What Do Writing Courses Do?

When we design and teach writing courses (which of course are also reading courses) we often start by looking at the outcomes for the course or by creating our own list of outcomes. Then we start listing writing assignments, often based on texts we find interesting to teach. We imagine how long it will take to present the assignment, for students to write and revise the various sub-components and drafts, how long we need to grade it and return it, and we set a due date. We create a sequence of reading/writing units, probably of increasing difficulty and length. Ideally, each assignment with its various tasks and drafts addresses at least some of the listed outcomes. Realistically however, the connections to some of the outcomes may be tangential at best. In addition, some students started out weaker or stronger than others. They are unlikely to end up at the same place.

And what happens after your course ends? Do students go on to another course? Do they write in their disciplines? Have you prepared them to do that? What is it all for? Where are we going?

In order to think about this a little differently, I created the following chart:


I intend this as a big picture map of what a writing program needs to do. The course you happen to be teaching might be focusing on a few of the cells in the chart more than others, but as you design your course, you should be aware of the big picture. These cells are not discrete items in a list. There are complex relationships between them.


Fluency is based on a lack of fear. The fear is usually caused by the concern about “Standard Written Conventions” in the opposite corner of the chart. Students given an assignment will sometimes spend 30 minutes writing and rewriting the first sentence before they have even decided what to write about. No real writing can occur in the face of anxiety about making a grammatical error. We have to work on that.


“Self-expression” is important to beginning writers. It is a powerful purpose. It shouldn’t be denied absolutely. It is a purpose to build on. How does a student grow beyond self-expression? “Intertextuality” is one direction. What do other people say? Can you quote them to support what you are saying too? “Inquiry” is another. Can you find out more? Do you still think the same thing after knowing more? Both of these types of activities help build audience awareness too.


“Interdisciplinarity” is the connection of the writing course to the rest of the academic world. The student in your class is not likely to be an English major. When they write in science or in engineering, will they have to unlearn some of your stylistic recommendations? Do you have to know how to write like an engineer in order to teach them? No, but you can help them ask questions and analyze documents to see how it is done. Also, rhetorical strategies such as thinking about audience, arguments, and evidence tend to be universal. It is stylistic preferences and organizational patterns that change.

Making Things Happen

“Making Things Happen” is really the true purpose of all writing, but it is more obviously true of academic and workplace writing. Students should be aware of the connections your course has to writing in other environments for other purposes. It makes your class more meaningful to them and they are more likely to be engaged.

And in fact, thinking about how your course fits into the big picture might help you become more engaged too!

Update: I expanded this matrix here and here.

5 thoughts on “What Do Writing Courses Do?

  1. guitarsophist

    A colleague asked for clarification about the relationship between the columns and rows in the chart and noted that self-expression is often opposed to audience awareness. She also wondered about the connections between “interdisciplinarity,” “making things happen,” and “standard written conventions.”

    I responded that the table doesn’t really sort into logical connections horizontally. I think the third column throws things off a bit because the elements in that column tend to be essential parts of nearly all courses and have complex relationships with all of the cells in the chart.

    Having said that, however, I actually think there is some connection across the columns. Self-expression is not entirely opposed to audience awareness. We know others by knowing ourselves and the expression of self is motivated by a desire to be understood by others. Allowing students to express themselves can increase fluency and comfort and indirectly can lead to increased audience awareness. When I first started teaching in the Basic Writing program at Cal State LA in the mid 1970’s, we pretty much stuck to the top band–fluency, self-expression, and audience awareness–plus “Standard Written Conventions.” A lot of writing courses in those days did.

    In the second band, “intertextuality,” defined in terms of quoting, paraphrasing, and citing, is clearly related to “inquiry” in both the pursuit and the expression of research projects. “Rhetorical strategies” are of course related to everything. Courses that focus on research and critical thinking are pretty much in the middle band.

    In the third band, “interdisciplinarity,” defined as knowing how things are done in other discourse communities, is essential to “making things happen” in that academic and workplace discourse happens both inside and across discourse communities. “Standard Written English” or at least some kind of shared set of conventions is usually required for this sort of communication to be effective. This third band represents some of the elements that First Year Composition courses have long neglected (except for Standard Written English, which is a factor in any course). Leaving that band out, however, makes FYC seem disconnected from the rest of the university and the real world. When engineers think that they have to unteach what was taught in FYC, that is unnecessarily unfortunate.

    The larger point, however, is that writing courses and writing teachers are being pulled in all these directions at once, though when we design a course, we often end up making a narrow selection.

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