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Are We Limitless? : An Introduction to Post-Process Theory

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Many writers, if not all, find themselves in a frustrating place where their method of expression is limited to the language in which they write. In short, they find it difficult to write because there might not be a word or words for their subject. The same can be said for speakers who have the added benefit of body language and gesture. This is the reason why we refer to certain concepts as abstract. Language alone is not enough to fully explain the experience of those concepts.

It stands to reason that we also have theories of composition. If taken into consideration, these theories assist in thinking through the best available means by which to express an idea. In this post, I will specifically be talking about post-process theory. To introduce the idea, it's important to understand that "process theory" also exists.

Process theory is thought to originate from Janet Ermig's 1968 piece entitled The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders. Process theory is all about thinking of writing as a process as opposed to a product, something that can be broken down into stages. The findings from the development of this theory were primarily geared towards teachers looking for new methods with which they could give feedback to students on their writing to encourage improvement. Donald Murray, a 1972 process theorist, simplified this into prewriting, writing, and rewriting/revision.

This isn't to say that process theory is simply prewriting, writing, and rewriting/revision. This is to say that writing as process, in some form or fashion, is what's often taught and used. Post-process theory, while it has multiple interpretations, can add to this and present other options. In this series of posts, it is my aim to work through practical applications of different interpretations of post-process theory.

Post-process theory endorses the idea that there is no existing generalized writing process and that the act of writing in itself is too abstract for one big theory. Again, there are multiple interpretations of that. For the purposes of this blog, I have asserted that the means by which a writer will approach their task should ideally be personal to the writer and [as much as is possible] reflect the way they think. As such, there is no one generalized writing process because there are as many processes as there are communicators. Thomas Kent, author of the 1999 Post-Process Theory, Beyond the Writing-Process Paradigm, a foundational piece on post-process theory, states that most post-process theorists usually have three assumptions on or expectations of the act of writing. These assumptions are that writing is public, interpretive, and situated.

By "writing is public," what is meant is that writing is a communicative act. Kent describes that what we write must at least be accessible to others, that it constitutes an interaction between individuals at specific moments in time and in relation to others and the world. To build off of that, an act of writing can be a communication with the self and accessible by the self. Relations to the self, to others, and with the world change over time and moments of interaction change with them. Post-process theory argues that no single theory can encompass this idea.

Second, writing is interpretive. While this may seem obvious at face value, what this means is that a reader is meant to enter an understanding with the kind of language that the author is using and facilitates a greater understanding of the same language through others who reads their work. In short, writing fosters the creation of a discourse. In writing, the expectations of the genre are interpreted, the audience is interpreted, possibly the motivations of others are interpreted, and interpretation is infinite. It cannot be guaranteed that the same interpretive process employed in different rhetorical situations will produce the same results. It is equally possible that an interpretation can result in miscommunication of ideas or a result that can be proven incorrect based on evidence. That does not constitute a lack of interpretation, rather an interpretation that is usually either incomplete or not fully substantiated.

Third, the items that constitute the act of writing must come from somewhere. Kent states that writing itself cannot begin nowhere, but I'd like to push that idea a little further. As with genre, writing can be said to be made up of expectations, what we have thus far called a task. The way I understand it, the act of writing can constitute thoughts that are discarded, but were nonetheless part of what led to writing. Kent also states that those engaged in the discourse of the writers carry their own set of positions, that they are thus "situated." We can have a set of beliefs and then assume possible positions of others, how they might engage in interpretation, but this does not mean that any two people will hold exactly the same positions. They don't need to. Each person that engages in a discourse has a different relationship with themselves, with others, and with the world. Therefore, they have their own positions.

Another statement that Kent makes is that he normally uses "many, most, or some" with reference to others to better accommodate the different positions they hold. This is important because of crucial flaws that exist in texts that have been historically produced and traditions that writers follow in dealing in absolutes when absolutes cannot be wholly applicable. I often introduce the examples of self-help books that discuss mental illness. We can correctly say that an author defines a mental illness a certain way. That definition can be used to make a point. We cannot correctly insist that all manifestations of a mental illness are the same. This can be harmful for those who experience mental illness and are looking for tools and options to integrate into managing that mental illness. The language would be too prescriptive and could reduce a person's view on their own mental illness or that of others.

Language is limited and is normally more effective when it acknowledges its own limits. That's what post-process theory, to my understanding, does. It acknowledges the limits of language and its ability to be highly personable to the communicator using it. It does not discard the idea of a writing process or writing conventions. Conventions, whether one is intentionally working within them or working outside of them, constitute part of the communication process. Post-process theorists state that these elements exist, but that there isn't an all-encompassing theory of the act of writing.

The following series of posts will be interpretations of different post-process theorists' ideas, my responses to those ideas, and some practical applications. That is to say, from my understanding of post-process theory, I'm finding that there are tools that can help communicators to think through their methods in different ways.

As always, thank you to all of those who have been reading and engaging with Purposeful Prose so far. If you would like to be able to engage directly with my posts, "liking" them or sending comments, it costs nothing to become a member. As a member, you will also be able to use my forum to ask or answer questions or to give feedback on some things I should research or write about.

I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts!


Emig, J. (1971). The composing processes of twelfth graders.

Kent, T. (Ed.). (1999). Post-process theory: Beyond the writing-process paradigm. SIU Press.

Murray, D. (1972). Teach writing as a process not product. The leaflet, 71(3), 11-14.

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