What is a good definition of "composition theory" for writers?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The idea of composition theory of writing and for writers has many different aspects in its defining contours.  I tend to think that one part of this should include the notion of process.  The process of writing plays a profound role in defining the composition theory behind it. The theory of composition for writing has to incorporate the process of writing because it strives to underscore the actual creation of writing.  I think that including process as part of the definition for composition theory captures much of how composition is developed:  “It emphasized that the activities involved in the act of writing are typically recursive rather than linear; that writing is first and foremost a social activity; that the act of writing can be a means of learning and discovery.” When the notion of process is included in the definition of composition theory, a shift in how one thinks about writing is evident.  The inclusion of process in how writing is developed stresses that writing is not external, and that composition is not something artificial. It is the result of multiple processes that are embraced within the writing process:  

The ways in which writing gets produced are characterized by an almost impenetrable web of cultural practices, social interactions, power differentials, and discursive conventions governing the production of text.  

Such an idea suggests that the composition of quality writing is formed from outside influences that are internalized within the individual writer's consciousness.  This underscores the importance of including process as a part of the definition of composition theory in writing.

In 1972, Donald Murray argued that "when we teach composition...we are not teaching a product, we are teaching a process.”  This emphasis on defining composition theory based on process helps to underscore its importance.  The process of composition is one that moves the writer as a part of the world around them, as opposed to being separate from it:  “...the scene of writing is more often understood not as a room in which a writer is isolated and alone, but as a room in which many voices reside, those that both shape the writer and to which he or she responds in return.”  These voices become an essential part of the stages of writing, the means by which writing forms.  How these voices interact with the writer in the prewriting, drafting, and editing stages are essential components of the definition within composition theory. In suggesting the need to stress process as part of writing, one's definition of composition theory moves closer to the authentic experience of writing, a predicament where writing takes into account the other factors that exert themselves on an author.  The definition of composition theory becomes a wider one that enables a metacognitive aspect of the writing process to develop.  The writer recognizes that they are a product of the other forces upon them and their agency as an artist is to interpret these forces in the construction of writing.

Finally, I think that part of the definition of composition theory in writing is recognizing that the author is a part of a larger web of intertextuality.  The composition theory of writing is best exemplified when a writer is able to understand how other literary forces impact the creation of art.  When the process of writing includes an evaluation and assessment of how other forms of writing influences style, topic choice, and even the approach to how writing is developed, a wider definition of composition theory emerges because the writer sees themselves as part of a larger continuum.  They are no longer the "isolated and alone" writer, as much as they are an active agent in an ongoing construction of writing and thinking.  The reflective analysis of the influences upon one's writing helps to underscore the importance of process and highlights how the definition of composition theory is complex and intricate. Framing composition theory in this light makes its definition as varied and diverse as the end products that process drives.