Writing Commons is
- an encyclopedia for writers, rhetors, knowledge workers, symbol analysts . . .
- a collaborative writing space, a discourse community, for teachers, researchers, and theorists in Writing Studies
- an experiment in
- agency & commons-based peer production
- digital authorship and self publication (Moxley 2013, June 17)
- open education (Moxley 2013).
- help people communicate more effectively in home, school and work contexts
- help people improve their cognitive, intrapersonal competencies, and interpersonal competencies
- help people master 21st century literacies, including critical literacy, digital literacy, visual literacy, and Information Literacy.
Writing Commons hosts a robust international audience. From talks with colleagues, we know that Writing Commons is used by students in a variety of undergraduate writing courses, including Composition, Creative Writing, and Workplace Writing (including Professional Writing, Business Writing, Technical Writing, and Writing in STEM).
We integrated Google Analytics into our site in 2012. Between 2012 and 7/2021, 10,480,872 users consulted 18,872,265 pages:.
Founder & Publisher: Joseph M. Moxley
Ownership and Publisher
Writing Commons is owned and published by Writing Commons LLC.
We have published four major editions of Writing Commons:
- 1st Edition (2003 to 2008)
In 2003, Moxley published College Writing Online (Pearson) under a traditional copyright and commercial paywall.
- 2nd Edition (2008 to 2012)
After receiving copyright back from Pearson Education, Moxley self-published the project @ http://CollegeWriting.Org. Like the 1st Edition, the 2nd Edition was solely written by Moxley.
- 3rd Edition (2012 to 2019)
- We changed our name to Writing Commons and moved the project to http://writingcommons.org,
- We reimagined our project as an experiment in commons-based, peer production.
- We peer reviewed and published more than 200 evidence-based, fact-driven, substantive articles by faculty and graduate students.
- 4th Edition (2019 to present).
- We conceptualize our project to be an encyclopedia and our audience to be students, aspiring writers, and teachers across the globe, but especially in U.S. undergraduate writing programs.
- Moxley wrote an additional 451 articles that constitute article stubs.
- Following the wikipedia model, these stubs are meant to be provisional drafts that hopefully will be revised over time and informed via commons-based peer production.
- Branham developed a new editorial team and a new vision for Writing Commons.
Over the years, our mission and sense of audience has evolved.
4th Edition Goals
Sometimes it’s necessary to deconstruct something and begin again with an entirely new effort rather than simply try to patch it up. That’s what we did with the 4th Edition.
Our work on this project was motivated by the 9+ million people who have used Writing Commons. By some standards we were one of the more successful open-education projects. However, from Google Analytics, we knew the 3rd edition had a high bounce rate (80%) and an average session duration of 1:20. Users were conducting a google search, jumping on board, and then grabbing and going. Once they visited our site, we didn’t interest them sufficiently or provide the navigational clues to help them find articles on topics similar to the ones that brought them on board. This bounce rate may be typical of online reading and reference sites. Maybe online reading is invariably quick, hyperquick.
However, we knew from our usability research (focus groups, card sorting exercises, and customer discovery interviews) that the 3rd edition had become cumbersome to navigate: users couldn’t successfully navigate the site to find the resources they needed. Part of this problem could be attributed to our success and growth. Over 17 years, our project had evolved in ways our original menu system hadn’t originally anticipated. With the first two editions, we were a composition textbook for first-year writing. Then the 3rd edition branched out to fiction and professional and technical writing. This led to the fragmentation of content. For instance, our articles on audience awareness were organized by course and disciplinary folders (e.g., technical writing, business writing, expository writing).
Between 2008 and 2020, project leaders, authors, interns had come and gone. That led to a bit of chaos: Over time, we had peer reviewed and accepted articles that repeated existing content. Frankly, as a volunteer project, we had sometimes overlooked some problems we saw with the site. And some of our content had become a bit outdated. On reflection, we came to believe we had created the sort of House of Lore Stephen North had satirized in The Making of Knowledge in Composition:
The House of Lore, as it were: a rambling, to my mind delightful old manse, wing branching off from wing, addition tacked to addition, in all sorts of materials–brick, wood, canvas, sheet metal, cardboard–with turrets and gables, minarets and spires, spiral staircases, rope ladders, pitons, dungeons, secret passageways–all seemingly random, yet all connected. Each generation of Practioners inherits this pile from the one before, is ushered around some of what there is, and then, it its turn, adds its own touches. Naturally, the structure is huge, sprawling. There are, after all, no provisions for tearing any of it down. Various portions of it can and almost certainly will be forgotten and rediscovered again and again. A wing abandoned by one generation will be resettled (and may be refurbished) by another. And note, too, that there is nothing to rule out parallel discovery or re-invention, either; so the House of Lore has many rooms that look very much alike.North (2006). The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an Emerging Field. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers. p. 27
In 2021 we came to a crossroads: We could continue as we were, adding new content and revising and editing existing content, as necessary. Or we could detonate our house of lore—raze it to the ground and start over.
Frankly, we would have walked if not for Google Analytics.
