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Composition Forum 50, Fall 2022

No, Really: Teach Writing as a Process not Product

Michael Michaud and Doug Downs, featuring Molly Howard, Jason Palmeri, James Zebroski, Elizabeth Blomstedt, Keith W. Mathias, Bee Chamcharatsri, Tim Taylor, and Donald Murray

Abstract: In this Retrospective we celebrate the fifty-year anniversary of Donald M. Murray’s Teach Writing as a Process Not Product by reflecting on its impact on the field and continued usefulness to teachers and scholars of Writing Studies.

If Writing Studies teachers and scholars still read Donald M. Murray’s Teach Writing as a Process Not Product fifty years after its publication, they probably don’t come to it through its original publication venue. First published in The Leaflet, a journal of the New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE), Teach Writing originated as a “Luncheon address” for the organization’s annual fall conference in Kennebunkport, Maine on October 28, 1972. We can’t know how many times and places Teach Writing has been reprinted, but in the 1970s and 80s, as countless regional teachers’ organizations were being created, many with their own bulletins and journals, Murray’s work was literally everywhere. Everyone was teaching “process” and probably almost everyone was doing so because Donald Murray had told them to.

Today, if we encounter Teach Writing, it’s likely (still) through Victor Villanueva’s (and now Kristen L. Arola’s) collection Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. Through three editions, Teach Writing has been the lead piece in the lead section, The Givens in Our Conversations: The Writing Process. Think about it: Cross-Talk was first published in 1997 and the 3rd edition remains in print. For 25 years, then, Teach Writing has opened a book that has socialized generations of new scholars into the field. And for 25 years, Donald Murray has, with the help of Villanueva and Arola, remained among “the givens” in Writing Studies.

We believe that Donald Murray should still be a voice that is heard far and wide in our field. Before our contributors explain why, we’d like to situate Teach Writing within the context of Murray’s career. Murray came to college teaching in 1963. The University of New Hampshire (UNH), his alma mater, needed a journalism instructor. Murray, the youngest person at the time to win a Pulitzer Prize, got the call. An aspiring novelist exhausted with the life of the freelancer, Murray signed on at UNH, thinking the life of the college professor would be more conducive to the pursuit of his dreams. Almost immediately, he was sidetracked. When he taught an advanced writing course for pre-service teachers during his first semester he saw an opportunity to get “revenge” (his word) on an educational system he felt had failed him as a child. Soon, Murray was traveling around New England, giving talks on writing and its teaching. In 1968 he published A Writer Teaches Writing, the culmination of five years spent pushing English teachers to change their ways.

Fast-forward to 1972, when Murray delivered his luncheon address at NEATE, his unanticipated mid-life transition from writer to journalism professor to writer-teaching-writing now complete. The year prior he had begun a term as Freshman English director at UNH, he was serving on the executive committee of NCTE, he was knee-deep in writing and editing a curriculum series for grade school kids, and he was designing and teaching UNH’s first graduate course in composition theory. And he was speaking, oh was he speaking. In Maine in October. In California in February. In Texas in March. In Vermont in April. In Colorado in May. And despite all this, he hadn’t given up on his creative writing ambitions, publishing seven poems in 1972/73 and renewing his commitment to his third novel, under contract but never completed.

All of this is to say that while Teach Writing as a Process not Product is now Writing Studies canon, the original was a blip on Murray’s long list of accomplishments circa 1972, included on his Annual Review as just one of ten articles he penned, submitted, or published in the field that year. Sue McLeod describes the article as a “rallying cry” for a generation (McLeod 2007, p. 67). We agree, and extend: Teach Writing still rallies new generations to good work in the teaching of writing fifty years on, and the contributors to this Retrospective offer many ways to see how. Molly Howard and Jason Palmeri show how Murray is still useful to pre-service teacher education, the very work that drew him to the field in the first place. James Zebroski takes stock of his decades-long relationship with Teach Writing and his late-career epiphany about its relevance to writing pedagogy. Elizabeth Blomstedt shares research on the experiences of K-12 students writing for standardized tests, demonstrating how far the U.S. has come from the student-centered pedagogy Murray advocated in Teach Writing and how far we have to go to realize it. Keith Mathias links Murray to contemporary movements in the field that advocate alternative grading, reminding us that Murray was an early advocate for separating formative and summative assessment, understanding that grades can be an impediment to student growth. Bee Chamcharatsri finds in Teach Writing a pedagogy conducive to work with multilingual writers, pointing out its important implications for teaching students who bring diverse language and cultural backgrounds to writing. Tim Taylor aligns Murray with the rhetorical tradition, showing how his approach to pre-writing resonates with the classical canon of invention. And Doug Downs closes by asking what in Teach Writing is still useful to writing teachers and researchers today, what is not, and how “Teach Writing” has perhaps been misunderstood by scholars and historians of the field.

