The Composing Processes Of Unskilled College Writers

Sondra Perl


Perl's primary subject under investigation was, of course, how unskilled writers write; in order to gather usable data, she first sought a method of analyzing the writing process that may be standardized and used in other research as well. Having gathered this information, she then looked for ways to apply it to what is known about the process of composition, as well as how it is taught in an academic context.

Perl's subject pool was selected from a community college based on submitted writing samples that qualified them as "unskilled writers". Selected students met with Perl for five 90-minute sessions, four of which were used for verbal composition and one of which was used for an interview in order to take note of students' personal opinions and history with writing. The verbal composition sessions were recorded both by the student, in an actual written product, and on audiotape, and after each session Perl noted down composing behaviors based on the audio capture of the student's pen moving on the paper. This combined data allowed her to determine when the student was talking and/or writing, or neither. She then set up a code for the various general behaviors she observed; for example, PL stands for general planning, or organizing one's thoughts before writing, while PLG stood for global planning, or planning changes in drafts. There are sixteen general sections of writing and reading operations, which may be strung together along the ninety-minute timeline to document exactly what the writer did at what timestamp. Perl calls these records composing style sheets, as they document how the writer works but not what they produce.

One particular idiosyncracy that stands out using this method of recording is the miscue, or when what the writer says aloud differs from what they put down on paper. Perl similarly categorizes these into the type of miscue and its possible implications for the composition process.

Besides these general findings, Perl also conducted a case study in which she goes further into depth about exactly what her findings mean and how they may be interpreted. Her subject is Tony, "a 20-year-old ex-Marine born and raised in the Bronx, New York", working part-time as well as attending college for the first time. She notes his use of repetition to find new ideas and maintain momentum in his piece, as well as his constant editing; the second may have resulted in the first, as constantly breaking off to check his technical correctness seems to have interrupted his composing rhythm and required the repetition in order to regain his train of thought.

In general, Perl suggests that this sort of shuttling back and forth is a commonality among unskilled writers; they all seem concerned about the technical correctness of their writing but given their apparent lack of skill do not have the knowledge or tools with which to correct themselves. As a result they often shoehorn the more basic technical rules they know into place, often reducing readability and ease of understanding in their writing. She notes the way selective perception often gets in the way of writers proofreading their own work, since they are so certain of what should be on the page they tend to miss what is, in fact, not, something that is particularly obvious when the writer assumes that their audience has all the same knowledge and comprehension as them and therefore fails to explain something that is in fact not clear. She points out that this obsession with technical correctness is a result of being taught that form precedes content and that writing is a "cosmetic" process. Perl points out the convenience of her method of documenting the composing process, and how it may be used as a teaching tool.


The charts, or composing style sheets as they are called, do not explain what students wrote but rather how they wrote. They indicate, on one page, the sequences of behavior that occur from the beginning of the process to the end. From them it is possible to determine where and how these behaviors fall into patterns and whether these patterns vary according to the mode of discourse.

The pedagogical soundness of this procedure has been questioned frequently, but in spite of the debate, the practice continues, and it results in a further complication, namely that students begin to conceive of writing as a "cosmetic" process where concern for correct form supersedes development of ideas. As a result, the excitement of composing, of constructing and discovering meaning, is cut off almost before it has begun.

These unskilled college writers are not beginners in a tabula rasa sense, and teachers err in assuming they are. The results of this study suggest that teachers may first need to identify which characteristic components of each student's process facilitate writing and which inhibit it before further teaching takes place.

Teaching composing, then, means paying attention not only to the forms or products but also to the explicative process through which they arise.


I admire Perl’s determination to breakdown the writing and composing process to such a great degree. Her research really is original in the fact that numerical values and code are used to measure how each writer spent his or her time composing. Perl was right to assume that narrative research on the subject cannot be as reliable since each researcher’s methods differ, and some small action that might go unnoticed by one person might be deemed integral by another; in other words, not all researchers mark the same things, so their work cannot be compared as easily. Perl very intelligently took the narrative aspect out of her research methodology, which allows the testing results to be compared since they are based off of coding and interview responses on tape.

This is not to say her methodology is perfect — far from it; however, the process she decided to follow is very unusual. The methodology could still be improved further since her trials with unskilled writers are among the first of their kind. As more research is done in this field, an even more in depth process for observing and measuring composing techniques will be developed. Another limitation of Perl’s testing is that only five unskilled college writers actually participated in the study. Perl’s results definitely have some validity, but the point is that her overall process and findings would be very different had the research focused on a larger number of test subjects.

I think Perl’s research was incredibly successful in one aspect of what it was trying to do, namely, develop a system of code to describe how writers devote their time while performing a timed writing task. This fact in itself is a great result of the work Perl did because it opens so many other doors to research in composing. Perl was able to find common trends exhibited by writers, and this was very valuable data, which probably would not have been retrieved through the narrative approach of explaining the composing process. Having this code allows one to compare the writing styles of nearly any writer. Had the research focused on unskilled and skilled writers alike, the results may have shown which aspects of the composing process separates the skilled writers from the less experienced writers.

By demonstrating the results of one subject in particular, Tony, Perl is able to show how her testing method is used to accomplish its goal, to find out which part(s) of the composing process is posing problems for the writers. An interesting point Perl found was in regards to the recursive nature of many of the writers. Rather than letting their ideas flow and then going back to edit afterwards, many subjects stopped mid-writing to see if they had stayed on the given topic, often editing as they composed new material. This jumping back and forth between processes was an interesting find through the research, and I would bet that many writers could write better material if this problem can be identified and studied enough to be corrected.


(I was going to edit your thing but I thought I would just respond instead.)

I think you're far too generous. For someone who's supposedly focused on quantifying the composing process and splitting it down to its component atoms, Perl's work has a glaring omission; she never defines what makes a writer skilled or unskilled. She never discusses the technical competence or linguistic fluency or structural integrity of a piece of writing that would determine the author's skill level. She never even discusses whether the writers included are native English speakers, presumably something that could have a good amount of impact on the results of her study. Going into detail about her case study is all well and good, but she never discusses the same points when they are equally relevant to every single student who is a part of her study. She doesn't mention the way she selected her subjects - was it random? Out of her subject pool, were there only five who fit the criteria, or were there more possibilities who were not selected for arbitrary reasons?

Perl's methodology is certainly very unique - it reminds me of linguistics and the way it breaks down speech, something we usually see as a fluid entity that must be taken as a whole. For all her failings, she does establish a way of documenting something previously very difficult to standardize, and suggests ways of interpreting the data collected in this way. I agree that her study collected very useful data, which is the starting point for discussion that as far as I can tell is ongoing, but I think that, given her initially flawed premise, we cannot use her general data. We can only extrapolate from Tony's case study, as it is the only part of the study that is remotely sufficiently documented.

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