardly the best this writer can do given the chance to develop and refine these ideas through multiple drafts.

    Within the product model, a writer gets only one chance to “get it right.” As my story about writing the newsletter illustrates, this can lead to writer’s block, fear of the blank page or blank computer screen, or whatever else we can call that feeling of helplessness and despair which we face when a deadline is looming and we have not written anything. This feeling makes us rush, and rushing, in turn, produced bad writing.

    Because there are no drafts and revisions in product-based writing, writers get little or no opportunity to ask others for feedback and suggestions to improve the writing. The first and only draft is what gets submitted, usually for a grade, and by that time, it is too late to work on improvements. The very first reader who sees the writing, be it a boss at work or a teacher at school, is its judge and jury. This very first reader of a piece grades it or evaluates it in some other way, returning the verdict to the writer. As you learned from the chapter of this book dedicated to rhetoric, composing is a highly social process and no writer works in a vacuum. Asking anyone to write without feedback and the chance to discuss their ideas and drafts clearly contradicts that.

    Process-Based Writing

    In order to learn to see writing as a process, it is first important to understand that the meaning of any text is created during the act of writing itself, not before.

    Here are some basic principles of process-based writing:

    • Writing is a process and practice. The meaning of any text is created and evolves during composing and revision.
    • In order to develop meaning fully, multiple drafts are necessary. Writing is much more than a transcription tool. It is a means of making knowledge, learning, and critical thinking.
    • The writing process can be divided into stages that include but are not limited to invention, revision, and editing.
    • Writing is a non-linear process, and its stages often overlap.
    • Writers actively seek feedback from readers and judiciously use that feedback in their revisions.
    • The process model empowers writers by encouraging them to understand and refine their writing strategies and techniques.

    Most writers do not begin a new piece with a set meaning in their minds. We may have an initial idea for a piece of writing, but in order to implement that idea, we have to shape and re-shape it constantly as we write and re-write. The meaning if any text is an ever-evolving entity. Thinking does not precede writing, but happens simultaneously with writing. This shaping and re-shaping of the text’s meaning takes place through drafting and revision. For example, I took every chapter in this book through several drafts before it was published. Some parts of this text were rewritten five or six times, as my own thinking about them changed and as I received feedback from reviewers. 

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