You’ll find fresh perspectives on Murray and his most famous article in the brief essays that follow. You may even find that you’re inspired to pull that old copy of Cross-Talk down off the shelf to give Teach Writing as a Process Not Product a rereading. We hope you do.

The Murray Poems: A Dialogue on the Time Process Takes

— Molly Howard and Jason Palmeri

Molly: In Jason’s class on composition theory for pre-service K-12 teachers, we read Murray’s Teach Writing as a Process not Product in the first week and then responded to it with our choice of genre. I found Murray’s essay to be poetic in its own way, full of hidden gems of words and phrases that I would ultimately piece together to create something new, undergoing the writing process that Murray encouraged. The result was a “found poem” made of Murray’s language. Here is an excerpt:

This is writing:
Exciting, eventful, evolving,
The process of discovery:
Pre-writing, writing, rewriting.

Shut up, be patient,
And wait, and wait, and wait.
The suspense is agonizing,
But we must listen, respect, and wait.

Jason: I begin my composition theory class with Murray because he articulates a powerful vision of process-based writing instruction that students still find radical today—even as we make fun of his confident, cishet-man tone and penchant for the “universal he.” While I had started to worry that Murray had become outdated, Molly’s poem reminded me of the enduring value of his voice. When Molly poetically rendered Murray’s advice that teachers of writing must “Shut up, be patient, / And wait, and wait, and wait,” she crystallized Murray’s core insight that teaching writing takes much more time, patience, and messiness than we usually allow within our outcome-driven curricula. If we want students to make real rhetorical choices in their writing and engage in meaningful revision, we need to resist turning the writing process into a lock-step series of scaffolded stages that guide students towards the products that we as teachers desire. Instead, we should offer students flexible writing environments that allow them the time they need to engage in self-chosen acts of writing and revising that can give rise to compositions that neither they or we could have imagined in advance.

Molly: At the end of Jason’s course, our task was to compile a portfolio of the writing we had done, including one newly revised piece. I chose to revise my Murray poem. Keeping Murray’s ideas at the center of my poem, I revised with the intention of integrating my own voice with that of Murray. The anticipation of entering the classroom guided my choices when reworking this poem, and the result produced a blend of voices expressing the teacher’s role in a student’s writing process. Here are the final two revised stanzas:

Let students think and discover
Let them write, rewrite, and revise.
Let their own writing lead them on
Whatever journeys may arise.

From now on, we’ll lead our students
Through the writing process—
And we’ll find meaning in their work
When we see more than a final product.

Jason: Molly’s Murrayesqe call to let students’ “own writing lead them on / whatever journeys may arise” reflects one of my central goals in the composition theory course: to inspire pre-service teachers of writing to see themselves as writers. Every class begins with student-led writing invitations that enable students to practice “unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness” (Murray 2). I also guide students through a personal writing project in which they tell “a story they need to hear” or explore “a question on their mind” in an environment featuring supportive feedback, copious revision opportunities, and negotiable due dates. Teaching this open-ended project is the closest I have ever come to going “the full Murray” in my teaching, and I usually find that students revise and reflect more deeply on their writing for this assignment than any other. Throughout the course, we also read and write about contemporary composition theories, but I find our discussions and applications of these theories become richer when we ground them in relation to our own writing journeys.

Molly: The semester after taking Jason’s writing course, I entered the classroom for the first time as a student teacher in a large, urban high school setting. It was time to implement the ideas that I had learned during my time as an education student. When challenged to teach my own poetry writing and reading unit in the classroom, Murray’s insights about the writing process became crucial. In a class with a large population of English language learners, students on IEPs, and students who simply didn’t believe they could write a poem, the idea that “prewriting usually takes about 85 percent of the writer’s time” (Murray 2) rang true. I found that students need to be set up to believe they can produce good writing. After discussing some poems and inviting my students to write poems of their own, I would provide culturally-relevant model poems, free-write sessions, student choices, and brainstorming activities. When the actual writing took place, it was difficult to shut up and let the students go—but when I did, the poetry that students came up with blew me away. In an ideal world, I would have devoted weeks to letting my students revise and play with their poetry; however, deadlines, curriculum, and testing often limit the time that teachers and students have to make great writing happen in school. Mandated testing pushed my poetry unit to end before I felt it was truly finished. Yet, Murray’s call to embrace the “unfinishedness” of writing urges me to try and work both within and against the time structures of public education—and to teach unfinished writing as part of the writing journey.

Jason and Molly:

We may never have the time to go full Murray
And, we worry his time may have passed.
But, Murray can still inspire us to slow down
And listen to our students today.

Murray’s dream might seem far away,
But he reminds us that change takes time.
And just like unfinished writing,
Our teaching can be revised.

