Writing Studies

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Writing Studies @ Writing Commons provides a forum for writing teachers regarding research and scholarship on the study of writing.

Writing Commons aspires to provide timely, comprehensive knowledge about the study of writing. To realize this mission, Writing Commons draws on research and scholarship in a number of disciplines, including Writing Studies, Philosophy, Education, Psychology, and Gender Studies.

Writing Studies is an emerging academic field in the U.S. that is concerned with the study of writing. Writing Studies traces its origin story to the rise of Sputnik–yet the field’s roots run deep to antiquity (e.g., philosophy and rhetoric) and wide (e.g., education and psychology). Writing Studies is such a new field that its founders have yet to settle on a common term to call the field.

Here, by academic field we mean a community of scholars has developed methodologies for investigating and testing communicative practices. Working with established methods (e.g., surveys, case studies, ethnographic studies) and epistemologies (e.g. positivism or phenomenology), these scholars collaborate to develop and test knowledge claims related to writing pedagogy and research. As a field, this academic discipline boast scholarly conferences, journals, publication sources, and graduate programs in higher education.

Independent of Writing Studies, researchers in multiple academic disciplines share a fascination with the study of writing. Some of those researchers work in interdisciplinary ways–i.e., they are aware of the field of Writing Studies and conversant with its research and scholarship. Others may work on projects that impact the field and yet be unaware of it, such as machine scientists, learning theorists, and software engineers

The discussion below explores the founding of Writing Studies as an academic field. Additionally, links are provided to research in other disciplines that potentially impacts the work of our readers–i.e., aspiring writers in academic and work settings as well as faculty who teach writing courses.

Rhetoric & Composition, Composition Studies,Writing Studies

Traditionally, disciplinary fields are defined by the name experts ascribe to their graduate-level degree programs. For instance, if you get an MA or a PhD in Chemistry, the name of your Ph.D. is Doctorate of Chemistry. However, this is not the case when it comes to a specialization in writing theory, research, or pedagogy. The database of Ph.D. and MA granting institutions, maintained by the Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition, demonstrates disciplinary experts do not agree on a common term for the field.  Here are some of the more popular titles for MA and Ph.D. programs:

  • Rhetoric and Composition
  • Composition Studies;  
  • Writing Studies;
  • Rhetoric & Culture; 
  • Texts & Technology; 
  • Writing History and Theory; and 
  • Poetics, Rhetorics, Technologies.

Changes in writing technologies and subsequent changes in composing and genre may partially explain the difficulties in coming up with a name for the academic discipline. In her 2004 Chair’s Address to the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Kathleen Yancey traces challenges to naming the field to tectonic changes in literacy practices:

Literacy today is in the midst of a tectonic change.  Even inside of school, never before have writing and composing generated such diversity in definition. (Yancey 2004)  

Kathleen Yancey, 2004 Chairs Address, Conference on College Composition and Communication

Over the years, writers have moved from writing on stone or bark or papus or paper or computer screens. Writing spaces are constantly evolving. Typewriters are deeply buried in the trash dump. Now, we wear our computers as watches, glasses, or phones. We take our offices with us on the go. If a good thought comes to us when biking or swimming or whatever else, we take a quick moment to dictate a comment to our watch or phones. In moments, we can teleconferences with colleagues worldwide.

Rhetoric & Composition

A quick review of the names of degree programs suggests the most common title is Rhetoric and Composition. And that title seems reinforced by the name of the organization that tracks these programs: Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition.

Naming the discipline first after Rhetoric makes good sense. Rhetoricians hold the First Mover Advantage. The early works of Socrates, Aristotle, Isocrates, Cicero, Quintilian form the foundation of the discipline. With this view in mind, Rhetoricians could argue Compositionists and other subdisciplines with skin in the game could have a place at the table, but that the table was set by the classical rhetoricians. It was this theoretical tradition, after all, that led Sherman Hill, president of Harvard, in 1869 to establish a dedicated course for the “study of the English language” (as qtd. in Miller, 2006).

