“The Working Writer” syllabus approach presents writers/composers as tangible human beings who have managed to bridge the abyss between the brilliant ideas in their heads and the ever-daunting computer screen or sheet of paper. By showing students real, working writers—writers who are engaged daily with issues of craft—this approach presents the process of composing as a messy, yet manageable, act.  Writing, then, is not just black words floating on a white page, but the product of many mishaps and revisions, many drafts and ideas. Under this approach, students will be able to read and analyze amazing compositions, see and/or engage with the authors behind the texts, and, hopefully, gain the confidence that is needed for them to envision themselves as writers and composers. Ultimately, students will become “working writers,” creating, producing, and revising their own, original compositions.

For composition students, learning takes place when the role of the student ceases to be a passive recipient of information. Instead, when students begin to realize that behind each piece of rhetoric exists an author who has made choices in the creation of that rhetoric, and they begin to evaluate those choices, only then do they become active learners.  Too often, students see forms of rhetoric as static, finished products instead of something that was actively created by a person who, behind the curtain of the page, actively performs. In order for students to learn how to be thoughtful participants in any discourse, they must first learn to pay attention to the person behind the curtain.  Through identifying the choices authors have made about their purpose and how to best convey that purpose within a specific discourse community, students learn what is required of them in order to be active and successful “working writers.”

Helping students to realize the larger discourse communities in which they participate begins by establishing the classroom as their primary discourse community. In a seminar format that mixes craft and workshop elements, students participate by offering their own unique ideas through their own compositions and through their ideas about the compositions of professionals and their fellow students. Reading assignments in the form of essays, public documents, and literature are the main focus point of class discussion. To help students realize that all texts have a working writer behind the scenes and that they too are working writers, this syllabus approach primarily use two types of texts: those that focus on the craft of writing and those written by faculty members at Purdue. As students begin to discuss the material, they are increasingly asked to identify choices the author has made in producing that form of rhetoric and how those choices adhere to the author’s purpose.

As students begin to analyze the work of professional writers, they are simultaneously asked to be an active and analytic audience for their peers. Through reading each other’s work, students are forced to see a working writer (another student) who is making decisions in creating a composition. Alternatively, as authors, students are forced to confront an audience who doesn’t always know what they know or see the finished product they imagine. By witnessing the struggles or concerns an audience might have with their own work, students realize, once again, that rhetoric is a medium between author and audience, not a static product.