What Even Is Writing Studies? How Does It Work?

Lecture slide highlighting distance markers, names, and modifiers.

Writing studies by that name is a young field. It has grown with increasing production of written genres in many professions and positions. It has grown along the idea that universities and colleges should more consciously teach students how to write. It has grown from theoretical traditions in rhetoric, philosophy, English studies, and linguistics. As someone who writes regularly about writing studies and pedagogy, I am often asked what we do in this field. Please allow today’s answer to be an example from one of my classes.

In my current third-year course, students are in the process of taking in the feedback I wrote on their proposals and moving forward with the collection of documents for their corpus analysis. We have finished our course readings, are taking a collective breath, and will next focused on bringing the proposed projects to fruition. Students’ projects analyze writing, in this case the writing of a political movement that they have chosen for their analysis. In that in-between moment of taking a breath after a major assignment, and orienting ourselves to the next big step, I wanted to plan a workshop that would allow students to exercise their writing analysis without any extra preparation on their part. It is a wonderful moment in the progression of the course: students can come to our session without worry and I entice them with some interesting documents they likely haven’t seen before. In analyzing those documents, I hope they feel how capable they have become and what insights they can produce by applying some of the methods we discussed in previous sessions.

For this workshop, I chose two documents by and about The Satanic Temple. One is a news article written about the group, the other an informational flyer by the group. As a writing studies researcher, I started by pointing out that they are two different genres. Because they are different genres, the authors take different roles in the process of writing (journalist and promoter), address different types of audiences (Global News readers and abortion seekers), pursue different social purposes, and along with that make different choices about language, style, and form. “What are those choices?,” I asked the students, “What do they suggest?”

Section of Global News articles on The Satanic Temple.

When looking at the news article, students started with pointing out that quotations in journalism can be used by writers to distance themselves from the opinions of the movement on which they report. Quotation marks around The Satanic Temple as a “church” that dispenses “sacrament” and conducts “ritual” are distance markers, in this case to the point of nearly sarcasm. Other distance markers are adverbs and adjectives such as “seemingly” and “alleged.” Attempts to be journalistically neutral are not exactly attempts that avoid a position. The choice of terms and language features that mark a distance to what is being reported cannot but reveal a stance of its own.

That stance is further expressed in phrases which create discrepancy between what The Satanic Temple names its practices and what it pragmatically tries to accomplish with them. That it “does not believe in a god,” but is “still listed as a tax-exempt religious organization in the United States” expresses the stance that religions need gods (in fact, they don’t). A sentence about how The Satanic Temple “describes itself” as non-theistic is followed with an observation that its followers espouse “many secular values” such as reproductive rights, individual freedoms, and empathy for others. The implication is that these two aspects are not fully in accord with each other.

First page of the online flyer titled “Satanic Abortion Ritual.”

In analyzing the flyer called “Satanic Abortion Ritual,” students had a different genre in front of them. Speaking sympathetically to abortion seekers, this genre uses affective language, such as in its choice of adjectives: protective, confident, unapologetic, uncomfortable, troubling. It moves from description in the third person to direct address in the second person: “take or leave whatever you wish,” “build your own,” “you may choose to review.” The use of personal deixis in “you” draws the addressed reader closer to the writer. Thereby, the flyer attempts to direct how it is taken up by its readers. It includes instruction in the form of imperatives like “Feel free” and “Be proud.” The language validates readers who are directly addressed by being in the described circumstances, it instructs them in their ability to control the situation, be confident, and act freely. On a separate page, it offers two tenets that are to be used as personal affirmation during an abortion procedure.

The political effort that is needed for naming these practices is clear not only from the title of the document, but from further choices as well: “destruction ritual,” “protective rite.” There is evaluation in such naming that both gives the described procedure weight and also acts as subversion of other rituals and procedures. My students noted that some of the language in the flyer defies generic expectations of what one might think the genre and title of the flyer entail. While the name indicates it to be a Satanic ritual, the text is informative about something else — how best to proceed through a medical procedure that is made difficult by legal demands. There is subversive play in the genre and its title. This play is a place for resistance and, along with explicit opposition to certain abortion requirements, marks this flyer as part of a counterpublic movement.

Of course, there is much more to writing studies than what I have just shown. The above analysis, which my students produced in only the fifteen minutes I gave them and which I summarized and extended here, can serve as only a short illustration. If you would like to know more about the role of metalanguage — the technical language that the field uses to analyze and teach writing— and about the widespread mismatch between teaching need and research support for writing studies in Canada, please check out this article of mine.

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