Even so, no one seems terribly excited about the moniker Rhetoric and Composition. As of 5/19, no one has thought Rhetoric & Composition sufficiently important enough to warrant a Wikipedia page:

And the title Rhetoric and Composition doesn’t show a lot of traction in Google’s NGrams of Books Published between 1800 and 2000.

Composition Studies

After Rhetoric and Composition, Ph.Ds. in the discipline are often called Composition Studies. The primary journal in the field is called College Composition and Communication. And, the academic conference in the field is called The Conference on College Composition and Communication.

For some people, Composition Studies is an umbrella term that includes the works of rhetoricians and other subdisciplines. For example, in their introduction to Exploring Composition Studies: Sites, Issues, Perspectives, Kelly Ritter and Paul Kei Matsuda, sketch a genealogy for the discipline back to

  • antiquity, particularly the work of Aristotle on Rhetorical appeals and the Rhetorical Situation;
  • the early 1890s when Harvard instituted the first undergraduate course explicitly on college writing;
  • 1911 when the National Council of Teachers of English was formed; 
  • 1950 when College Composition and Communication, an academic journal was founded.

Additionally, in its description of the discipline, the 2019 program for the Conference on College Composition and Communication defines the field very broadly:

The field of composition studies draws on research and theories from a broad range of humanistic disciplines—English studies, rhetoric, cultural studies, LGBT studies, gender studies, critical theory, education, technology studies, race studies, communication, philosophy of language, anthropology, sociology, and others—and from within composition and rhetoric studies, where a number of subfields have also developed, such as technical communication, computers and composition, writing across the curriculum, research practices, and the history of these fields. 

Conference on College Composition and Communication

However, not everyone agrees that Composition Studies necessarily welcomes all of these subfields in equal ways. For example, in Stephen North’s accounting of the creation story for Composition Studies (see The Making of Knowledge in Composition, 1987), he argues the discipline’s existence and success is founded on the impulse to erect walls and look for differences rather than commonalities.

For North, the central impetus for the creation of Composition Studies as an academic discipline was twofold: (1) the rise of science; (2) GI Bill. North argued the early pioneers, the first-generation of Compositionists, embraced the idea that the scientific method would provide new solutions for teaching and learning. Here, the Compositionists were leveraging America’s fear that it was falling behind Russia, as symbolized by Sputnik. The hope was that the scientific method would empower the Compositionists to better meet the needs of nontraditional students, some of whom lacked basic literacy skills, who were entering U.S. higher education thanks to the GI bill.

In the Making of Knowledge in Composition Stephen North compares Composition’s early pioneers to the California gold prospectors of 1848-1855. North contents the early Compositionists were driven by the territorial imperative–the impulse to fight when you feel your personal space is somehow threatened. To develop Ph.D. and Masters programs, secure tenure-track professorships in U.S. institutions, and win grant money, North believed Compositionists needed to distinguish themselves from earlier intellectual traditions, particularly rhetoric. To advance, they needed to brand their discipline as something entirely new. Todd Taylor beautifully summarizes the gist of this critique:

Unless composition studies is different from other disciplines, until it has a room of its own that is unlike others, it is either a subdiscipline or a nondiscipline (184).

Todd Taylor. “A Methodology of Our Own”, Edited by Lynn Bloom, Donald Daiker, Edward White, Composition Studies in the New Millennium: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future (2003)

Writing Studies

As suggested by the Google Ngram Viewer below, the term Writing Studies is a fairly new. (Unfortunately, Google Books Ngram Viewer doesn’t sort past year 2000.)

While the term Writing Studies is a fairly new and while the disciplinary status of Writing Studies is still somewhat debatable, the study of writing has a distinguished heritage.

Since antiquity, the subject of writing has been a topic of philosophical inquiry and research (see Wikipedia’s History of Writing). People have been theorizing about how to write well since the emergence of writing in Mesopotamia 3400 to 3300 BC. The ancient Greeks were deeply invested with studies in rhetoric, logic, and grammar (see, e.g., Plato’s dialogues).

