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Taking Agency in Writing

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Thus far, as I have been reading post-process theorists, each has personally acknowledged the revolutionary nature of process theory, seeing the act of writing as a process as opposed to its product. Barbara Couture, author of "Modeling and Emulating: Rethinking Agency in the Writing Process," is no exception to that rule. She states that writers are often taught to use devices and skills in order to emulate technique, that emulation of technique proves mastery in the act of expression. She believes that we are in a place where, rhetorically, we can move from writing as a device or set of devices to a design, that developments can help fulfill the intentions of the original process movement.

In the development of the discourse on process movement taking place in the sixties and seventies, participants in the discourse may have been aware of the emergence of "voice" as a quality to foster, something specific that helps to develop the agency of the writer. This quality takes into consideration the context of the writer, their physical environment and their headspace, that influences the tone that they take. However, Couture argues, this development did not necessarily change scholars' views on the necessity of having a structure to be modeled.

Agency is important as it shapes a more effective communicator. Couture sees the "founders of the process pedagogy" as James Moffett and Peter Elbow. "The Best Possible Means of Persuasion?" touched on how first year composition for university students [and prior] began at some point to take a "narrative-to-argument" approach as a way to instruct students on the parameters of standard academic writing, and Moffett employed that process in his own pedagogy. He was also a firm believer in the expression of internal reflection and outward action. In this way, effective instruction in writing can encourage personal development.

One experiment that Moffett conducted was to introduce different texts for his students to read in the same place. Each student had different material and, because of this, different contributions to eventual discussion. The discussion was student-led and they would be "negotiating identity" more freely and engaging with the perspectives of one another, developing themselves in the process.

While discussion of a text can be seen as being hyperbolic in conflation with the negotiation of identity, it's important to remember that writing should ideally be interpretive and that interpretation is based on the context of the rhetor. This leads into Peter Elbow's ideas that control over the way we communicate means control over our lives. Writers are agents. As such, Elbow would give feedback to his students through the framework of his experiences of their words. Couture says that this kind of feedback was undervalued and that this level of teaching is more than a collection of techniques.

In both Moffett's and Elbow's approaches, writing is becoming. It is an experiments that allows discourse to be engaged with and for conflict to be introduced, but more importantly, it is an opportunity to leave that conflict unresolved. As long as the conflict remains, to a degree, unsolved, it will be engaged with.

This is by no means an endorsement of the spread of harmful language solely for the purpose of discourse. Harmful language does not aid in the development of discourse.

This is to say that meaningful engagement, something that follows process theory and extends to post-process theory, should ideally aim to develop the self through continued criticism. As long as we are, essentially, modeling without encouraging transformative interpretation, we lose agency. By equating speaking and writing to devices and to skills, Couture argues that we are reducing them. Conversely, by replacing that notion with the idea of speaking and writing as a design, the writer becomes a creative agent.

Personally, I do not think that Couture delves as deeply into the act of interpretation and how that plays into the process of modeling a specific style as much as it is applicable. She does not use "transformative," but she does present a means by which the type of individualized expression that post-process theorists aim for in composition can be approached. These methods are aided by the fact that inherent prejudice is recognized in more disciplines and because "genre" is now seen as the full context of the production and reception of text. Genre also changes over time and is never the same thing. Some even say that the idea of "genre" is in itself a paradox.

Now that we are aware of factors that have been limiting discourse, these factors can be broken through. That said, the intentions behind an act, in this case an act of writing, are usually consistent with intentions for personal designs and a goal for the results of that act to hold value with others. This is not counterintuitive to post-process theory, specifically that writing should ideally be an act of communication with the self, others, and the world. As such, it is just as reasonable to strive for a work to be valued by others as it is reasonable to strive for a work that is valued by the self. For example, should a rhetor have the goal to contribute to an existing discourse in conversation with other pieces, the idea of it being in conversation is that it should be accessible to those who partake in the discourse.

Finding what we see as "voice" through a pre-existing value set is not an inherently harmful act and can be helpful. Couture states, "Subjective expression is the complex task of discovering who we are through articulating our values within the history of values and identities developed by others, thus showing how our presence on this earth makes a difference, a contribution to that history" (Couture, 1999). In sum, there is such a multitude of value sets that it is valid that we use them and interpret them. The case may be that such values align with our own, but the act of engaging with those values (not always the result of that engagement) can be as important to understanding the self as questioning can be.

What makes a work transformative changes. Something that is transformative does not have to be, according to Couture, different from what we has been seen before. Rather, something that is transformative presents an interpretation and is also able to be interpreted. That leads to some tools in the form of questions that Couture presents in order to encourage agency. I've worked with some of these to be more applicable to common writing instruction today.

When introducing the component of audience analysis to students, a writer will be asked to evaluate who their audience might be, but not necessarily how their audience might evaluate them. What qualities about an author might an audience be familiar with before reading their piece? How will those qualities affect the way this writer will be read?

Next, to what extent does the writer reflect their intention and purpose in context of intentions that already exist? To that end, is this writer filling their own needs and the needs of others as communicators? The piece of writing can show how the trajectory of a discourse changed with the advent of a specific argument and, further, how that new argument makes a difference.

I can relate to a lot of what is stated in this essay as it closely reflects the approach that I take when writing or evaluating the work of others with some exceptions, and most of those exceptions have to do with time. There is a lot of implicit acknowledgement here on the importance of utilizing the limitations of academic rhetoric and parameters to establish agency in some form and to use that agency to better understand identity. More simply, speaking and writing have a greater importance than what is often placed on them.

As always, thank you so much for your support and engagement with Purposeful Prose and for all of the wonderful feedback. It is extremely helpful to keep in mind as I continue with this series. If you would like to become a Purposeful Prose member, you can "like," and comment directly on my posts and make use of my forum. Let me know what you would like me to research in the future!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Couture, B. (1999). Modeling and emulating: Rethinking agency in the writing process. Post-process theory: Beyond the writing-process paradigm, 30-48.

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Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
May 07, 2021

Very interesting and, as always, a fresh way to think about the writing task. Couture's reference to multiple value sets highlights the importance of discourse and communication. Wonderful post!!!!

Replying to

Thank you so much!


Apr 16, 2021

Great to see the reference to Peter Elbow, who has been so influential and helpful to teachers of composition in the eighties and nineties and beyond. I had heard of Couture but hadn't read her, so it's great to get this in-depth summary of her work.

Not sure this is directly related, but I'm curious: what is your view of contemporary discourse on collaborative writing, particularly as it pertains to such matters as voice and agency? And what is the impact on the points you raise above about transformation and identity? Since so much of my own writing these days is collaborative, I find myself wondering about how that has changed my approach to and thinking about all writing.


Apr 17, 2021
Replying to

Thanks. That’s helpful.

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