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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Invention Strategies: From the Classical Writing Process to Computer-Mediated Class Process

Lilian Mina, United States

Lilian Mina is currently a doctoral candidate at the Composition and TESOL program at IUP. She has been teaching English as a Foreign Language for about 18 years. She has majored in teaching second/foreign language writing for five years with a number of papers published and presentations given. Her teaching and research interests include using computers in teaching writing, teaching composition, business, and technical writing, and second language writing. Email:


Invention strategies in classical works
Vygotsky’s ZPD
Invention stage in the computer assisted composition class


The first step is always the hardest to take. This is true with almost everything in life the way it is with starting to write. The fact that writing in itself is difficult means starting to write is even more difficult than starting other jobs. Since the shift in composition studies from the writing students produce to the process they go through in order to produce them, or what has been classically known as the writing process, starting to write, writing, and revising became the focus of a whole church of research in Composition studies.

However, the focus was not fundamentally balanced between the three writing stages: invention, writing, and revising, with the last receiving most of the attention over years. Despite the fact that the invention stage is the most laboring and influential one as it consumes about 85% of writing time (Murray, 1982), it has not been studied as intensively or extensively compared to the other two stages. And after four decades of the writing process coming into picture in the writing classes, not many people are thinking back to the origins of the writing process to see what changes have happened to the invention stage and how these changes may be affecting our current practices.

The look at the foundational research on the writing process as originally introduced by Emig (1971), Elbow (1973, 1981), and Murray (1982) reveals that writing was seen as a very individualistic activity that the writer may do in isolation, practicing and applying certain strategies to produce a piece of writing. The current teaching approaches, and particularly those who heavily rely on computers and the Internet, have turned into more collaborative, social epistemic view of writing. In these classes, writing is seen as a social activity whose meaning is constructed in collaborative groups either face-to-face or in virtual spaces. This huge change has affected each stage in the writing process. From invention, to writing, to polishing and publishing, writing is becoming more social and collaborative rather than isolated and individual.

This move to the social end of the continuum has necessitated the integration of Vygotsky’s constructivism and his seminal concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in the writing process, and particularly in the invention stage. This paper looks into the current use of technology in the prewriting/invention stage and how this use has combined the classical Emig (1971), Elbow (1973, 1981), and Murray’s (1982) invention strategies with Vygotsky’s (1978) theory to bring more collaboration to the writing class. The purpose of the paper is to show how the invention strategies have moved from being individual to a more of group work done mostly on networked computers.

The paper brings together the invention strategies introduced in Emig (1971), Elbow (1973, 1981), and Murray’s (1982) work. The paper then discusses briefly Vygotsky’s (1978) concept of ZPD and what it means and adds to invention strategies in the writing class. The last section of this paper will look into the use of computers and networks in the invention stage.

Invention strategies in classical works

The writing process is a chain of stages and steps the writer goes through in order to produce a written document. Like a chain, the stages of the writing process overlap and intersect, and are never linear. Murray (1982) described writing as a “never stable process,” but “there are some stages of this chaotic evolution” (p. 5). The writing process was first introduced to composition studies in Emig’s (1971) work in which she examined the composing processes of different twelfth graders. Later, Elbow (1981) and Murray (1982) took Emig’s work to a deeper level of practice. The works of the three of them created a detailed account of what the invention stage, among other stages of the process, entails and what the writing teacher is expected to do during this critical stage.

The invention stage

In her study, Emig (1971) found that the act of writing is often preceded by two stages: prewriting and planning. These two stages together form the invention stage. Prewriting starts the moment the student receives the writing stimuli or the assignment. How the student writer perceives and discerns the assignment internally is the initial step which extends until the student writer actually “puts words or phrases on paper” to conquer the act of writing (p. 39). Murray (1982) said that this discerning happens when the writer thinks of the idea and what can be written about it. The planning stage includes any writing or discussion of what the writer intends to include in writing. The writer may write the points he/she is interested in, or discuss these points with someone else to formulate and articulate ideas better. For this end, Murray saw that the exploration and discovery time is a crucially important component in the writing class. Students should have time to think and explore in order to discover themselves and to discern more about their world.

Elbow (1981) explained what writers actually do as they go through this dual-skill invention stage. Elbow illustrates that as writers tread into writing, they have two skills in conflict: the skill to write the ideas they want, and the skill to critique those ideas to choose from them. Elbow emphasizes the importance of separating these two skills into stages: in the first stage, writers “write freely and uncritically” to produce all possible ideas without having to worry about their feasibility (p. 7); afterwards, in the second stage, they ruthlessly revise what they have written in the first one. This means the invention stage requires two basic skills: creativity and critical thinking. However opposite may these skills seem to student writers, they are inherently complementary if used successively and separately, or rather they may impede the act of writing altogether.

