Teach Writing as a Process Not Product
Donald M. Murray
In his piece Teach Writing as a Process Not Product, Donald M. Murray voices his concerns that students' writings are unfairly critiqued by their instructors. He believes that English teachers have been trained to examine students' final product only, causing frustration and confirming the students' "lack of self respect for their work and for themselves." It becomes a joyless cycle for both the teacher and student. As he describes it, all I can think of is an instructor standing at the front of a classroom and assigning the next writing piece by saying, "Ok. Here is your topic. You must write about_______, even if you hate it or know nothing about it. Oh yeah, and your paper will count as 50% of your grade." In 1972 when he wrote this paper, writing theory was taking off. This was a much needed breath of fresh air. He writes this piece to convince his audience that the process of creating writing pieces is much more important than the end product.
When he discusses process he brings up the three stages of writing: prewriting, writing, and rewriting. Murray goes on to address the importance of implementing this language into a writing classroom, and he introduces guidelines for teachers to follow to make the transition of the product to process classroom successful. Some of the guidelines are for us to actually listen to our students and allow time for writing in our classrooms. In addition, giving our students some room to explore is important. Let them discover their own interests and topics. He calls English instructors, "coaches, encouragers, and developers." These were new hats for teachers to wear in 1972. However, I think many writing teachers not only change their hats daily, but have a large closet filled with them. Finally, he goes on to discuss the positive implications of turning one's classroom from a product based classroom into and process based classroom. The positive implications range from developing partnerships, to creating more choice and excitement for students, to giving more value to voice.
There is so much within this piece that I agree with and find myself doing within my own classroom. When he talks about teaching "unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness." My students do have a place for that in their writer's notebooks. They have regular time to practice techniques, try new genres, and tackle ideas they may never had tried before. I also agree that we need to allow students to create their own topics, that they are on discoveries when creating their writings. Years ago, we used to give students topics and the writings they produced were stiff and joyless. Now when students can write about their interests, the pieces they produce are much more authentic and they are willing to take more risks. I also love where he calls the teachers, "coaches, encouragers, developers, and creators of environments in which our students can experience the writing process for themselves." It makes me think of my role in the classroom, not as dictator, but as the person modeling writing, finding powerful mentor texts, leading impactful conferences and strategy groups, and supporting my students.
As there is much of this piece that I agree and connect with, there are a few areas that I must question or disagree. First of all, in a perfect world, grades would be abolished, especially for the younger grades where it is more important to focus on a child's development rather than putting a letter on him. However, we all know as educator's that grades are not going anywhere. Mr. Murray is not being realistic in is call to be rid of graded writing pieces. One way that I think writing grades are more fairly delved out are with the use of rubrics. I know that, at least in my district, we are very careful about the creation and implementation of rubrics. With better training and writing programs finding their into America's schools, teachers are more knowledgeable now then they were when this article was written. The big thing I question about this piece is the classroom Mr. Murray is addressing. Does he feel that his philosophy is absolute to every writing classroom? How would he adjust his thinking for different age groups? Is this piece directed to teachers of all levels, elementary up to college? My reason for questioning is that younger children are still learning so much about writing. They can't always be so free. They need more guidance. For example, when speaking about the three stages of the writing process, I often tease my middle school students about being allergic to prewriting and revising. They hate both of these steps. As much as I know that writing is recursive and I try to instill this into my twelve year old students, there are many of them who battle me every step of the way. In addition, implication number ten stresses that all writing is experimental and that students should just write. However, if they are still learning techniques and need to practice these techniques, they must be held accountable for practice. They can not simply "go for it" if they do not know how to write well.
All in all, I feel that this is an important piece for teachers of writing and theorists to read and to discuss. It is important for writers to break away from the "old school" stagnant product style classroom. Murray shows us that there is much more to creation and that is as important than the final outcome. The journey of getting to a place is often more exciting or rewarding than actually pulling into the parking lot.