In the modern university, generations of professors across disciplines (e.g., anthropology, communication, education, linguistics,, learning sciences, psychology, sociology,) have investigated the role of writing on creativity, communication, learning, human development.

More recently, since about the 1970s, U.S. institutions of higher education have developed masters and doctoral degrees that specialize in the study of writing. Perhaps because it’s such a new field, it tends to go by different names at different higher education institutions in the United States, including Writing Studies, Rhetoric and Composition, Compositing Studies. (See Historical Perspectives on Writing Studies). While the names of these programs may differ, they do share commonalities: they typically have an interdisciplinary focus and are chiefly concerned with the study of writing pedagogy, theory and research.

Additionally, at universities concerned with student success and literacy, it is becoming increasingly commonplace to offer undergraduate degrees in Writing Studies. These programs tend to be concerned with creativity, composing, 21st century competencies (cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal), and the intersection between humans and machines–i.e., RhetTech.

Here at Writing Commons, we prefer the term Writing Studies to Rhetoric and Composition or Composition Studies. To us the term Writing Studies feels conceptually broader and more welcoming and inclusive. Rather than viewing “technical communication, computers and composition, writing across the curriculum, research practices” (see quote above) as subfields, we view composing in technical contexts or using computers to compose or writing in the disciplines or engaging in research to be at the very center of our discipline. Plus, given writing is a psychosocial process (a mediation between the mind of the writer and social interactions), we also view psychology and sociology to be at the center of the discipline. And we also think Creative Writing Studies has had and will continue to have a profound effect on the evolution of Writing Studies, including

  • 1936 when the Iowa Writers Workshop was founded.
  • The 1950s when The Paris Review Interviews began publishing interviews of creative writers.


Dear Colleagues,

We invite reviews and summaries of current and past research and theory. We are especially eager to publish research related to our foundational concerns: Collaboration, Genre, Information Literacy, Invention & Revision, Mindset, Organization, Research, Rhetoric, Style & Editing, Writing Studies.

See Contribute for more specifics on how to publish your work at Writing Commons.

Additional articles on Writing-studies:

  1. An Interview with Stephanie Vanderslice

    Stephanie Vanderslice's most recent book is Rethinking Creative Writing. With Dr. Kelly Ritter, she has also published Teaching Creative Writing...

  2. An Interview With Timons Esaias

    Timons Esaias is a satirist, poet, and writer of short fiction, living in Pittsburgh.  His work, ranging from literary to...

  3. An Interview with Trent Hergenrader

    Trent Hergenrader is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he teaches...

  4. Digital Literacy

    Literacy practices are undergoing major transformations. Thanks to new writing spaces, today's college students are redefining reading, research, collaboration, writing, and...

  5. Interviews with Writers: Maureen Seaton

    Maureen Seaton is the author of six poetry collections, including Cave of the Yellow Volkswagen and Furious Cooking. She is the recipient of the Lambda Award,...

  6. Professional and Technical Communication: An Overview

    Learning Outcomes: distinguish between technical and professional communication and writing understand the role of a technical communicator know how ethics,...

  7. So Your Instructor is Using Contract Grading…

    Throughout your time in school, most of your classes have probably been graded. If you met certain criteria, you received...

  8. Social Media Mythbusters

    Along with sound and witty advice about how to write well in the workplace, the Third Edition of Business Writing:...

  9. The Mysterious Incident of the Missing Title: Why Did Titular Concern Vanish from Composition Studies?

    Titles How much time, if any, do first-year writing instructors spend in class discussing the importance of titles on their...

  10. What are New Literacies?

    Something seems wrong A few days ago, I tweeted something that wasn’t particularly funny, but I got this response:1 I...

  11. Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches Us about Writing

    The website eHow has a page on “How to Freestyle Rap” (“Difficulty: Moderately Challenging”), and I’m trying to figure out what I...

  12. Writing a Statement of Purpose

    Part I: First, you’ll need to determine – very specifically – what the school, department, and program wants from its...