Composing Processes, a 21st Century, Competency-based Model

Writers carry a lot of baggage into any writing endeavor: they have literacy histories.

From their first breaths as babies crying for attention, they have countless experiences attempting to sway people, from family, friends, to the broader social community. From their moment-to-moment efforts to inform, persuade, and entertain, as well as their histories as readers, people learn strategies for communicating. Based on the responses of their audiences, they learn what sorts of appeals to try and which ones to avoid. While people may not be familiar with formal terms like logos, pathos or ethos, their experiences have taught them when to use logic, when to pull on the audience’s emotions, and when to remind the audience of their past experiences, character, and authority.

Over time, as people face new communication challenges, as they adopt behaviors, dispositions, and strategies to face new challenges, they enhance their abilities to inform, persuade and entertain audiences. Thus, from a functional perspective, a persons baggage, their literary histories, could be viewed as a set of competencies.

So, rather than the metaphor of a writer bringing past baggage to new communicative situations, it may be more accurate to imagine composing as a more dynamic, organic process:

Imagine a writer bringing a tool chest to new situations. Yet rather than having the same old tools in the box, imagine it’s a really large tool box that contains loads of tools. And, unlike the plumber who routinely uses the welding torch to connect copper pipes or say an arborist who works with a chain saw day in and day out, imagine a communicator being an aficionado of many tools. 

A fun comparison might be to compare an accomplished writer with the fictional character MacGyver on the 2016 TV show:

“”With skills that are only limited by his creativity, Mac saves the day using paper clips instead of pistols, birthday candles instead of bombs, and gum instead of guns” (CBS 2016). 

Like MacGyver, successful writers need to be open to new ways of writing in the face of new rhetorical situations. For routine tasks, they may be able to draft texts with little effort. Routine rhetorical situations may simply require the equivalent of the typical plumber’s wrench. 

Collaboration, Editing, Genre, Information Literacy, Invention, Mindset, Organization, Research, Rhetoric, Revision, and Style are rather basic literacy tools, aka competencies, that shape how we all write (compose) or speak. These competencies play a role in most writing tasks and in most writing situations–from high school to graduate school to professional life. These are, in other words, pretty common writing tools.

Yet more complicated rhetorical situations may require more creative uses of tools. Perhaps the writer is facing a new genre (e.g., creative nonfiction, a feasibility report, or poem). Perhaps a writer is working with a new software tool, such as Audacity for podcasting. At times like this, writers may need to 

  • transfer past competencies to new situations; 
  • develop additional competencies–additional ways of thinking, an alternative attitude about a task, or different composing strategies. For instance, if a writer were collaborating with other writers and the team disagreed about the purpose of the document or how to develop it, the writer might need to reach into the toolkit to grab conflict resolution skills or negotiation skills. Or the writer may need self-reflection tools to grapple with the possibility that s/he is wrong, that s/he needs to work on openness to diversity.

In practice, in daily life, literacies evolve in intertwined ways. Any taxonomy that attempts to separate and categorize competencies of human learning and meaning-making practices will invariably be flawed because they are all so intertwined. Rather than separation, meaning-making requires a creative synthesis of competencies. 

Consider, for example, the competency of Rhetoric. This competency involves analyzing the context of each situation (e.g., thinking about audience and purpose). Domain knowledge of Rhetoric and the competency to Think Rhetorically functions as a North Star for every communicative situation. The writer’s sense of audience determines what research is necessary (Information Literacy), the thesis, the complexity of the sentence structure (Editing). So, an argument could be made that Rhetoric isn’t a distinct competency but a part of all competencies. 

The same is true for Collaboration, Genre, Information Literacy, Invention, Mindset. The strength of these competencies, their superpower, is found in their interaction.

Cognitive, intrapersonal, & interpersonal competencies @ Writing Commons 

When it comes to improving your cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies, nothing is more powerful than sustained practice communicating with different audiences. Intuitively, we access and sharpen our competencies in just about every moment of our lives as we try to make sense of experience or change the world about us.

Cognitive Competencies

“Cognitive competencies involve thinking, reasoning, and related skills.

When asked to reflect on their composing processes, professional writers often say that writing is a powerful tool for learning:

  • Writing and learning and thinking are the same process.  William Zinsser
  • Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers. Isaac Asimov
  • For me writing is foremost an act of thinking and when it works well, an act of discovery. Joseph Epstein
  • How do I know what I think till I see what I say? E.M. Forster

At first glance, it’s pretty obvious to just about everyone that success as a writer is largely shaped by cognitive competencies. For instance, writing requires a combination of (1) domain knowledge about Writing Studies and (2) reasoning skills. Knowledge of writing and reasoning competencies are intertwined organically as writers

  • identify a thesis or research question
  • recognize when claims need support (anecdotes, theories, empirical data)
  • conduct strategic research
  • synthesize data and literature, etc.
  • appeal appropriately to logos, pathos, ethos, kairos
  • weave sources into your text to support claims

But how does thinking work?  How can you become more effective thinker?

