professional writing’s invention curriculum

As I've written here in the past, professional writing strikes me as an odd hybrid of liberal arts and professional curricula. Clearly there are many people for whom writing is a profession and/or for whom writing is the primary activity of their professional life–particularly if we define writing broadly in terms of networked composition. And yet one does not turn to the "P" section of the job ads and look for "professional writer" jobs the way one might look for jobs as a teacher, accountant, graphic designer, computer programmer, etc. In that sense, professional writing is more of a liberal arts education that provides a broad range of intellectual and communication skills and knowledge.  In addition to encountering disciplinary knowledge from our field (as all majors do in their respective disciplines), at Cortland, professional writing majors are differentiated from their peers in the following ways:

  • as a group they tend to be stronger writers, outperforming their classmates on writing assignments in a variety of classes they take;
  • they have experience writing in a wide variety of genres where most students write only in academic genres;
  • they have written much more in their academic career;
  • and they have honed the practice of invention and creativity.

It is the last point that I want to discuss. As students enter our program, they typically arrive with a binary concept (and experience) with writing. There is "creative writing" (mostly poetry and short stories) where (they feel) essentially anything goes; it is the aesthetic version of "everyone has a right to his/her own opinion." On the other hand there is "academic writing," where there exists a very rigid set of rules for style, organization, and argument that must be obeyed. Obviously the former is preferred to the latter. Creative writing represents a kind of natural writing state, and academic writing represents the repression of natural writing by the institution. In this context, I see our curricular goal as helping students recognize invention/creativity as embodied and cultural, as something that can be practice and developed, as central to professional writing regardless of genre.

Certainly, there are a number of other qualities one might put at the center of a professional writing curriculum: e.g., rhetorical analysis and theory, knowledge and practice of specific genres, technical/computer expertise, skill with language and style. All of this (and more) takes place. Indeed, in the end, these qualities are not separable in practice. However I see professional writing as an emerging approach to writing studies where invention/creativity move to the center, where we move beyond the either/or of pop cultural notions of romantic, naturalized creativity and the mechanistic heuristics of fyc composition textbooks. We also move beyond rationally, over-determined concepts of professional genres that imagine the effective erasure of invention (as if invention/creativity was unnecessary for business proposals or technical instructions) and critical-theoretical critiques of invention as ideologically over-determined.

I could hypothesize a couple reasons for this.

  1. Always with new media on my mind, the churn of networked media has meant the continual development of new communication possibilities, emerging genres, and different composition methods: various media, collaborative efforts, "real-time" writing, etc.. Invention is highlighted in these instances.
  2. The putative "creative economy," which goes who-knows-where in our current economic climate, but I think there is a greater consciousness of the importance of creativity as a "job skill." Of course, I have mixed feelings about such matters (for another post), but I think the fact remains that this idea is "in the air" and part of what's going on.
  3. Shifts within our discipline. If there is a turn toward writing studies, professional writing, digital/networked/new media then I think that a return to the issue of invention/creativity is necessarily a part of it. In my view, for an era of high theorization, post-process composition as a whole gave little attention to invention, unless one is satisfied with the idea of invention as a ideologically-managed process. Personally, I find that a significant but incomplete picture.