On a daily basis, we were inspired by our global traffic. As the earth spun around the sun, from our perspective in Eastern Standard Time, we could see patterns: evening readers from Asia; early morning readers from Europe. At any time of day, we could see there was always someone reading Writing Commons. On occasion, large crowds gathered.
Thanks to Google Analytics, we decided to double down our effort.
- We began our effort to globally revise our project by first reflecting on our rhetorical situation, particularly our audience.
- For editions 1 & 2 we had imagined a student in undergraduate writing classes. In the 3rd edition we imagined students in academic, professional, and technical writing courses. Now we were recognizing that 80 to 75% of our traffic was a global audience. And we also noticed that most readers didn’t interact much with the text, other than the page they landed on.
- Following rhetorical analysis of our Google Analytics and customer discovery, we questioned whether the textbook genre we’d employed in earlier editions constrained our organization and clarity. We hypothesized that a global audience of writers would find the convention of alphabetical order—a stable convention of the encyclopedia—to be a more intuitive organizational structure than that of a textbook, which tends to be tied to particular curriculums, historical periods, and communities of practice.
Thereafter, as we engaged in drafting and revision, we came to another hypothesis: we wondered whether the genre of the encyclopedia facilitates interdisciplinarity, a core value of the Writing Studies community. We liked how reconfiguring our project as an encyclopedia genre counterbalances the segmentation of writing studies into disparate, competing subfields.
We identified other advantages to the genre conventions of the encyclopedia: (1) the historical focus on providing all detailed information about a particular topic; (2) the scholarly tradition of paraphrasing and citing primary sources, textual research, and empirical research; (3) the tendency to historize content and show the evolution of scholarly conversations over time,
- As technorhetoricans, we were eager to explore the affordances of our new medium (a wordpress site). We jettisoned Joomla, the content management system we had used for editions 2 and 3, and we replaced it with WordPress:
- Unlike Joomla, WordPress enables us to identify multiple authors for an article.
- WordPress enables us to better layer content–i.e.
- to use links and menu systems to empower the reader to go deeper, if they so wish, into research and theory
- to show associations among ideas, and
- to better understand relationships among concepts.
- To identify the thematic categories for the 4th edition, we conducted case study interviews with subject-matter experts. As we considered possible organizational schemes, Cassandra Branham conducted card-sorting usability exercises with undergraduates and faculty. Based on our informal research and anecdotal experience working with students in our classrooms, we defined the following core topics: Collaboration, Courses, Design, Editing, Genre, Information Literacy, Invention, Organization, Mindset, Research, Revision, Rhetoric, Style, and Writing Studies.
- Between 2018 and 2020, Moxley wrote 376 new articles on topics of concern for writers. These articles introduce the encyclopedia: they define the key words and concepts. For example,
- We adopted a historiographical approach to many of our new articles. This involved defining the concept under discussion at the beginning of the article
- illustrating how the concept had evolved over time. (As an example of this, see Rhetorical Situation.)
- providing citations and identifying additional resources on the topic for the especially curious reader.
- From the STEM community, we foraged the concept of intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive competencies as a theoretical foundation for literacy.
- From Information Studies, especially ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries), we updated our Information Literacy resources.
- From cognitive psychology and the learning sciences, we developed new resources related to Mindset.
- We adopted a historiographical approach to many of our new articles. This involved defining the concept under discussion at the beginning of the article
- For new content, we give authors the opportunity to choose between traditional copyright and Creative Commons license: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We moved away from publishing content solely under a Creative Commons license: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 because
- we view our encyclopedia as a work in progress. We are routinely revising our work to ensure that our content represents our best efforts. The problem with the Creative Commons copyright was that it permitted others to republish our work. Over time, this led to people publishing work by us that was obsolete.
- we were disappointed with how others were using our content. We came across numerous instances where others did attribute us as required and yet did so in ways that we felt were a bit deceptive. We came across our content on other people’s websites with the attribution hidden or difficult to find. For example, some of our work had been uploaded to an e-learning platform. If you clicked through some pages you could find the attribution, but it felt a bit loosey goosey.
- we came to more strongly appreciate the affordances of traditional U.S. copyright and intellectual property standards. We allow our authors to
- We had two major reasons for adding Courses as an entirely new section.
- We wanted to give faculty who use Writing Commons examples of how the site could be used for different courses.
- Politically, we also think of our courses as a form of radical sharing—a means of pushing back against the Balkanization of teacher’s intellectual property. We invite teachers to reach a broader audience by sharing their courses and resources, which nowadays are locked behind paywalls
- We added Writing Studies as an entirely new section of Writing Commons.
The 3rd edition was published between 2012 and 2019 at http://writingcommons.org. The 3rd edition began as a modest, open-access educational resource for students and teachers of college-level writing courses, emerging from two previously published editions of College Writing Online.
At the onset, we aspired to provide the best possible composition textbook for first-year writing students — for free. Frankly, this remains a motivating factor as conventional educational resources continue to drive up costs for students, with The College Board estimating an annual cost of $1200 for textbooks and supplies in the 2019-2020 school year (College Board 2020).