Reasonable experts in Writing Studies would most likely answer this question differently given that writing is such a complex, organic, recursive, rhetorical, psychosocial process. 

That qualifier aside, 

we believe language and writing are interwoven; that writing is thinking. 

Knowledge of the domain of Rhetoric plays a King Kong-sized role in critical thinking. Whether you want to sell a used car, write a federal proposal to obtain $5M in funding, or pitch a business case study to get a job at McKinsey, a consulting firm, you need to analyze the rhetorical situation, conduct pertinent research, craft appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos, organize the document to emphasize your thesis or research question, to shape your focus and research methods.

Intrapersonal Competencies 

Being a successful writer involves more than intelligence and knowledge. You also need to develop your intrapersonal competencies, including

  • hard work and persistence;
  • a growth mindset;
  • metacognitive skills;
  • self-regulation skills.

The great news here is that writing both requires and strengthens intrapersonal competencies

And! And! And!

Writing enhances your Agency as a human being. . .

Here, by Agency we are referencing your personal power. By this we don’t mean the idea that you will be a Machiavellian sort of character who bends other people to your will nor do we mean you’ll always get what you want. Rather, we mean that by knowing your inner self you are in a better space to know what you want with your life.

Writing requires intrapersonal competencies
To complete writing tasks, writers need the behaviors and dispositions that constitute intrapersonal competencies: 

  • Growth Mindset
    Rather than assume that writers are born and not made, empower yourself by adopting a positive attitude about writing.
  • Metacognition
    When writers are revising documents or planning ways to get the work done, they are engaged in metacognition–thinking about thinking. To evolve as a writer, to filter through critical feedback, you need to honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Openness
    Being open to new knowledge, diverse opinions, and new composing strategies are important dispositions and strategies, particularly if you are engaged in collaborative work or working with clients/readers who have different values, priorities, and goals.
  • Resilience
    Writing well is founded on hard work and persistence. Researching, weaving sources into the text to support your position, and prioritizing critical feedback can be extremely demanding–timewise and personally. Getting tough feedback can be emotionally draining. Plus, you may work really hard on a task and still fail, despite  your best evidence. So, you have to learn from failure, to make lemons into lemonade.
  • Self-Regulation
    Ultimately, just as we are born alone and die alone, we write alone. You are the architect of your success or failure as a writer (see Work Ethic & Project Management).

Whether U.S. employers are justified in their impression that college graduates lack strong intrapersonal competencies is certainly open for debate. These sorts of competencies are extremely hard to assess (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017)). That said, it is our view as teachers, researchers, and writing program administrators in college and university settings that many of our students possess deep intrapersonal competencies.

Even so, we acknowledge there are cultural forces that impede self-reflection and the development of intrapersonal competencies, including the 24 hour news cycle, social tools like Twitter or Instagram, and the lack of long-form writing in high school and university settings.

In summary, writing regularly presents ample opportunities to devel your intrapersonal competencies. Writing daily is like going to the gym every day: it strengthens the grit within you, the capacity to face obstacles, to recognize that seemingly insurmountable problems can be overcome, one day at a time.

Interpersonal Competencies 

“Interpersonal competencies involve expressing information to others”
(National Research Council 2012).

Okay, so first we first addressed that writing is thinking. Writers have held this to be a truism for eons. Nothing helps develop your cognitive competencies so much as working through a complicated problem in writing (or using mathematical symbols or musical symbols to solve math or musical scores). Regarding cognitive competencies, we explored how it’s useful to distinguish declarative knowledge from procedural knowledge

Second, we affirmed the role of intrapersonal competencies. Writing is invariably challenging and emotionally exhausting. Other people and life experience may endeavor to wear you down. Invariably writers face adversity (e.g., the difficulty of expressing complex concepts, expressing ideas in ways readers can understand, and dealing with the negativity of critics). Hence, we have argued you should embrace your birthright: 

you are a creative, smart person.

By adopting a Growth Mindset, you can maximize your potential. Now, this doesn’t mean we can all be William Shakespeare, but it certainly means that we can be expressive, creative, smart, competitive.

