Framing a Writing Task: Three Options

Audience: Professors who think they could benefit from suggestions for making the task of assigning and evaluating writing easier and more efficient.

The following information describes three general frameworks for assignment and/or assessing/writing in a college course.

Framework 1: “Process Writing”

Conventional wisdom about writing pedagogy holds that successful written work comes about through stages—drafts, iterations, call them what you will. Some writing instructors present writing to students as a way of knowing, of coming to know, one’s topic. This stands in contrast to an earlier (arguably outdated) view of all writing as being the expression of thoughts completely formulated in one’s mind and then transmitted to a page or screen. Not all assignments call for iterative writing, and many students begin their Champlain College studies having engaged in process writing of the type just described. Nevertheless, some professors find value in reminding students, when they are about to begin a writing task, that their best work will likely come about in stages. Here’s what some of those stages might look like (basic, I realize):

  • Exploratory draft — akin to “thinking out loud,” or, in this case, on the page or screen
  • Rough draft — first draft
  • First revision — second draft
         Note that some instructors draw a distinction for students between revising and editing, with the former calling for a more substantial re-seeing of the composition and the latter being more focused on more superficial changes in phrasings, word choice, and grammar.
  • Final draft — edited/proofread

    Some professors evaluate these stages as part of the larger assignment. Here’s Core Professor Mike Kelly’s brief introduction to the writing process. Perhaps this would be worth sharing with students. 

“The Writing Process”

Framework 2: “Emphasizing What Is Important”

Consider a written work on three levels in descending importance:

  1. Idea Level 

This could mean content, cogency, topic coverage, etc.

  1. Organization Level 

This could mean coherence, flow, structure, etc.

  1. Sentence Level 

This could mean grammatical correctness, tone, stylistic complexity, etc.

The Rationale: Students may consider successful writing to be correct writing at the sentence level, as this is the level that has sometimes drawn the most instructor comments in past assignments. Students may assume that the features of their writing that receive the most instructor attention are the most important. 

Professors can help students shift their emphasis toward the idea level by breaking the assignment down into the three levels above when designing/delivering the assignment and then evaluating the work accordingly—with, say, the bulk of the grade being an evaluation of the ideas/content and the smaller portion of the grade being an evaluation of sentence-level writing.

Students may find helpful the observation that writing that is unclear or underdeveloped at the idea level can’t be well-organized, and content that is not well-organized is unlikely to foster the student’s most skillful writing at the sentence level. So, in essence, not only are ideas more important than superficial features of writing, an emphasis on ideas first and on the sentence-level writing later—in revising and editing—is a surer process for successful writing in all dimensions.

Framework 3: “The Rhetorical Situation”

This model is also self-explanatory. It asks students to consider a writing task (or communication task more generally) in a few ways:

  • Audience
  • Purpose
  • Tone/Voice

Students may benefit from thinking of the language appropriate to the task as a function of audience and purpose, as in this (overly simplistic) equation: audience + purpose = tone.

Considering genre and/or medium conventions may also help students compose in language appropriate to the audience and purpose.

One can define the rhetorical situation in many ways; the above is merely one of those ways.