Donald Murray to the Rescue

— James T. Zebroski

Donald Murray begins Teach Writing as a Process not Product with a reflection on the way writing is usually taught in college English departments. In what became a manifesto for the process movement in composition, Murray notes, “Most of us trained as English teachers by studying a product: writing. Our critical skills are honed by examining literature, which is finished writing… and then, fully trained in the autopsy, we go out and are assigned to teach writing, to make language live” (1). These are still startling words because to a considerable extent they are still true. Many college composition classes are still taught by TAs who are studying literature and who teach composition as a reading class. While the readings have likely changed since 1972 when Teach Writing was published, the focus on reading over writing is often the same, despite the fact that Murray challenged us to rethink this pedagogy fifty years ago.

The passage I’ve cited above from Teach Writing has turned out to be a sort of seed crystal for me. The rest of the essay had immediate effects on my early teaching, but I mostly ignored this key passage at the time, moving on to more “relevant” parts of the essay. Murray recommended seeing writing as a set of stages. He saw “the product” as the result of a series of practices not implied explicitly in the final text. In one later homely metaphor, Murray argues that if writing were sausage making, the finished sausage told one little about how to make it (Writing as Process, 1982). And his idea that one writes for discovery (about 85 percent of the writing process, Murray estimates) truly changed the way I wrote. That’s what I got out of Murray back in the late 1970s.

But even as a TA who decided to work on a PhD in composition at Ohio State, I had misgivings about Murray’s assertion that the writing class was to be only a workshop. What about reading? “The text of the writing course is the student’s own writing,” Murray asserts in “Teach Writing.” “Students examine their own evolving writing and that of their classmates, so that they study writing while it is still a matter of choice” (4). That made sense to me, but I still believed that students could learn from “finished texts,” if not literary ones. Reading (and a reader) was my way of teaching process. That contradiction would emerge clearly much later.

Why was I so tied to reading and this reading rhetoric, the idea that to write better you read better? I landed my first job as an assistant professor at St. Edwards University, a program that was on the cutting edge of the process movement, in 1982. I knew that two degrees of mostly literature courses had had virtually no effect on me, a person who was otherwise a voracious reader of all types of nonfiction, Biblical criticism, science fiction, mysteries. So why was I cramming reading into my writing course when I was fairly certain that it had no effect on improving student writing?

This is still unclear to me. I think it has to do with surviving English departments and simply taking on their reading rhetoric. I have a synthetic mind which tries to please everyone by taking bits from all viable options. Surely reading non-student texts had something to offer. I experimented with using a variety of readings about writing that included Don Murray and other compositionists. I landed on Joan Didion’s work as a kind of perfect blend of journalistic writerly practice and reflection on process, forcing my students to slog through it. I also felt that the most current work, poststructuralist theory, supported such an approach. Who was I to question this when Pat Bizzell, David Bartholomae, and Jim Berlin gave it their seal of approval?

But by 1995 my synthetic mind was shocked by increasing calls to see process theorists as the enemy. Such calls implied that either you critiqued process to dismiss it or you were one of “them.” When my first book came out in 1994 a well-known rhetorician stated that it was the perfect example of process, a very bad thing. Another said that Peter Elbow was forwarding an upper-class rhetoric when I read a democratic commitment in his work and in the work of people like Don Murray. My synthetic sensibility was appalled.

Time passed. Around 2012, my new department at Houston began budget cuts in composition (not in literature or creative writing). I was not sure how I was going to survive increased workloads until retirement in five years. If I couldn’t deal with this crisis, the doctoral program that I came to Houston to put in place might well not survive. Somehow, I needed to be much more efficient in my teaching.

Seed crystal time. I was re-reading Murray’s articles and materials for a historical project. In re-reading nearly everything Murray published it struck me: He has a truly different way of thinking about reading in a writer’s life. I had missed that for forty years. Reading, for Murray, was about students reading their own texts. I would add that reading could also be a source of information to be gathered and included in writing. This is how writers use reading.

Donald Murray to the rescue!

I cut all “the readings,” even my beloved Didion, from my syllabus, plowing the time back into writing. Reading was not eliminated, but subordinated to the larger goal of making writers who use reading. The other thing that a writer’s rhetoric of the sort I developed did was make visible the readings which writers are already doing elsewhere in their work and their personal lives. We can examine such reading as writers, not as participants in an aesthetic experience. Making that change frees up the course, reduces the load, and makes teaching innovation likely. It was not an easy change, but it saved me.

Old dogs can indeed learn new tricks with the help of Don Murray.

Standardized Test Writing “Process”

— Elizabeth Blomstedt

In Teach Writing as a Process not Product, Donald Murray urges us to teach writing as “the process of discovery through language” (2). When Murray made this plea fifty years ago, he could not have envisioned the biggest threat to teacherss’ ability to do this today: the standardized test essay. Statewide exams and Advanced Placement (AP) exams ask students to write timed essays to unknowable graders in closed environments, and K-12 writing instruction has shifted to prepare students to write that specific type of essay.

