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A    B O T H / A N D   V A L U E

process + product

Revision. Revision. Revision.

That’s the writing teacher’s mantra, and for good reason, too, since it is well known that what distinguishes “good” from not-so-good writing is the amount of re-vision — literally, “to see again” — it has undergone.

Rewriting is the difference between the dilettante and the artist, the amateur and the professional, the unpublished and the published. William Gass testifies, “I work not by writing but rewriting.” Dylan Thomas states, “Almost any poem is fifty to a hundred revisions — and that’s after it’s well along.” Archibald McLeish talks of “the endless discipline of writing and rewriting and rerewriting.” Novelist Theodore Weesner tells his students at the University of New Hampshire his course title is not “Fiction Writing” but “Fiction Rewriting.”

(Professor Donald Murray, qtd. in Richard M. Coe, Form and Substance 77)

Today, workplace communications are about more than just writing. But the written word — which includes even the acronym-ridden jargon of text-messaging — remains the dominant means of communicating on the job in several economic sectors. Moreover, much of what we have learned about the art of writing after centuries of study applies to other forms of communication as well. (For discussion of the 16th-century writing teacher’s mantra of “correct, reform, amend,” see the webessay on festina lente.)

Within the modern academy, there has been a pendulum swing in the teaching of writing from an initial focus on product (teaching the principles of literary and rhetorical criticism, or the “rules” relating to grammar, style, form, and content) to a focus on process (a form of consciousness-raising whereby students explored the psychodynamics of their own writing processes). The new process orientation quickly proved popular with students. But by the end of the 1980s, critics of what John Hagge called “the process religion” in composition theory were beginning to question the quality of its product.

Support for the “process movement” in composition theory has recently begun to appear in the business communication literature. Business communication instructors, however, should be aware that the process approach to writing suffers from several methodological defects, including: 1. questionable evidence for writing processes, 2. problems with ecological validity and research design, 3. quasi-scientific status of research into cognitive processes, and 4. empirical falsification of process ideas. In addition, process instruction dresses up traditional techniques and leads to courses lacking in content and full of solipsistic students. Process methodology is more an ideology than an enterprise backed by intellectual and empirical rigor. It encourages teachers to cultivate an impoverished theory of human linguistic communication and views meaning as private, self-referential, amorphous, and inarticulate.

(Abstract for Hagge’s “The Process Religion and Business Communication”)

In 1987, James Kinneavy suggested a disciplinary shift from an either/or (product or process) paradigm to a both/and paradigm. Kinneavy reasserted the significance of process in writing instruction, but he also argued that “the process revolution” had for too long been unconcerned with product, as judged by its rhetorical effectiveness. Kinneavy felt that it was time students focused a little more on audience and purpose (the “situational context”), and a little less on their own creative process.

“Process-oriented” rhetorics such as Richard Coe’s Form and Substance led the way:

The best way to improve the quality of your writing is to improve the process by which you create it. To be sure, the writing process is a means to an end: once the process of creation is completed, it is the written text that must communicate. Whether the goal is to evoke a feeling or to provoke a bureaucracy into taking action, it is the written text that must get the job done. It is the written text that will be praised and blamed, criticized and rewarded. But the quality of the written product depends on the quality of the creative process. A person who is having trouble writing or who wants to learn to write better should focus on the writing process.

(Coe, Form and Substance 8)

Today [i.e., September 2007], almost a decade into the 21st century, my own concern is that the process of workplace communications is still not well understood. Nor does it draw the organizational attention and resources it requires. This is especially true of digital communications, where the “product” is constantly evolving (or should be), and the hard work involved in revising and maintaining dynamic communications platforms such as websites is hardly ever accounted for in the planning stages of a project.

Now, more than ever, it is crucial that we re-envision the communications product in terms of its creative process. What was once contractually known as an “end product” or “deliverable” is now often just a preliminary stage in a complex and iterative development process of sometimes unpredictable direction and duration. This impacts everything from scheduling to budgeting, and calls for a new style of planning flexible enough to accommodate what all too often becomes a rapidly changing “situational context.”

Of course, few workplace communications require the countless revisions and polish of a Dylan Thomas poem, and it’s important that all of us understand the difference between communication that is “good” and communication that is “good enough” to accomplish the task at hand.

Ultimately, these are rhetorical judgments — tactical decisions that need to be made by those doing the communicating within an organization, in keeping with the overall communications plan for the group.

It is in this sense that we understand “process” at Communicating By Design: it is the concatenation of an organization’s many ongoing acts of communication — in all its glory, and all its drudgery — and the communicative work never stops, unless the organization does.

at RIGHT >
The Labors of Sisyphus. Detail from a painting (late 6th-century BCE) on a Greek amphora (a vessel, with two handles, used by the ancients for holding wine, oil, etc.).
In Greek mythology, the cunning king of Corinth (Sisyphus) was punished in the Underworld by having repeatedly to roll a huge stone up a hill, only to have it roll down again as soon as he had brought it to the summit.
Anyone in the 21st century who designs, develops and/or maintains a high-quality website is engaged in a never-ending Sisyphean task.

Illustration of Sisyphus pushing his rock.

more about another of
Communicating By Design’s
both/and values ...


Coe, Richard M. Form and Substance: An Advanced Rhetoric. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1981. (ISBN10: 0471045853 and ISBN13: 9780471045854.)

Coe, Richard M. Process, Form, and Substance: A Rhetoric for Advanced Writers. 2nd edn. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990. (ISBN10: 0133266044 and ISBN13: 9780133266047.)

Hagge, John. “The Process Religion and Business Communication.” Journal of Business Communication 24.1 (Winter 1987): 89–120.

Kinneavy, James L. “The Process of Writing: A Philosophical Base in Hermeneutics.” Journal of Advanced Composition 7 (1987): 1–9.

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