Now, we aim to address the third and perhaps the most important 21st century competency: interpersonal competencies.

So, why do view interpersonal competencies to be so important?

One cynical answer is that everyone is smart in the knowledge economy. If you are smart, presumably, you can compete with others around the world. Cognitive skills are assumed as prerequisites in the knowledge economy. Likewise, the ability to set goals, to have grit in the face of adversity (i.e., intrapersonal competencies) is a presumed pre-requisite competency to be competitive..

What isn’t necessarily presumed is a somewhat new, emerging competency: the ability to work with teams, often virtually. 

The modern-day workplace has supplanted the ingenuity of the individualist pioneer. Nowadays, rather than Sergio and Page working away in their garage to create Google, there are teams of engineers, program managers, designers, and creative people working in team settings on new technologies. Presumably, right now the big arms race is 5G.

Here, we are not saying that the will of the individual is no longer important. Rather, we are saying the will of the individual is actualized, turbocharged, by collaborative tools that enable the individual to speak from the one to the many.

Based on our experiences as teachers, we are familiar with the groans of students who complain about group projects. Until recently, well, ok, even now, our society has prized individual performance. At least in the U.S., test scores and individual grades, not contributions to the teams, define access to opportunity.

Nonetheless, the future is collaboration. Hence, Collaboration at Writing Commons explores

  • the competency to provide and receive critique in productive ways;
  • the competency to make decisions and work as a  leader;
  • the competency to negotiate Peer Review processes;
  • The competency to coordinate work in teams, i.e., Project Managemen

Exhibit 1

Flower & Hayes, 1980

Hayes, 2012

Writing Processes

Believing & Doubting

The Writing Process is bounded by two contrary actions: believing and doubting.

A range of writing activities, behaviors, and attitudes can enhance—or thwart—your ability to write successfully in college or in work-place settings. However, no factor is more important than playing the believing game, which simply means staying positive, ignoring the internal critic, and having faith in the writing process—faith that with revision, lousy first drafts can become effective, maybe even elegant. As hard as it sometimes is to stay positive while working on a document, give yourself encouraging, energizing messages, such as “I can do this … I have enough time … I’m smart enough …”  If you find your thinking/writing process to be undercut by negative, energy-draining messages, pull out a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page. On the left-hand side, write down the negative message. Then, on the right-hand side, write a more affirming message, one that either contradicts the negative statement or that shows a way around the problem. While ideally it makes sense to play the believing game during the time you’re working on the document, you may find it most helpful to emphasize believing during the early stages of a writing project and doubting in the final stages.


Play the Believing Game

During the early stages of the writing process, you can work more productively by setting aside doubt and playing the believing game, a “game” that is characterized by having faith in the writing process—faith that with additional work, you will develop effective writing habits.

Thinking rhetorically, collaborating, researching, organizing, and using invention strategies—these are the sorts of activities you need to practice to engage your creative self, to be as productive as possible.

Play the Doubting Game

While playing the believing game is critical to the Writing Process, at times you need to play the doubting game—that is, examining your ideas and drafts in a critical (even hypercritical) manner. On occasion, you need to step back and ask yourself critical questions, such as “Am I providing the narrative that my readers need to find my analysis compelling? Is my evidence truly credible? Jeez, is this wordy? Can I say the same thing in half the word count?”

Organizing, focusing, inventing, formatting, revising, editing, and publishing—these activities are essential to playing the doubting game, a process that is invariably necessary as you work your way toward meaning, significance, and clarity.


Bartholomae, David. (1986). “Inventing the University.” Journal of Basic Writing 5:1, p 4-23,

CBS (206).

Gyver-s-trade. Accessed 2/15/19.

Heath, Shirley Brice (1983). Ways with Words. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fulkerson, Richard. (2005). “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” CCC 56.4 (Jun. 2005): 654-687. 

Gendlin, Eugene (1978). Focusing. New York: Everest House,  pp. 35.

Hairston, Maxine (1982). The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing. College Composition and Communication 33:1.

Kent, Thomas (1999). Post-Process Theory: Beyond the Writing-Process Paradigm,Thomas Kent, ed. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP,

National Research Council. (2012). Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. J.W. Pellegrino and M.L. Hilton (Eds.), Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, Center for Education, Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017). Supporting Students’ College Success: The Role of Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies. Washington D.C.: National Academic Press. 

Perl, Sondra (1980).  “Understanding Composing,” College Composition and Communication) pp. 363-369. 

Vygotsky, Lev. (1983).  Thought and Language. MIT Press.

Other Resources

See, e.g., Rhetoric and Composition Studies over at Wikipedia).