When I interviewed college students about their experiences being taught to write in K-12, they described a process of replication, not discovery. One student, Juan, voiced surprise at how test-focused writing in Texas public schools differed from the freedom of writing in grade school in Mexico, where he grew up:

[My AP] teacher was lovely, but when it came to grading our [timed practice AP] essays, she was really strict. She’d get in that voice, and say, “Do this, don’t do that. I like that.” She would really limit what we could write over. We would go in a certain direction, and she would say, “Oh yeah, that was really creative, but talk about this in this certain way.” It didn’t matter that it was interesting because it wouldn’t get us a passing grade. Basically the whole essay, she wanted it as she wanted it.

For many of today’s students, writing instructors were not “coaches, encouragers, developers, creators of environments in which students can experience the writing process for themselves” as Murray imagined (3-4). They were instead gods of writing, handing down the wisdom of the precise formula to follow to write a successful essay. They were unable to follow Murray’s advised approach of “shutting up” in order to respect “the search for truth in which [the student] is engaged” (3). This is, of course, not the teachers’ fault. The timed testing environment is the opposite of the “unpressured time” Murray says we need to engage meaningfully in the writing process, and thus teaching formulas seems the safest way to ensure student success on high-stakes exams. As a result, students rarely produce writing that is meaningful to them in this environment. They grow to see writing as merely a rote exercise.

For high-stakes test essays, students engage in an anti-Murrayian hyperfixation on product and evaluation. Every student I interviewed looked at successful exam essays as models; one, Angela, saw this as limiting her written expression: “I remember every few weeks or every now and then before the exam we would go over sample essays and how the other people scored, and it was just like, ‘Why do I need to write exactly like them?’” The reason is to facilitate speedy evaluation, which all my interviewees acknowledged. Another student, Caroline, described her disgust with this: “[They spend] like less than a minute [grading your essay]. I was kind of like, ‘Okay, how can they actually like have a good analysis of my paper if they’re not even reading it, essentially?’” Papers are not “examined to see what other choices the writer might make,” as Murray recommends (5); they are barely read, and then rated based on how well they execute the formula.

The high-stakes nature of the exams and the convenience of the formulas lead students to continue this approach when writing in college. AP students were promised that their performance on these timed essays would measure their ability to succeed in college writing courses, because many universities award credit for first-year writing courses for passing scores on AP exams. Plus, once you know you can write an essay in 20 minutes, you may choose to replicate that uninteresting formula instead of engaging in a messy, uncertain writing process.

Murray has lost. Testing has won. Even if these exam essays disappear, the grade-obsessed, linear, competitive approach that dominates our education system clashes with the unstructured, explorative spirit Murray envisions. If this is where we are, what can we gain from Murray’s proposed approach of teaching writing as a process?

First, we can build on students’ experiences where they conceived of writing as more than just a formula. Students do still experience freedom within writing in schools; many, like Juan, had unstructured writing or reading journals alongside their timed writing practice: “Our writing notebook was literally write anything you want, no borders, nothing. We had to write as much as we could for the week, and Friday we would present it in front of everyone. I felt like that was a really pleasant experience, to be free to write about anything. I like writing like that.” Other students described writing done for real audiences, like writing for their high school newspaper or to prepare for debate club, as places where they considered writing in more Murrayian ways.

We can also find ways to bring Murray back into our first-year college writing classes. I begin my first-year writing courses by having students examine the rhetorical situation of the standardized test essay, questioning why the purpose, audience, and context of that writing scenario may’ve dictated a particular approach. From there, we can begin to re-imagine writing through that less structured, more personalized approach to writing pedagogy that Murray describes in “Teach Writing.” Labor-based grading contracts (popularized by Asao B. Inoue) are invaluable for creating a classroom where students feel free to do this kind of exploration because they are given room to explore ideas and processes without any fear of evaluation, enabling me to embody those roles of coach, encourager, and environment-creator.

Resistance is to be expected, especially from students coming out of an education system that so heavily values and has rewarded progress and achievement over pausing, examining, or even regressing. We certainly will not be able to “undo” the damages of a test-obsessed school system in one semester. But after years of viewing writing as replicating a formula, I remain committed to helping my students see writing as Murray did, as “an exciting, eventful, evolving process.”

Teach Writing as Ungrading Prototype

— Keith W. Mathias

When I read Donald Murray’s Teach Writing as a Process Not Product in my first semester of graduate school, I was, as Murray says, “fully trained in the autopsy” (1) of writing. I find the choice of the word “autopsy” to be particularly appropriate now because it speaks to how I’ve come to view conventional grading. Grades, and the summative feedback that accompanies them, look backward at what the student has done and measure it, instead of looking forward with an eye toward helping the student develop habits that will more effectively serve their purposes in future writing projects. No matter how much ungraded process work students complete or how many revisions a project goes through, pulling that writing that is not literature apart with feedback, explaining where things went wrong—where and how the writing died—removes the focus from the student’s voice and centers the instructor’s. This seems fundamentally at odds with the role of the writing instructor that Murray describes, and I argue that, in his vision of a process-centric writing classroom, Murray offers an early version of what we currently call “ungrading” or “alternative assessment.”

