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Rhetoric, Process, Materials – Part 1

Full notebook and penThe creative writing program I’m in is amazing so far, and we’ve only just passed the first month. I need to blog about some of the fantastic stuff we’re learning, to help myself process it. And if you get something out of it too, well, that’s a nice bonus.

On Saturdays, all 36 of us for group lectures, and the first (four-week) course we’re doing is called RPM’s of Writing. I had to ask what RPM’s stood for – it’s Rhetoric, Process, and Materials. It’s been an absolute revelation, and we’ve got another Saturday to go, still!

I was excited about the Process part of RPM’s, because I have always been dissatisfied with my own process. And thanks to Anne Hungerford, retired faculty member and a fascinating speaker, I know the fault doesn’t lie entirely with me. I write the way I was taught to write. The fault lies with the way I was taught to write.

Yes, that’s right. Society is to blame!


Anne is a trained neuroscientist and rhetorician who taught compositional theory and business writing. I couldn’t possibly detail everything she taught us, but I did create this Prezi (link opens in new tab/window) to give you an overview of the history of writing instruction. Go watch that. I’ll wait.

Welcome back. A bare overview, but interesting, right?

Writing instruction has been given short shrift in the last hundred or so years, as our ability, and our need, to communicate ever more widely has grown. We are expected to craft meaningful communication after the most scanty of instruction as to how this is accomplished. Of all the creative arts, writing is the only one where continued formal instruction is not really felt to be necessary. How successful would other creatives – artists, musicians – be, without early and ongoing instruction in their art?

I have a bit of an advantage over my younger fellow students. In keeping with the current-traditional emphasis on form and correctness, I was taught – even drilled in – the traditional language arts: spelling, phonics, grammar, vocabulary. We were taught the five-paragraph essay, the outline, even the personal and the business letter. I even had one teacher who taught us the correct way to address (and return address) an envelope.

As soon as the skills began to be combined in practice, formal writing instruction emphasized concrete output. Book reports (that five-paragraph essay), prompted stories, essays and paragraph answers on exams, etc. This emphasis on output is probably because the output is what teachers can read, assess, and mark. You can’t qualify or quantify someone’s invention process, their generation of ideas; you can only do that to the concrete presentation of said ideas.

Thus, my writing process has for years been the way most people write today:

  • A little bit of invention (less than 10%)
  • A lot of drafting (as much as 90%)
  • A little bit of revision (less than 10%)

The disadvantages to this process:

  1. The lack of invention up front means that invention also happens during the drafting process.
  2. This is laborious, because each idea generated needs to build on each idea that comes before, and that gets harder as you go along, because it requires two cognitive activities at once (invention of ideas and generation of text).
  3. Revision tends to happen in between generating. You write chapter one, then you revise chapter one and write chapter two based on those revisions, and so on. (This is why I had so many novels that stopped at chapter five, because I’d written myself to a standstill.)
  4. It’s difficult to write with so many cognitive activities going on, and you don’t get a very good product at the end.

The one benefit of this process is that you get early completion of each chunk of writing. This can work for or against you (see above re: writing to a standstill).

My instruction in writing had conditioned me to value the output above all else, and to consider what I now know as invention – that important period of unstructured thought, play, and generation of ideas – as procrastination, avoidance, or flat-out slacking off.

I felt like I’d been doing it wrong, like I’d been missing something. Because I had! Revelation.

Image courtesy of thawats /

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