Murray (1982) introduced a very interesting and almost thorough explanation of how student writers go through the invention stage. For him, a student writer is “an individual who is learning to use language to discover meaning in experience and communicate it” (p. 11). Murray believed that the prewriting stage includes research and collecting information for the subject of writing. Collecting information can be through what we hear, see, taste, or simply our life experiences. These are processed, stored and organized in our minds to be used when we resort to them as resources for writing. This is when the connecting phase comes to light. We start making connections between all the pieces of information stored in our brains. These connections may make the writer realize that some pieces of the puzzle are missing, which requires more information gathering and the cycle goes on. This will eventually create new meanings of old information, and this is how the writer writes about a variety of subjects from different perspectives every time they attack a new subject.

During that stage the writer may take notes that they may or may not use later in writing itself. Another technique the writer tries is dialoguing. The writer talks to other people as much as they talk to themselves. Through dialogs, ideas may get articulated better or may acquire a new meaning. All the notes the writer has made and the ideas generated during oral dialogs may turn into outlines or lines that the writer draws from when they start drafting. Murray’s (1982) detailed account of the dynamics of the invention stage raises the question about the teacher’s role in this stage.

Teacher’s role

Both Emig (1971) and Elbow (1981) discussed the teacher’s role during the invention stage. Emig, on the one hand, made it unequivocal that the teacher’s part in the prewriting stage goes beyond the advice the teacher may give to students on what to write. Instead, the teacher’s responsibility extends to designing the writing assignment that acts as the stimuli to students to write. In her study, Emig found that the more detailed and specific the assignment is, the easier and shorter the prewriting stage becomes. Among the details Emig listed to be included in the assignment are “register, length, purpose, audience” (p. 39). When the assignment contains those details, student writers may not dwell long on thinking about the audience to whom they would reveal their inner thoughts or the form that would embrace these thoughts (Murray, 1982). Students in this case would focus more on gathering some materials, specifics as Murray would put it, to help them write and explain their idea. Such specifics may include statistics and quotations.

Elbow (1981), on the other hand, complemented Emig’s (1971) view of the teacher’s role as he suggested the teacher should encourage students to loosen their guard as they brainstorm to come up with more ideas than they think they may need for completing an assignment. If the pool of ideas is large, selecting good ideas is easier; on the contrary, if the pool is limited, students may not even find enough ideas to start drafting their papers. Murray (1982) accounted for Elbow’s suggestion when he argued that during the invention stage, the writer is playing with ideas and words in order to see how ideas are shaping. Accordingly, teachers are expected to give enough time in their curriculum for prewriting and to help students go through this stage.

Furthermore, Murray (1982) advised teachers to create the suitable environment in which students are able to go through the writing and exploring process. Each student needs to explore his own way and process of writing that is inherently different from other students’ or writers’. As students explore different experiences to write on, they experiment with language. Mistakes in language can be seen as “experiments that didn’t work” (p. 13) and can later be examined and changed with the critical thinking skill Elbow (1981) mentioned.

In order for this exploration to occur and be productive, both Elbow (1981) and Murray (1982) suggested free writing as a tool in the invention stage. Free writing means to keep writing non-stop for about 10 minutes. Elbow sees free writing as the written resemblance of speaking. People rarely find it difficult to speak because of the continuity of the speaking act and the looseness of ideas they experience as they speak without editing. Elbow believes this can be transferred to writing when writers free write about the loose ideas in their heads. Murray, on the other side, believes that each student should have the time to experience themselves and the world in writing freely about what students see, hear, smell and taste. In other words, students should be encouraged to write about their life experiences freely to discover more about themselves and their world.

What Emig (1971), Elbow (1981), and Murray (1982) presented about the invention stage and strategies makes it prevalent that writing, invention included, is a merely individual act in which the student writer follows and applies all invention strategies suggested by the three of them in the sanctuary of their own private space. This situation did not last for long, especially after Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of constructivism and ZPD has become an integral component in composition studies and has thus affected the writing class dynamics.

Vygotsky’s ZPD

Vygotsky (1978) defined the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86). Vygotsky advocated verbal interaction between people (students in this case) as a means for better construction of meaning and knowledge. Although ZPD was more concerned with the interaction between an expert and a novice, more and more writing teachers now claim that the novice-novice interaction can result in similar help and development (e.g. O’Brien, 2004).