According to Murray, our role should not be “the initiator or the motivator” of student writing. He argues, rather, that “we are the reader, the recipient” (3). If we are to really teach writing, we cannot be overly concerned with evaluating that writing that is not literature and offering our own “irrelevant” (1) commentary on it. As John Warner notes in “Wile E. Coyote, the Hero of Ungrading,” after removing grades from his classroom he “was doing the work not of a writing evaluator but of a writing teacher” (214). This statement resonates with how I feel about Murray’s emphasis on process over product. To use Warner’s distinction, if we are to actually be writing teachers focused on teaching process over product, then we need to allow ourselves the space to engage our students’ work on its own merits, not merely as it exists in relation to an arbitrary set of standards or our own linguistic practices. Put another way, grades are “a distraction that pulls students away from the real dialogues and discussions about their writing that we want to have” (Inoue 5). Grades see writing instructors talking to students instead of talking with students, and as Murray reminds us, “When you are talking, he isn’t writing. And you don’t learn a process by talking about it, but by doing it” (3). This is a key element of why Teach Writing is opposed to conventional grading practices.

Murray does explicitly mention grades, though, writing that “The writer must work within the stimulating tension of unpressured time to think and dream and stare out windows, and pressured time—the deadline—to which the writer must deliver,” and goes on to claim that “A grade finishes a paper, the way publication usually does” (5). While Murray is absolutely correct to claim that deadlines are an important part of the writing process—after all, who would ever finish without the looming pressure of a deadline—removing grades from an assessment ecology does not necessarily mean removing deadlines or other external motivating factors. The very structure of college courses forces students to put limitations on their writing processes. Though they may, as Murray suggests, be allowed as many revisions as necessary to achieve their goals for a project (4), the confines of a course mean that they cannot revise indefinitely and that there must be a point at which they put down the pen or close the document. Likewise, assessment ecologies that involve things like self-assessment or portfolio submissions also put hard stopping points on projects without explicitly putting grades on them. Neither is it necessary to put a grade on a piece of writing for students to understand that the project is finished and it is time for them to move on. There are myriad ways for us to build a gradeless writing classroom, focusing more on teaching our students the habits of mind necessary to engage in the writing process than on the products which they produce. There is no one way to go about this. After all, as Murray concludes: “There are no rules, no absolutes, just alternatives” (5).

The alternative assessment ecology that my students and I currently work within privileges student labor, learning, and metacognition. For ten years, I performed autopsies on my students' writing, judging it and putting a grade on it. The feedback that I wrote was exhausting, frequently demoralizing for both me and my students, and, as Murray says, “irrelevant” (1). Now, my students have options for how they can engage with the labor of the course, and I ask them to reflect on their writing and self-assess their learning. This allows me to focus more on actually teaching writing instead of explaining areas where my students have made mistakes, and the further I move away from conventional grading, the clearer it becomes to me that these assessment ecologies answer Murray’s call to “teach writing and glory in its unfinishedness” (2). After all, how are we supposed to “glory in [writing’s] unfinishedness” if grades imply that all we actually care about is a product?

Teach Writing in Multilingual Writing Courses

— Bee Chamcharatsri

Murray’s Teach Writing as a Process not Product has been an influential publication that changed many compositionist’s pedagogical approach in their writing classrooms. While the article focuses on the writing process, what’s more is that Murray also touches on issues of language and identity in students’ writing. Following are my thoughts on how Teach Writing is relevant in helping multilingual students discover their identities and languages through the process of writing.

As a second language (L2) writing scholar, re-reading Murray’s work 50 years after its first appearance has confirmed to me that this is a time-tested scholarship on the teaching of writing. Murray wrote, “It is the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we know and what we feel about what we know through language. It is the process of using language to learn about our world, to evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world” (2). The idea of approaching a writing process from a discovery perspective is often overlooked. In working with multilingual students, this process of discovery is crucial as it is the stage where the students can explore their multiple languages in writing and discover their identities as multilingual writers. Such a discovery process can also serve as a safe space for these students to play with languages in their writing, which is now known as translanguaging. Translanguaging is an approach to view dialects and languages that the students bring as one intertwined linguistic system that the students have the agency to choose which language system to operate in in order to successfully communicate their ideas to their audience (Velasco and Garcia, 2014).

Murray further divided the writing process into three stages: prewriting, writing, and rewriting (2). In this prewriting stage, this is where his idea of discovery flourishes as he stated “Prewriting usually takes about 85 percent of the writer's time” (2). A question I have as I read this sentence is, How much time do we usually give to our students during the prewriting stage? If we want our students to discover their identities or how to incorporate multiple languages in their drafts, we need to give our students more time in the prewriting stage. As Murray wrote, “We have to be patient and wait, and wait, and wait” (3). Some multilingual students will approach their instructors seeking topics that their instructors approve; we have to be quiet and wait patiently for the students to discover what they want to write about and how to use their multiple languages to their advantage in drafting their papers.