Further inspired by Yochai Benkler’s (2006) work on commons-based peer production as well as the emergence of Wikipedia, we modeled the 3rd Edition after a typical academic genre: the academic journal. We created an Advisory Board and an Editorial Board and invited faculty and graduate students to submit pedagogical articles.
In 2014, after hackers attacked and took over the site in 2014 and we had to fight to reboot a new version of the site, we began incorporating ads. The ads enabled us to better fund security and server costs.
- peer review an additional 300 articles.
- encourage faculty to submit articles for creative, professional and technical writing courses
- better meet the needs of an international audience
- publish a monthly newsletter for the Writing Studies community, unCommon News
For a brief while, we piloted My Campuses. Led by Kate Pantelides, this was an effort to showcase student work. Participating schools were Malmö University, Eastern Michigan University, and the University of South Florida.
Thanks to the hard work of our review editors and advisory committee, the 3rd edition doubled the size of Writing Commons. We peer reviewed many submissions and published original works from university and college faculty and graduate students related to fiction, creative nonfiction, business writing, scientific writing, and technical writing. We were used by the first English composition MOOCs, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, Duke University, Georgia Tech, and the Ohio State University.
2nd Edition Goals
The second edition was published as College Writing Online at from 2008 to 2012.
Published in Joomla, a content management system, the second edition was written primarily as a resource for students in college composition courses.
1st Edition Goals
The 1st edition of Writing Commons was published in 2003 by Pearson Education under the title College Writing Online. This was the first solely online composition textbook for first-year writing students. It was awarded the 2003 Distinguished Book Award from Computers and Composition.
- Alston Chapman for his kindness and substantive act of service in support of our mission. Throughout the 3rd edition and into the launch of the 4th edition in 2020, Alston served as our server administrator and chief tech guru. Thank you Alston for your help when we were in Joomla and for translating the site into WordPress.
- Ilene Frank, Director of Library Services UoPeople (https://uopeople.edu) for consulting with us on Information Literacy.
- Jenifer Paquette, a professor at Hillsborough Community College, for her ongoing leadership on the Style sections.
- Janice Walker, professor emeritus at Georgia Southern University, for her ongoing advice (and encouragement) regarding the organization of our encyclopedia.
We could not have developed the third edition without the wise counsel of our advisory board:
Linda Adler-Kassner, University of California, Santa Barbara; James P. Gee, Arizona State University; Graeme Harper, Oakland University; Susan Lang, The Ohio State University; Charlie Lowe, Grand Valley State University; MC Morgan, Bemidji State University; Mike Palmquist, Colorado State University; Alex Reid, SUNY at Buffalo; Howard Rheingold, Stanford University; Shirley Rose, Arizona State University; Kristin Sainani, Stanford School of Medicine; George Siemens, Athabasca University; Taku Sugimoto, Chiba Institute of Technology; Gregory L. Ulmer, University of Florida; Janice Walker, Georgia Southern University; Martin Weller, Open University; Bronwyn T. Williams, University of Louisville.
Quentin Vieregge, UW-Eau Claire, led the effort to develop the third edition. Under Quentin’s leadership we focused more broadly on the needs of students in professional and technical writing courses. As Editor-in-Chief until 2018, Quentin oversaw the editorial process, working with our review editors to conduct anonymous reviews of hundreds of essays.
We are deeply indebted to our review editors of the third edition for their professional service, including E. Jonathan Arnett, Kennesaw State University; Matt Barton, St. Cloud State University; Matt Balk, Ball State University; William Carney, Cameron University; Joel Friederich, University of Wisconsin; Tamara Girardi, Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Andrea Greenbaum, Barry University; Heidi Skurat Harris, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; Stephanie Hedge, SUNY Potsdam; Mitchell Ray James, Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Christopher Justice, The University of Baltimore; Amy C. Kimme Hea, University of Arizona; bonnie lenore kyburz, Lewis University; Jennifer Lee Novotney, MMI Preparatory School; Angela Eward-Mangione, Hillsborough Community College; Jennifer Marlow, College of Saint Rose; Patricia Portanova, Northern Essex Community College; Daisy Pignetti, University of Wisconsin-Stout; Abigail Scheg, Elizabeth City State University; Andrea Scott, Pitzer College; Lars Söderlund, Wright State University; Todd Taylor, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; Ryan Weber, University of Alabama-Huntsville, Susan Youngblood, Auburn University
Our thanks to Joe Opiela for serving as our editor for the first iteration of this text, which was published by Pearson Education.
Articles on Writing Commons
- Heron, Josh. “Writing Commons: A Model for the Creation, Usability, and Evaluation of OERs.” Composition Forum 33, Spring 2016
- Joe Moxley’s Academe Blog
During the early days of Writing Commons, Moxley blogged about the project @ Academe.
- Moxley, J. (2013, June 17). Bending the cost curve on college textbooks. The Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/column-bending-the-cost-curve-on-college-textbooks/2124156
- Moxley, J. (2013). Open textbook publishing. Academe, September/October 2013. 40-43. Retrieved from https://www.aaup.org/article/open-textbook-publishing#.XpHfUVNKhhE