Although most writing research utilizing Vygotskian concept of ZPD has been done on the revision and peer review stage (e.g. Ferris & Hedgcock, 2005; Soares, 1998), a closer look at the potentials of ZPD reveals that ZPD has been intentionally or unintentionally deployed in the computer assisted composition classes in which students collaborate at different stages of the writing process to activate and enhance their ZPDs. Interaction between students and scaffolding by the writing teacher create a relaxed class environment, face-to-face or online, that allows for more interaction and collaboration among students, which is a key element in developing their writing skills (Hansen & Liu, 2005). This development can be reflected in the production of improved and more focused ideas in the invention stage as part of the writing process. Thus, Vygotskian theory of constructivism and ZPD has merged with the classical writing process as introduced by Emig (1971), Elbow (1981), and Murray (1982) in the modern computer assisted composition class to foster more collaboration between teacher and student, on the one hand, and among students on the other.

Invention stage in the computer assisted composition class

Although the new theories of composition and writing deemphasize the process theory as initiated about four decades ago, they all incorporate one or more feature of it, or as Berlin (as cited in Fulkerson, 2005) would put it that at the end of the day we all teach a form of the writing process. Moreover, Kent (1999) interpreted the writing process as formulaic writing that has steps and stages. Hence, it is safe to claim that all writing pedagogies include one or more aspect of the writing process even when computer came to the writing class and computer mediated communication (CMC) is becoming the medium of invention, writing, and revising in the modern writing class.

Recently, Lee (2009) argued that Vygotsky’s theory of constructivism is the base of group discussions in the writing class. Vygotsky (1978) believed that knowledge is better constructed in a community of learners rather than by an individual learner. Pre-writing discussions of topics is the venue where students collaborate in a community to construct more and better ideas. This community “provides an opportunity for students to experiment with or test their ideas in a safe environment” (p. 14). Yong-Fang (2009) confirmed Lee’s assertion, and consequently Vygotsky’s theory, when she claimed that writing should start orally in activities such as brainstorming or discussion before it moves to paper. Both teacher and students collaborate orally to discuss a topic or an idea bringing about many ideas that students will employ later in their drafts. This is when students can best employ their creative skills (Elbow, 1981) and the teacher provides the required scaffolding that is likely to activate students’ ZPD. Pre-writing collaborative discussions took two modes in Yong-Fang’s study: small group discussions followed by a whole class discussion. Such small and large scale discussions are expected to create the large pool of ideas Elbow (1981) and Murray (1982) emphasized.

The emergence of computers in the composition class, and particularly in the invention stage, took a variety of forms that ranged from individual invention (as in the use of software programs) to collaborative invention (as in the use of chat and discussion boards).

Invention software programs

With 26 years between them, Rodrigues and Rodrigues (1984) and Bacci (2010) suggested the use of different computer software programs at the invention stage of writing. Nevertheless, they all see invention as an individual act that is done on the computer screen instead of the traditional paper and pencil.

Rodrigues and Rodrigues’ (1984) rationale for using invention software programs was that teachers do not usually allow students adequate time for prewriting and invention in class while invention requires more time for students to fully apply invention techniques. Unlike other stages of the writing process in which students get help from their colleagues (e.g. revision), students have to work on their invention on their own. This is sometimes discouraging to students who are busy with their coursework in other subjects. As a result, students may ignore the invention stage altogether and indulge into writing their drafts immediately. This is where invention software programs prove useful as they are available at the students’ convenience, a fact that may motivate them to spend more time finding suitable invention strategies and applying them. Additionally, computer software programs cater for a wider range of individual differences and writing topics, which means students, in the long run, may develop their own writing styles and invention strategies out of the myriad of strategies they draw from initially. Therefore, students’ autonomy increases and their self-confidence as writers is boosted.

In more practical terms, Rodrigues and Rodrigues (1984) claimed that invention software programs may take the student through listing main ideas and supporting details as well, which not only raises novice student writers’ awareness of the invention and prewriting strategies, but also helps generate an outline for the student to use in developing their drafts. This illustrates how the use of computer invention programs is built on the same techniques suggested by Elbow (1981) and Murray (1982) of free writing and outlining. The integration of computers here, thus, has no added value to the invention stage since all the strategies employed are merely transferred from paper to the computer screen.

Unlike Rodrigues and Rodrigues’ (1984) study, Bacci (2010) not only presented the use of Microsoft (MS) applications in the invention stage, but her choice also reflected the development in both software programs and invention strategies. Bacci proposed the use of MS Publisher and PowerPoint, among other software programs, as tools for invention in the writing class. She suggested the use of MS Publisher in designing a web page in which students would introduce their topics, the resources they have consulted for their project, and the process of searching their topic. As students design and write their web pages, they see their topic “from a variety of angels” (p. 77). Bacci argued that these web sites elevate the students’ awareness of audience.