After Murray has briefly discussed the three stages of writing, the next paragraph is an influential one in addressing the relationship between the writing process and identity development of multilingual students. He argues,

We have to respect the student, not for his product, not for the paper we call literature by giving it a grade, but for the search for truth in which he is engaged. We must listen carefully for those words that may reveal a truth, that may reveal a voice. We must respect our student for his potential truth and for his potential voice. We are coaches, encouragers, developers, creators of environments in which our students can experience the writing process for themselves. (3-4)

As Murray has proposed, the writing process can help our students discover their identities and their multiple approaches in incorporating their “voice” or other languages they bring into our classes. We need to respect such agency our students make in their writing. Reading this above paragraph has given me a sense that Murray was in fact telling us that we need to create our writing classrooms as a safe and welcoming space for students to use writing as a tool to explore their identities.

In the last section of the article, Murray has provided 10 teaching implications for teaching writing as a process. I would like to direct our attention to a few implications that are relevant to this paper regarding identity construction and translanguaging. Murray proposed the following:

Implication No. 2. The student finds his own subject.
Implication No. 3. The student uses his own language.
Implication No. 5. The student is encouraged to attempt any form of writing which may help him discover and communicate what he has to say. (4)

These three implications are most prominent in addressing how the writing process allows students to discover their identities and incorporate multiple languages in their writing. By allowing students to find topics they are interested in and write in languages they would like to use in communicating with their audience, the writing process is a powerful writing pedagogy for veteran and new writing teachers to introduce to their students.

Re-reading Teach Writing has given me new insights and a deeper understanding of what the writing process is and how it can be helpful to our multilingual students. What Murray has written 50 years ago still rings true; I urge you to revisit Murray’s article and hope that you will feel a sense of renewal after reading it.

Master of Invention — Murray’s Math

— Tim Taylor

If we approach Donald M. Murray’s “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product” from an alternative view we might see how his legacy reflects the classical rhetorical tradition, specifically the realm of invention. As Enos and Lauer state, inventio means discovery, which entails “the techne of rhetoric that served to create effective discourse” (204). While Murray’s work is often perceived as embodying an Expressivist pedagogy, Teach Writing presents a strong interest in invention that reflects the process movement at the time. Murray did not use Aristotle, Cicero, or Quintilian as sources but the focus on discovery through prewriting remains a signature of his program as articulated in the article. Viewing Teach Writing from a classical perspective, Murray pushes instructors to have students revel in the techne of composition, the making and doing of writing—using prewriting to discover their thoughts.

Without theoretical blinders to influence our reading of Teach Writing, consider this statement: “What is the process we should teach? It is the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we should know and what we feel about what we know through language” (2). That statement compares to how classical Greek rhetoricians presented invention as a means of articulating one’s ideas, creating knowledge, considering audience, trying out ideas, generating discourse—all until one gets to the arrangement and style phases of the process, even though we now know that those phases are recursive. For Murrray, invention or prewriting was the main modus operandi of focusing more on the process. At the base level, invention gets ideas out there before getting to the first draft.

Just look at his math.

Murray pronounces that “Prewriting is everything that takes place before the first draft. Prewriting usually takes about 85 percent of the writer’s time” (2). That idealized percentage screams invention—the methods of brainstorming, idea mapping, small group work, note-taking, rough outlining, and as Murray notes, “daydreaming,” “title-writing, and lead-writing” (3). In addition, productive talk though conferencing should be considered a form of invention because students don’t always have to discover their ideas through the act of writing. They can also discover them through conferencing, and by the instructor “shutting up,” listening, and asking relevant questions (3).

Murray’s math is further articulated in one of the resources that influenced hundreds of instructors, Erika Lindemann’s A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, which went through four editions and has been used in graduate seminars for decades. Lindemann’s book has a whole chapter on Prewriting Techniques and relates that “some teachers prefer the term invention, borrowed from classical rhetoric, because prewriting can imply ‘what the writer does before writing,’ [emphasis mine] even though many prewriting techniques use writing to explore a subject” (109). While Lindemann does not provide an idealistic approximation like Murray, she states, “the more time students spend on a variety of prewriting activities, the more successful the paper will be” because “students are less preoccupied with formulating ideas from scratch and freer to discover new messages as the words appear on the page” (110). Lindemann’s recommendations match the goal of 85 percent and Murray’s later article Write Before Writing in which he states that teachers have not “ever allowed adequate time for prewriting, that essential stage in the writing process which precedes a completed first draft,” so instructors need to “give careful attention to what happens between the moment the writer receives an idea or an assignment and the moment the first completed draft is begun” (375).

