Reinventing Writing: Is Assertiveness Always the Answer?

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

In my last post, "Are We Limitless," I described post-process theory according to Thomas Kent and some of the methods by which post-process theorists usually think of writing. The first essay in Kent's collection, Post-Process Theory, Beyond the Writing Process Paradigm is by Gary A. Olson and is entitled "Toward a Post-Process Composition: Abandoning the Rhetoric of Assertion."

When a writer abides by a rhetoric of assertion, a writer is seeking to make a point through their work substantiated by evidence. This is what is often taught in academia through application of process theory. Instructors might teach a student how to write an outline, how to understand a prompt, or how to write a thesis statement. All of these skills hold validity, but should standard academic practice stop there and continuously reinforce a rhetoric of assertion? When a student learns new ways of interpreting their sources and starts to question concepts, is it hypocritical to expect them to assert as opposed to question through their work?

As someone who posed different versions of these questions to myself while working in my university's writing center, I would sometimes tell students that while I understand that certain standards for writing can be limiting, that's where the expectations of instructors often lie. This isn't a criticism of instructors by any means. I would also make recommendations to students who were interested in writing outside of the standards and weren't sure where to start. If you're interested, I'd often recommend reading modernist novels and reflecting on why the author chose a particular method to express their ideas. How, then, can they express their ideas in different ways?

Process theory isn't, in itself, harmful and Olson starts by making the same point. Process theory is a large part of how people learn writing and how people give feedback on the writing of others. Knowing how to write to a task strengthens are ability to adapt and communicate effectively in different situations. Where process theory limits itself is when there is an assumption that a particular theory or generalized concept can apply to all writing situations.

In order to illustrate this point, Olson engages in post-modern criticism of theory, that we shouldn't conflate the act of building a theory and engaging in discourse with capital T theory. Speculation and discussing a concept from different perspectives can be incredibly productive, it can help us to think through and rethink the way we understand something. If, however, we have already found a collective truth, a theory that encompasses everything having to do with that discipline, it can be more difficult to enter into discourse. Applied to writing, it's hard to claim to arrive at a collective truth without leaving something important out of the conversation including [but not limited to] possible new forms of effective expression.

It can be helpful to rethink assumptions on any discipline, writing included. Olson addresses that the language that is sometimes used to teach scientific concepts isn't always as objective as it claims to be. While, yes, science is real, climate change is real, global warming is real, etc., that's not what's at stake for the purposes of this piece. Olson engages with Sandra Harding, saying, "because Western science has traditionally been dominated by white, well-educated (that is, middle- or upper-class) males, the values and perspectives of only this small group have dictated the values and perspectives of science--what is worth studying and what not (heart attacks but not breast cancer?), how a subject is to be studied (male research subjects being used to study specifically female maladies?), how the resulting data are interpreted, and so on" (Olson, 2002).

While developments have been made in scientific studies and audiences have gotten better at noticing the lack of objectivity, this is still an issue. While it is important to produce and publish scientific findings and that they should be given appropriate attention, it's also important to make a distinction between written findings that are objective and written findings that take too few variables into account. It could close off alternative perspectives. Let's say that a resolution to a study on an illness was found, but another form of the same illness was found in another country. The new manifestation of that illness might not be documented or investigated properly. Similar things can happen. It is not that the prior "resolution" did not happen. Rather, there should be room for further discussion, there should be more open-ended inquiry or [at least] an openness to new information.

Donna Haraway, who Olson cites, reiterates that narratives in science (in her case, technoscience) are limited based on who tells them and the perspectives they take, but that it isn't a matter of inscribing or reinscribing any system of hierarchy. This would be just as limiting. However, it should be acknowledged there are more narratives out there to consider, there should be more narratives available, and a greater variety of people should be able to present those narratives such that it leads to higher accuracy and greater objectivity within the discipline. In Haraway's terms, the best way to go about this is to aim to resist purely phallogocentric writing practices, not to reject prior narratives entirely or to ignore their existence, but to engage with them and to add more, revealing how authority plays a part in the discourse.

Having authority is different from taking an authoritative stance. The social position and perspective as a whole is important. Having higher education, having hands-on experience, having engaged heavily in discourse means having topic knowledge and [ideally] being able to apply it in some way. Authority is often determined in different ways based on this kind of information. Taking an authoritative stance, on the other hand, would imply using the capacity of that authority to make an assertion, possibly to reach a resolution. In the discipline of writing as a whole, something that is constantly evolving, there is more room for inaccuracy. So, the question becomes this. What is a productive way to progress given this information?

Olson cites Jean-Francois Lyotard who states that we have a preoccupation with "mastery" of a subject when complete mastery can't always be said to be attainable, but that it's important to always question nonetheless. The goal ceases to become mastery and aims for knowledge with which more questions can be asked. So, we continuously develop without feeling the need to resolve.

With this information, we can question whether the language we use inhibits the progression of discourse. There are situations where resolutions can be seen as necessary, and that's when it's important to consider the writer's task. The writer's task might have strict parameters, it might even go against a writer's ideals (at this point, it is at the writer's discretion whether they pursue this project and the project might be essential to the writer's livelihood or academic career). However, it is also important to acknowledge the limits of a narrative and the limits of availability and accessibility within a discourse. Olson's position within post-process theory can help to navigate those limits and turn them into productive conversations.

As always, thank you all so much for your engagement with Purposeful Prose, whether you are a first-time reader or have been following my posts from the beginning. If you would like to engage directly with my posts, including "liking" and sending comments (both of which are very helpful), you can become a member! If you would like, you can also participate in my forum and let me know what you'd like me to research next. If you have a question, that question could become my next post!

I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts!


Olson, G. A. (2002). Toward a post-process composition: Abandoning the rhetoric of assertion. Post-process theory, beyond the writing process paradigm, 1-9.

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