A deeper understanding of writing: A reflection on advocacy

GIF of Stephanie Bell saying cheers with her coffee mug.

By Stephanie Bell
Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 2020)

With guest editor,
Holly Salmon, CWCA/ACCR board member, Coordinator and Instructor, Learning Centre Instructor, English Department, Douglas College

How do you describe the role of writing centres in higher education? I find that my efforts to articulate a narrative that moves beyond descriptions of programming and pedagogy are centred on advocacy and education about the nature of writing. What is good writing? This question has high stakes for higher education, and writing specialists located in writing centres have the expertise required to shape the answer.

From what I can tell, the predominant sense among faculty across disciplines appears to be that writing is a stable and discrete rule-based system that’s easily teachable and learnable, and available for mastery. It appears that the only perfect thing in the world is grammar. Course-based writing instruction is often driven by the concept of writing as object: a thing to love or hate, craft and perfect. This conceptualization of writing affects a formalist investment in written products−objects perceived to reflect a writer’s skilled mastery of content, syntax, diction, and “correct” processes.

Students are onto this setup, however. They understand that expectations shift from course to course and assignment to assignment, though they’re taught to internalize the problem as a personal failing. However, even Strunk and White (2000) admit in the midst of their seminal writing formalist rulebook (which breaks its own rules!) that there is “no infallible guide to good writing” and that “[w]riters will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion” (p. 64). In fact, over 40 years of writing scholarship has shown that formalism drastically oversimplifies the matter.

For writing specialists engaged in this scholarship, practices of studying and teaching writing involve careful considerations of the interconnections between exigency, situation, scene, tool, modality, purpose, audience, argumentation, impact, affect, uptake, and response. Thomas Kent’s (1999) assertion that student writers must learn to play a “hermeneutic guessing game” because “no codifiable or generalizable writing process exists or could exist” (p.1) is driving writing scholarship as it continues to grapple with how, what, and why to teach writing. This continues to be true in the wake of the digital turn where writing is networked, multimodal, participatory, affective, and highly designed.

Oversimplifications of writing are likely connected, at least in part, to the nature of writing as an invisible social practice. For faculty working outside of writing studies, writing is a familiar social practice that has been learned over time without simultaneous development of metacognitive awareness. The result is that often discipline- and context-specific writing norms are perceived as the gold standard for “good” writing, and the lack of metacognitive awareness means that surface-level issues of grammar and punctuation are identified as the most crucial of writing concerns, as though “good” writing merely involves the application of grammatical rules in the construction of utterances.

What’s pervasive across time and space is an agreement that “bad” writing is widespread, and that it’s getting worse by the year. At the writing centre, we encounter student after student who has learned one thing with confidence: they’re a bad writer, and they need a tutor to edit their grammar. In these moments, we take up our role as advocates for a rhetorical understanding of writing outside of the correct/incorrect, good/bad formalist paradigm.

York University’s Writing Centre, in which I’ve been involved since 2012, begins to advocate for a non-formalist conception of writing in an orientation video sent to faculty to play for their classes. 

The video explains that, at the writing centre, student writers engage in collaborative talk with the power to develop a rhetorical understanding of writing, where shifting expectations and norms make sense because they align with changing contexts. As so many of us have seen in writing centre testimonials, students describe this development in their understanding of writing as an exhilarating and relieving experience.

I have come to believe that writing centres should endeavour to advocate for a deepened understanding of writing on a larger scale than individual interactions with students. In 1984, Stephen North said, exasperatedly, “misunderstanding is something one expects—and almost gets used to—in the writing center business” (p. 71). As we get used to this misunderstanding, we might find that we begin to accept its persistence.