Murray’s math focuses on invention during the writing process. In contrast to how most people think of classical rhetoric’s emphases, such as Aristotle’s topoi, artistic proofs, and inartistic proofs, Cicero’s focus on practice and stasis theory, and Quintilian’s emphasis on imitating models, Murray does not offer prescribed formulas. Prior to their college experience, students have probably received lots of what one might argue is mentally restrictive how-to techne—starting with a thesis, rigid outlines, the five-paragraph essay, paragraphs having to have so many sentences, etc. Rather, as we see with Implication No. 5 in Teach Writing, Murray offers freedom of discovery because “the student is encouraged to attempt any form of writing which may help him discover and communicate what he has to say” (4). Murray offers a looser, more creative, and perhaps sometimes chaotic form of invention that reflects an interest in students simply using the writing process to discover their thinking—a writing-to-learn emphasis that contrasts with the rigidity of inventio in the classical tradition.

As Murray relates in the conclusion of Teach Writing, the implications of his approach do not require anything new (5) except for making the teaching of writing more humanistic, more attuned to discovery, more attentive to what students want to say, and more focused on getting ideas out through prewriting. The focus is on discovery and open-ended invention. With a nod to George Clinton and Funkadelic, his point is to “free your mind, and the ideas will follow.” Murray advocates for prewriting in a similar way that ancient rhetoricians focused on invention and speaks to that tradition. Various prewriting methods and techniques help students discover their thoughts, the subjects they want to write about, and the points they want to make. As a result students will hopefully find a writing course rewarding and use what they learned as noted in Implication No. 5: “You are teaching a process—now and in the future—to produce whatever product his subject and his audience demand” (4).

Long before there were teaching-for-transfer curricula, Murray made the point that process was the core of the writing class, and prewriting was a core principle and method that writers could use to initiate the process effectively. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian is famous for articulating the ideal rhetorician as the “good person speaking/writing well.” What we have in Murray’s Teach Writing as a Process not Product is this goal: Students inventing well to become better writers. Because of his focus on pre-writing as an important goal for writers, Murray’s legacy compares favorably to the classical rhetorical tradition of inventio.

The Full Murray?
On Getting, and Not Getting, Teach Writing as a Process not Product 50 Years On

—Doug Downs

My earliest teaching, in late-90s graduate programs, was sufficiently steeped in Murrayian ideals that many of his deepest values soaked into my blood. Access: you belong here, as you are. Interaction: being read. Voice: writing how you think. Production: stop with the perfection and just write. Rhetoric: awareness of the impact of our words on the readers who use them. I’ve called these roots “the heart of Composition” (Downs 58), and like many of my generation of compositionists, I learned them from Murray. He was the first writer-scholar I encountered to say that it makes no sense to grade unfinished writing, that students have to be writing to learn about writing as process, that a teacher’s roles are reader, listener, responder, not judge, coroner, pathologist. From Murray I learned deep respect for students, the importance and validity of their own languages, and the ill fit of literature to writing classrooms. He got there not through genius or mysticism, but by simply reporting how writing actually gets done.

“Teach Writing as a Process not Product” was was one of Murray’s most concentrated articulations of these principles, which makes it remarkable. But we cannot, really, say that it shaped the field quite as we’d wish a statement of such important principles would. Murray’s work moved the world of writing instruction, but we can’t look at the current world and call Murray’s ideals ascendant.

One reason might be the piece itself, which is, to too many people in too many ways, unbelievable. Murray’s exigence was cheerleading. He was going for shock effect, in a talk to an audience of interested but unmovable English teachers. His language was intentionally provocative, deliberately hyperbolic. Read literally, Teach Writing becomes difficult, over-extends. “The text of the writing course is the student’s own writing” (4). In this richly multivalent statement, Murray contravened the status quo that literature is “text” and students’ writing is not; he honored student writing as worthy of reading in its own right. But to create that mic-drop, Murray spoke sweepingly, leaving a sense that the only texts in a writing class should be students’—leaving many sympathizers, like me, saying “well, not exactly.” Texts emerge from other texts that should be in writing classes too; we cannot center student texts without admitting others.

“You don’t learn a process by talking about it but by doing it” (3). I wish Murray had written “You don’t learn a process without doing it,” but again, the occasion suggested hyperbole to stun the audience, black-and-white contrast even as Murray presumably knew he was shading the truth. Instruction on most activities includes not just talk and experience, but talk before experience and during demonstration. In professional driving schools, for example, classroom-time precedes track-time: talk primes students’ attention and helps them build a framework from which to understand and analyze what they’re about to experience. You don’t learn a process without talking about it.

“The student finds his own subject” (4) suggests that writing teachers should not dictate what students write about. Yet in expanding this point, Murray specifies not “subjects” but truths and meanings and students’ “expeditions” to discover these through their own language (4). As Michael Michaud argues in revisiting A Writer Teaches Writing, the through-line of Murray’s thinking is that students own their right to their work: on a given subject, teachers should not dictate what is sayable. That’s different than saying writing assignments must not specify areas of inquiry.