The other application Bacci (2010) suggested was MS PowerPoint. Each student has to present five slides of the five main ideas he/she initially has for the paper. This, as Bacci claimed, would help the student to make a decision on which points should make the main ideas and which would be the supporting details. Presenting these ideas early to class and receiving feedback help the student proceed with the paper at this early stage of writing. Bacci’s suggestions represent a shy integration of Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of constructivism in the invention stage in the form of the feedback students may get on their PowerPoint presentations of their ideas. Lack of collaboration in the invention stage that relies more on computer software programs can be attributed to the nature of software programs that may enforce individuality contrary to online applications, and specifically Web 2.0 ones that foster interaction, collaboration, and exchange of ideas.

Online collaboration in the invention stage

Ever since the emergence of the Internet, a huge body of research has been developed on the effect of connectivity and virtual spaces on writing and composing processes in the writing class. The potentials of synchronous and asynchronous applications, such as chat and discussion boards, respectively, for the writing class have been explored. Some teachers have utilized a hybrid of online and face-to-face discussion applications while others utilized solely online applications for collaboration in the invention stage.

Lee (2009) experimented with both types of discussion: class face-to-face and chat discussion. Her findings show that while face-to-face discussions in the pre-writing stage produced more in depth ideas than chat discussions, students had more varied and new ideas in their chat discussions. In a different study, Ellis and Yuan’s (2004) findings support Lee’s finding. Ellis and Yuan found that students who collaborated in online prewriting discussions produced more accurate drafts than their colleagues who collaborated face-to-face. A good implication of these findings can be to hybrid both forms of discussion in the writing class: students may have an initial chat discussion of their topics and ideas to generate many new and innovative ideas that can be expanded and elaborated on in face-to-face discussions in class for deeper insights and more focused ideas. Both types of discussion represent a presence of Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of ZPD in the invention stage in the writing class; students collaborated together through verbal (oral or written) interaction to produce more ideas and to help each other get started with their drafts.

An interesting finding in Lee’s (2009) study is that much of the ideas produced in the invention stage came from the assigned readings. Students brought to the discussions many ideas from the texts they were asked to read. This means that these readings should have adequate time of discussion in class. The goal shouldn’t be to ask students to read those texts and home on their own without ample amount of discussion that would foster critical reading and thinking of these texts. This kind of group discussion would transfer to students’ drafts in a more meaningful and rounded ideas. This finding brings Emig’s (1971) argument on teacher’s role in the writing process to the twenty-first century’s writing class. While Emig asserted that the teacher’s role starts from the time of preparing the curriculum and the amount of details available in it, Lee’s finding adds to the teacher’s responsibility in choosing class readings as well as allowing enough time for discussing those readings. Such discussion can hone in on Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of ZPD as students produce more ideas or solidify their arguments through interaction with their teacher and peers.

While Lee (2009) hybridded the face-to-face and online discussion tools in her study, Bacabac (2010) employed only the latter tool with her students. Students in this study used synchronous chat to collaborate in the invention stage. Over two chat sessions, students got together in a synchronous chat room where they discussed their ideas, theses and arguments in groups of two to four in a chat room. They also exchanged ideas on the sources they may use to support their arguments before they actually drafted their essays.

Findings of Bacabac’s (2010) study show that the transfer of ideas from chat sessions to students’ drafts varied from complete transfer of thesis statements and arguments to null transfer of counterarguments. This means that chat room discussions may help students articulate their ideas in the invention stage and students can actually make use of the generated ideas in their drafts, and students reported that the discussion in chat rooms helped them write better, stronger theses. These findings strongly confirm the value of collaboration in the invention stage, and can be considered an initial step on a long road of research that examines the role of the Vygotskian concept of ZPD in student collaboration through the use of computers in the prewriting stage in the writing class.


Reading seminal works in composition studies and related fields, such as psychology, can be an eye opening experience to us, writing teacher in a totally different era from the time those classical works were orignally conceived. These books bring great deal of insight into our current practices that we often times attribute to new theories or technologies. Looking far way back into how the writing process research started by Emig (1971), Elbow (1981), and Murray (1982) gave me more understanding of not only the origin of our current process practices, but also an insight into how the current practices of computer assisted writing made use of and integrated Vygotsky’s (1978) theories to move the invention stage from its previous case of individuality to current practice of collaboration. This paper has shown how composition studies is such a vibrant field that draws from not only composition research, but from a whole lot of research in other fields as well. The use of computers in the composition class is expected to tie together more theories from the past and present as we teachers are depending more heavily on them.


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Bacci, T. (2010). Invention and drafting in the digital age: New approaches to thinking about writing. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 82(2), 75 — 81. Retrieved from doi:10.3200/TCHS.82.2.75-81

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Soares, C. (2004). Peer review methods for ESL writing improvement. Paper presented at The Annual Meeting of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Seattle, WA. ERIC

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