Process Study: Tracing How a Text Comes into Being

For this assignment, you will conduct a study similar to those conducted by Perl and Berkenkotter:  you will examine a writer and their writing process and write a report in which you describe them.  Your method will be to record (preferably with video and audio) that writer’s complete writing process as they complete a writing task.  Your purpose is to try to learn some things about that writer’s actual writing practices that you might not be aware of and to reflect on what you learn using the terms and concepts you read about in Chapter 4.


Object of Study and Collecting Data:  To make this assignment as useful as possible, you need to plan ahead, so pick a writer you want to study (this could be a classmate, friend, family member, someone in your chosen career field, etc.) and figure out what that writer will be writing in the next couple of weeks.  Then, make a decision about what aspect of the writing process you will focus your study on.


Eliciting the Writer’s Account:  Before beginning your project, make sure that you and your chosen writer have access to and know how to use a computer or other device’s audio and/or video recording systems.  (The University Libraries provides a selection of technology for students interested in audio and video projects. Students at the UofM can check these items out free of charge. If you have questions about the tech or would like to learn more about the technology programs in the library, contact The University Emerging Technologies Librarian:  .)  As the writer works on the writing task that you are studying, have that writer record their efforts every time they work on it—this includes even times when the writer is thinking and planning for it, or when the writer is revising.  Keep the following in mind:

  • The writer may not be near the recording device(s) when they are planning; if that is the case, then have the writer keep a log in which they note their thoughts about the assignment.
  • When the writer sits down to type the paper, have them think out loud the entire time. This will feel strange, and will take some effort.  Do your best.
  • Have the writer try to externalize everything they are thinking. If they have trouble knowing what to say, go back to Perl and Berkenkotter and show them the kinds of things that Tony and Donald Murray said aloud when they were being studied.

When the writer has completely finished writing the text whose writing process you are studying, listen to or view the recording of them and transcribe it, or at least some significant part of it.  This means typing everything that was said on the recording, even the “ums” and “ahs.”  It will be helpful to double space (or even triple space) the transcript so that you can make notes on it.


Collecting and Keeping Track of Texts:  One of the key steps for researchers in tracing writing processes is collecting and keeping track of the texts themselves.  In many cases, it is not possible to collect every text produced.  Some are thrown out or get lost.  Electronic texts may be deleted.  Marginal notes on readings are forgotten.  However, the more relevant texts you are able to collect, the fuller the view you can develop of the process and its contexts.  You should ask your chosen writer to maintain and make available not just drafts, but also drafts that they or others have written on, separate responses, notes or doodling, other texts that they have written and used or that were closely related, and so on.
As a practical matter, it is important to ask your chosen writer what the texts are and to add explanatory labels for yourself that include when the text was given to you, what it is, who wrote it, and perhaps who wrote on it.  These kinds of details may seem obvious when you get the text, but days or weeks later when you are analyzing the data, it is easy to find yourself mystified when you pick up a text without this kind of contextual record attached.


Analyzing Your Data:  Come up with a code to help you study your transcripts and texts.  To see how to make a code, return to Berkenkotter and Perl for their descriptions of how they came up with their codes.  To consider what categories or elements of writing process you might want to include in your code, look through the readings you do in Chapter 4.  What did the various authors choose to study about people’s writing processes?  Some suggestions for things you might include would be notes about context (where and when the writer wrote, what distractions the writer faced, the writer’s attitude, any deadlines, etc.), codes for planning, brainstorming, large-scale revision, small-scale revision, pausing, and so on.

What you want is a code that will help you understand what’s happening when the writer writes.  Beware of the following potential pitfalls:

  • If the code is too vague, you won’t learn anything at all.
  • If the code is too detailed (for example, if you try to do what Perl did and record the exact amount of time taken for each action), you might never get done coding.

Once you have settled on a code, use it to analyze your transcripts and texts.

  • You might get a box of highlighters of different colors, and use each color to highlight the parts of the texts that correspond to parts of the code (for example, pink is planning).
  • You could simply underline parts of the transcripts and label them in shorthand (P = planning).
  • If you used a computer, you could search for key phrases in the texts and mark each occurrence by using the software’s “reviewing” feature to insert a comment in the margin.

Once you have coded the transcripts and texts, go back and consider these questions:

  • What is interesting about what you found? What immediately jumps out at you?
  • Did the writer do some things a lot, and other things rarely or never? Which codes do you see frequently or little at all?
  • How does your analysis suggest they compare to Tony or to Murray?

Like some of the authors in Chapter 4, you might make some charts or tables for yourself in order to visually explore what percentage of time they spent on various activities.


Stimulated Elicitation Interviews:  As is usually the case with data analysis, you’ll be looking for patterns in your recordings and collected texts, and for parts of the recordings and texts that break or stand out from those patterns.  What matters is what’s interesting to you, as the researcher, in those documents, so you’ll choose where to focus any follow-up research you do.  It’s very likely that your recordings and texts will leave you knowing a great deal about what the writer’s experiences are but not a lot about why the experiences are what they are, or about what those experiences mean to the writer having them.

Therefore, expect to want to conduct some follow-up interview in which you ask those questions of the writer; your interview questions will emerge from the documents themselves.  Many researchers find that an interviewee’s responses become richer when the person interviewed has some external stimulus, some object that can trigger and support memory as well as serve as a source for new reflection.  As Paul Prior details, “The specific props and directions can be varied.  The prop might be a text or specific highlighted parts of a text, photographs of certain scenes, an audiotape of some interaction, or a videotape of some action.  The directions for how to respond to the prop can also be quite varied.”  A generally good strategy is to have a few questions you plan to ask but to also make sure the interview is a free-form conversation that goes where you and your interviewee take it.  What you hear in the interview should help you further shape what it is you want to convey in your report about the writer’s writing experiences.


Planning and Drafting:  What are you going to write about?  You don’t need to go into excruciating detail about everything you coded.  Instead, you should decide what you want to claim about what you found.  For example:

  • How would you describe the writer’s writing process?
  • What are the most important take-home points from your analysis?
  • Are there aspects of the writer’s process that are definitively impacted by technologies like instant messaging, social networking, Skype, or even word-processing?

Based on the patterns that emerge from your analysis of data, decide what your claims will be and then return to your analysis to select data that give evidence of those claims.

As you are writing a scholarly research article, you might begin by outlining the various sections of your paper:  In your introduction, what other research will you cite?  Whose work provides important background information for your study?  What is the gap or niche that your study fills?  How will you describe your research methods?  What are the main claims you want to make in the findings?  One trick that some writers use is to write headings for each section, with main claims underneath.  Then the writer can go back and write one section at a time in order to break up the writing.


What Makes It Good?  The purpose of this assignment is for you to try to learn some things about a writer’s actual writing practices that you might not have been aware of, and to reflect on what you’ve learned using the terms and concepts you’ve read about in Chapter 4.  Does your paper demonstrate that this purpose was achieved?  In addition, your reader will want to learn something from having read your paper.  Does your finished text clearly convey your insights and findings?  In general, if the “insights” of the paper were obvious to you before you ever conducted the ethnographic study, then you have not fully engaged in the project and are unlikely to receive a good grade on it.