Writing Studies

What is Writing Studies? How can I learn from Writing Studies more flexible ways of composing texts? Learn about the research, theory, and scholarship that informs Writing Commons.

What is Writing Studies?

Writing Studies is

  • the study of writing, especially composing, composing processes, rhetoric, and writing pedagogy
  • an interdisciplinary academic field that boasts undergraduate writing departments, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees at many U.S. institutions.

Related Concepts: Discourse Community, Community of Practice

Synonymous Terms: Writing Studies is a broad, nascent term that may be used interchangeably with Rhetoric & Composition, Rhetoric, Rhetorical Studies Semiotics or Composition Studies.


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Writing Studies is an academic field that boasts undergraduate writing departments, master’s programs, and doctoral programs at many U.S. institutions.

[  Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition ]

Little agreement exists among scholars about whether the discipline should be named Writing Studies. As suggested by the Google Ngram Viewer below, the term Writing Studies was coined recently. (Unfortunately, Google Books Ngram Viewer doesn’t sort past year 2000.)

While the disciplinary status of Writing Studies remains tenuous, 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.

Since about the 1970s, U.S. institutions of higher education have developed master’s and doctoral degrees that specialize in the study of writing. Perhaps because it’s such a new field, the field goes by different names at different higher education institutions in the United States, including Writing Studies, Rhetoric and Composition, Compositing 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.

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 as an Academic Field

Writing Studies is such a new field that its founders have yet to settle on a common term to call the field.

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

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. In support of this view, note how the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the major professional organization for this academic field, defines Composition:

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

For others, Composition is more narrowly focused on matters related to composition theory—i.e., a focus on composing. 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.

Todd Taylor elegantly summarizes this view:

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 (Taylor 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)

Works Cited

Olson, Keith. “The G. I. Bill and Higher Education: Success and Surprise,” American Quarterly Vol. 25, No. 5 (December 1973) 596-610. in JSTORin JSTOR