College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals

McAlear and Pedretti. When is a Paper “Done”? Comp. Studies, Fall 2016. Posted 03/02/2017.

1 Comment

McAlear, Rob, and Mark Pedretti. “Writing Toward the End: Students’ Perceptions of Doneness in the Composition Classroom.” Composition Studies 44.2 (2016): 72-93. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

Rob McAlear and Mark Pedretti describe a survey to shed light on students’ conception of “doneness,” or when a piece of writing is completed.

McAlear and Pedretti argue that writing teachers tend to consider writing an ongoing process that never really ends. In their view, this approach values “process over product,” with the partial result that the issue of how a writing task reaches satisfactory completion is seldom addressed in composition scholarship (72). They contend that experienced writers acquire an ability “central to compositional practice” of recognizing that a piece is ready for submission, and writing instructors can help students develop their own awareness of what makes a piece complete.

A first step in this pedagogical process, McAlear and Pedretti write, is to understand how students actually make this decision about their college assignments (73). Their article seeks to determine what criteria students actually use and how these criteria differ as student writers move through different levels of college writing (73).

McAlear and Pedretti review the limited references to doneness in composition scholarship, noting that earlier resources like Erika Lindemann and Daniel Anderson’s A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers and Janet Emig’s work suggest that the most important factors are deadlines and a sense that the writer has nothing more to say. The authors find these accounts “unsatisfying” (74). Nancy Sommers, they state, recognizes that writing tasks do end but does not explore the criteria nor the “implications for those criteria” (75). Linda Flower and John R. Hayes, in their cognitive model, suggest that endings are determined by a writer’s “task representation,” with solution of a problem the supposed end point. Again, the authors find that knowing how writers “defin[e] a problem” does not explain how writers know they “have reached an adequate solution” (75).

One reason doneness has not been explicitly addressed, McAlear and Pedretti posit, is its possible relationship to “products” as the end of writing. Yet, they argue, “one of the implicit goals of teaching writing as a process is to get better products” (76). In their view, interrogating how writers come to regard their work as finished need not commit scholars to a “Big Theory” approach; “completion,” like process, can be rhetorically focused, responsive to specific audiences and purposes (76).

The authors surveyed 59 students in four first-year and four second-year writing courses at a Midwest research institution (78). The survey consisted of ten questions; analysis focused on the first two, asking about the student’s year and major, and on two questions, Q5 and Q10, that specifically asked how students decided a piece was finished. Question 5 was intended to elicit information about “a cognitive state,” whereas Question 10 asked about specific criteria (78).

Coding answers yielded three strategies: Internal, Criteria, and Process. “Internal” responses “linked to personal, emotional, or aesthetic judgments, such as feeling satisfied with one’s work or that the paper ‘flowed’” (79). Answers classified under “Criteria” referenced “empirical judgments of completion” such as meeting the requirements of the assignment (79). In “Process” answers, “any step in the writing process . . . was explicitly mentioned,” such as proofreading or peer review (79). McAlear and Pedretti coded some responses as combinations of the basic strategies, such as IP for “Internal-Process” or PC for “Process-Criteria” (80).

Survey responses indicated that first-year students tended to use a single strategy to determine doneness, with Internal or Process dominant. Nearly half of second-year students also used only one marker, but with a shift from Internal to Criteria strategies (79-80). Students responding to Question 10 claimed to use more than one strategy, perhaps because an intervening question triggered more reflection on their strategies (80). However, the authors were surprised that 33% of first-year students and 48% of second-year students did not mention Process strategies at all (80). Overall, first-year writers were more likely to report Internal or Process options, while second-year writers trended more to external Criteria (80-81).

McAlear and Pedretti found that for first-year students particularly, “Process” involved only “lower-order” strategies like proofreading (81). The authors recoded references to proofreading or correctness into a new category, “Surface.” With this revision, first-year students’ preference for Internal strategies “become even more prominent,” while second-year students’ use of Process strategies other than “Surface” was highlighted (82).

Study results do not support what McAlear and Pedretti consider a common perception that correctness and page length dictate students’ decisions about doneness (84). The authors posit that “students may be relying on equally simple, but qualitatively distinct, criteria” (84). First-year students commonly pointed to “proofreading and having nothing more to say,” while second-year students expressed concern with “meeting the criteria of the prompt” (84).

McAlear and Pedretti note that even among second-year students who had been exposed to more than one writing class, these responses indicate very little “awareness of rhetorical situation” (84). Although responding to the rhetorical situation of a college classroom, McAlear and Pedretti argue, second-year students interpret the actual expectations of a writing class simplistically (85). Considerations that writing teachers would hope for, like “Is this portion of my argument persuasive for my audience,” were completely missing (84). Moreover, many second-year students did not note Process at all, despite presumably having encountered the concept often (85).

McAlear and Pedretti propose that the shift away from Internal, affective markers to external, criteria-focused, albeit reductive, strategies may reflect a “loss of confidence” as students encountering unfamiliar discourses no longer trust their ability to judge their own success (85-86). The authors suggest that, because students cannot easily frame a rhetorical problem, “they do not know their endpoint” and thus turn to teachers for explicit instruction on what constitutes an adequate response (87).

For the authors, the moment when students move to external criteria and must articulate these criteria is an opportunity to introduce a vocabulary on doneness and to encourage attention to the different kinds of criteria suitable for different rhetorical contexts (88). Instructors can use reflective activities and examination of others’ decisions as revealed in their work to incorporate issues of doneness into rhetorical education as they explicitly provide a range of strategies, from internal satisfaction to genre-based criteria (88-89). Students might revise writing tasks for different genres and consider how, for example, completion criteria for an essay differ from those for a speech (90).

The authors propose that such attention to the question of doneness may shed light on problems like “writing anxiety,  procrastination, and even plagiarism” (84). Ultimately, they write, “knowing when to stop writing is a need that many of our students have, and one for which we have not yet adequately prepared them” (90).


Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

One thought on “McAlear and Pedretti. When is a Paper “Done”? Comp. Studies, Fall 2016. Posted 03/02/2017.


Leave a Reply. Entering a name or email address in the fields below is completely optional--but feel free to do so!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s