I have trouble doing that. The continuation of the focus on correctness and mastery in school writing is harmful: it overshadows the fluidity of written communication, truncates discussions of writing within disciplinary contexts, and stigmatizes “bad” writers who are disproportionately plurilingual and pluriliterate. Students whose writing skills are deemed wanting are sent outside the disciplinary classroom to writing centres, English language proficiency programs, and composition courses for remediation—is this a continuation of what Mina Shaughnessy (1977) described as the “so-called remedial problem” of the perceived “college contagion” introduced by open admissions in the 1960s?

Formalist approaches to classroom writing lead to assignments designed to be completed individually outside of the classroom with limited consultation with course instructors or collaboration with peers. These are produced for limited audiences—the TA or course director—primarily for assessment purposes. While these assignments have some potential to engage students in course content, their potential to help students develop academic literacies and gain entry into scholarly discourses is limited and their reinforcement of the classroom teacher-student hierarchy is powerful. When these writing products reach their assigned deadlines, they are dead on arrival with no chance of life beyond their submission, forgotten and seldom retrieved by students except as a means to see their grade.

Writing centres must advocate for a shift from formalist conceptions of writing as noun to rhetorical understandings of writing as gerund. Writing specialists have a deep appreciation for the ways in which writing is not only an accomplishment, a first love, a passion; it is simultaneously accomplishing: thing, action, and force. Over the last 50 years, writing scholarship has engaged with writing as social action, propelled by Carolyn Miller’s 1984 description of the rhetorical dynamic involved in the “unification of form and substance into action-as-meaning” (2015, p. 58). This rhetorical turn in writing pedagogy draws on the 20th century’s rich theorizations of language as cultural and ideological sign-system, and now permeates all facets of writing scholarship. If we were to take a page out of John Dewey’s My Pedagogic Creed (1897), in which he proclaims “[e]ducation, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living,” we might advocate for an institution-wide re-imagining of course-based writing as a public-facing, active, and productive site of civic engagement.

Writing specialists should push for the use of writing as the classroom itself. I try to make this case in A Maker Model of Composition (2017) and Learner-Created Podcasts (2019), contending that writing can “become the classroom, the site in which students invest in making and re-making course content” (2017, p. 24). This pedagogy understands writing as a gerund.

Writing specialists, among others, have long been advocating for a transformation in the roles writing plays in curriculum. When writing is the classroom, when it’s an opportunity for students to co-construct the classroom and course content, it empowers students and offers them identity positionings beyond learner, skill-demonstrator, and even knowledge-producer. Writing centres must play a role in this important transformation. If writing specialists in writing centres are to participate in advocating for writing as a central means of learning, we need to recognize, avoid, and oppose (often well-intentioned) potentially harmful pedagogical uses of writing that stigmatize “bad” writing and “bad” writers.

Let’s share tactics and strategies and ideas for this work.


Bell, S. (2019). Learner-Created Podcasts: Fostering Information Literacies in a Writing Course. Canadian Journal for Studies in Discourse and Writing/Rédactologie, 29, 51-63. https://doi.org/10.31468/cjsdwr.747

Bell, S. (2017). High impact creative pedagogy using a maker model of composition. The Journal of Faculty Development, 31(1), 19-24.

Dewey, J. (1987). My Pedagogic Creed. School Journal, 54, 77-80. Retrieved from http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm

Kent, T. (Ed.). (1999). Post-process theory: Beyond the writing-process paradigm. SIU Press.

Miller, C. (2015). Genre as social action (1984), revisited 30 years later (2014). Letras & Letras, 31(3), 56-72. Retrieved from http://www.seer.ufu.br/index.php/letraseletras/article/download/30580/16706/

North, S. (1995/1984). The idea of a writing centre. In C. Murphy & J. Law (Eds.) Landmark Essays on Writing Centres ( pp. 71-85). New York: Routledge.

Shaughnessy, M. (1977). Errors and expectations: A guide for teachers of basic writing. New York: Oxford UP.

Strunk, W., & White, E.B. (2000). Elements of style, 4th ed. Allyn & Bacon. Retrieved from http://www.jlakes.org/ch/web/The-elements-of-style.pdf