Even a sympathist like me can find Murray’s sweeping statements for effect troublesome. But those who did not feel even the call of the underlying truths were more numerous. For some specialists in the emerging field, Murray was simply too plain-spoken, not scholarly or theoretical enough. Composition scholars in the 80s and 90s for whom theory was its own pursuit could hardly be comfortable with a scholar who preferred vernacular, plainspoken, “unrefined” statements and ways of knowing.

But even among those who admired Murray’s unvarnished directness, only a minority fully embraced not just the spirit but its classroom embodiment—delaying grading until course’s end and then grading not the writing-(noun) but writing-(verb), inviting and accepting students’ actual languages, using language as a tool of discovery, patience and waiting, expecting writing to be unfinished because finishing was never the point. Perhaps if most instructors who encountered these ideas had actually enacted them through the 80s and 90s, the field would have taught enough students, parents, colleagues, and administrators a different conception of “writing” that the unchecked assessment and accountability culture of today’s education-industrial complex would never have gotten traction.

Would a whole-field embrace have mattered? Some of the field’s most widely-held values do resonate with some of Murray’s ideals, but where are we? The terrain of writing instruction in the U.S. in 2022 forces the conclusion that the ideals Murray articulated 50 years earlier are far from ascendant. Murray’s advocacy appears, if anything, more radical now than then (per Yagelski). In place of “Teach writing as a process not product,” we have something like “Teach process as a product” and “Teach products for assessment” and “The assessment is the product.” In place of students as voiced, agentive interlocutors discovering their own meanings through their own language, we face a standardized assessment regime whose values for dehumanized patter would bring tears of joy to a bot. In place of great loops of unfinished exploration shaped by listening-feedback from other writers, not graded til after the bell rings, we have “drafts” graded upon first reading and optional revision if the grade is too low. And it seems Murray’s deepest assumptions—students as fundamentally able rather than deficient, students having more to say than teachers, students’ writing as actual, valuable texts—are simply unthinkable in our rationalized education system.

“Murray lost,” indeed.

But in at least one important way, that’s an overstatement. Murray’s work kindles our hearts, sets our ideals. His body of work presses to radicalize every teacher who encounters it, exactly as he tried for in Teach Writing. Those writing here have found Murray in some of the field’s most promising “new” practices, even while showing ways we’re far from his ideals. They dramatize, in Howard and Palmeri’s terms, “the full Murray,” and how a field can simultaneously have gotten it, and achieved it, and not gotten it, and not even come close. Murray’s moment for performativity of radical writing instruction remains ours.

Works Cited

Downs, Doug. What is First-Year Composition? A Rhetoric for Writing Program Administrators, 2nd ed, edited by Rita Malenczyk, Parlor Press, 2016, pp. 50-63.

Enos, Richard Leo and Janice M. Lauer. The Meaning of Heuristic in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Its Implications for Contemporary Rhetorical Theory. Landmark Essays on Aristotelian Rhetoric, edited by Richard Leo Enos and Lois Peters Agnew, LEA, 1998, pp. 203-12.

Inoue, Asao B. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. The WAC Clearinghouse; UP of Colorado, 2019,

Lindemann, Erika. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 4th ed., Oxford UP, 2001.

McLeod, Susan. Writing Program Administration. Parlor Press and The WAC Clearinghouse. 2007.

Michaud, Michael. What We Talk About When We Talk About Donald Murray: Revisiting A Writer Teaches Writing at 50. Composition Forum, vol. 40, 2018.

Murray, Donald. Teach Writing as a Process Not Product. The Leaflet, New England Association of Teachers of English, Fall 1972, pp. 11-14. Rpt. in The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher, edited by Thomas Newkirk and Lisa C. Miller, Boynton/Cook, 2009, pp. 1-5.

---. Write before Writing. College Composition and Communication, vol. 29, no. 4, 1978, pp. 375-81.

---. Writing as Process: How Writing Finds its Own Meaning. In Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition. Eds. Timothy R. Donovan & Ben W. McClelland. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1980. 3-20.

Velasco, Patricia, and Ofelia GarcĂ­a. Translanguaging and the Writing of Bilingual Learners. Bilingual Research Journal, vol. 37, no. 1, 2014, pp. 6-23.,

Villanueva, Victor, and Kristin L. Arola. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader, 3rd ed. NCTE, 2011.

Warner, John. Wile E. Coyote, the Hero of Ungrading. Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum, West Virginia UP, 2020, pp. 204-17.

Yagelski, Robert P. Review: ‘Radical to Many in the Educational Establishment’: The Writing Process Movement after the Hurricanes. College English, vol. 68, no. 5, 2006, pp. 531-44.

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