Some Questions on Composition

I’m sitting at Denver International Airport this morning, waiting to board a flight to Austin, Texas, and the first meeting of a curators group on . The goal of my piece of the project is to help create a website, called “Digital Is,” that attempts to show what digital composition looks like here at the start of the second decade of the 21st Century.

As I wait to board my plane and anticipate the work ahead, I’m reminded of my conflicting thoughts on what composition looks like today. Howard Zinsser wrote in his book, On Writing Well, that:

“The new information age, for all its high-tech gadgetry, is, finally, writing based.”

I found that quote in a. In that same report, the authors write that:

Writing has never been more important than in this digital age. It is almost inconceivable to achieve academic success without good writing skills. And, while the fundamentals of good writing remain constant, new forms of writing are quickly evolving. Words are now regularly joined with images and voices.

Writing, or composition, isn’t all that different from the writing of generations past. ((Is it? Would love to hear your take in the comments.)) Since we first started making markings on clay or stone or paper, we have been trying to capture thoughts in a way that would make them understandable to ourselves as well as others. We write to remember, to share, to understand. We compose to be heard, to stand up and say “This is True,” or “I am here,” or “This was scary” or “hard” or “dangerous” or “exciting”, or “emotional”, or whatever we would like to convey.

And although I make my marks today on an iPad, ((Finished and published on a laptop, because the iPad isn’t quite the writing device I need it to be.)) a device that makes the making of marks very easy, and almost immediately shareable to anyone who can get to the Internet, I am reminded of just how hard it is to say something in a way that accomplishes my goals as a writer, that captures what I am, or was, thinking, that lets you into my head and thoughts.

That we now have more tools for making marks, and that we have new kinds of marks – photographs, videos, complex visualizations – doesn’t make the essential task of making meaning any easier. In some ways, as our options for composition increase, it gets harder to decide, to choose which way of making marks will get the point that we wish to make across. Harder, too, is what we must do in classrooms to convey the power of language and to help make our students critical participants in the literacies and literatures of our/their/our futures/our pasts.

And what counts as “writing,” or “composition?” Is a tweet a text, or a piece of a larger text? ((I’d say yes to both.)) Is a rambling audio podcast, recorded from the driver’s seat of my car, a composition on par with a Master’s thesis, or an essay? So long as a test or assessment or evaluation of a text occurs within a limited definition of what counts as writing, are these other forms valid? How do we who is a “good” writer? What is “good” writing?

Is “,” a term that Will and I and others use to describe blogging, a new form? ((The more I think about it, it isn’t. But it’s a useful way to talk about and describe some types of “good” writing.)) What’s new? What’s different? What’s useful? What’s good? Who gets to decide such things? ((And how does federal education policy muck with these questions, in sometimes good and sometimes not so good sorts of ways?))

And how in the world does a language arts teacher, sitting in an airport tapping away on a virtual keyboard, find himself in a place to ask such questions, or to attempt to answer them for others via this particular project?

Just a few questions, questions I always wonder about, that are surfacing for me as I prepare to embark on this work. ((I am humbled, as always, when I think about the power and majesty of language and teaching and learning and the fact that even a guy like me can use the Internet to talk to the world about these big ideas.))

12 thoughts on “Some Questions on Composition

  1. Bud
    Great post, and it is such an important idea: what is composition these days anyway? While so much of it is rooted in how we have always done it (writing remains at the heart of communication), our definitions of composition are always in shift, it seems.

    You write that we need to “….convey the power of language and to help make our students critical participants in the literacies and literatures of our/their/our futures/our pasts.”

    That’s it in a nutshell for me.


  2. Healigan says:

    Bud: I don’t have any answers to these questions, but I am thinking about them always. The one that causes me the least agita is “what is composition?” because I still recognize authentic writing when my kids produce it. They recognize it too, when they produce good writing, and when they read it. It can be a tweet, a blog post, an essay, a letter, a comment on facebook, an iMovie or podcast, all of these and more. All of them have their foundation in clear thinking about a topic, an understanding of the audience, and knowledge. Teaching it is not always exciting, but when we work, the good writing happens, no matter the tools or medium.
    I teach high school, so I am not a believer in the dictum that learning will always be fun. By high school, work is involved–in writing, in learning, in teaching, in life. Learning together MUST be engaging, but work is work. Good writing is work. Most good things in life come from work: on a page, on an iPad, in a tweet, in a blog post, and all the new forms to come. (I just noticed old media are “on” and new media are “in” hmmm)

  3. Kristin says:

    Wow. I was on the hunt for blogs of people involved with St. Vrain’s to get an idea of the culture in the school district. (I’m a PIE candidate hoping to find a home in one of your Language Arts classrooms!) Boy, did I find a gem with your blog!

    William Carlos Williams wrote a poem called “Red Wheelbarrow.” It is 90 characters total. Twitter allows 140. If it had originally appeared on Twitter, would we teach it in our classrooms? Probably not, simply because I think it would be lost in the shuffle. Twitter isn’t really made for literature. A solid quotable? Maybe. Poetry? A shakier maybe. Although I have friends who write 140 character stories, I have yet to see one that I would read anywhere but my computer screen. Are they all still compositions? Yes… many in the same way that the National Enquirer is considered a “newspaper.”

  4. Bud Hunt says:


    Glad you found me. It’s a good place to be. That said, I’m going to completely disagree – what made that poem precious wasn’t where it was published – any idea where it was first published? It’s how it resonated. I don’t think the place of publication matters as much as the text.

  5. David Truss says:

    This hit me to the core:
    That we now have more tools for making marks, and that we have new kinds of marks – photographs, videos, complex visualizations – doesn’t make the essential task of making meaning any easier.
    I see so many student ‘presentations’ that are ‘pretty’ but lack composition. Sometimes I think technology just decorates mediocrity. As we begin to focus more on the quality of the writing, we will see the true power of technology to share great work… be it a tweet by an aspiring poet or a master’s thesis by a thought leader published in an open journal, (rather than a stuffy journal buried in the isles of a distant library).

  6. The age of writing? No. The age of communication? Yes. That being said, there is very little difference between writing and most any other form of communication. The thought process that works in one form of communication will work in most any form of communication.

    Most of what is wrong in the world today is wrong because of poor communication. If anything has changed, it is that people don’t have the time to figure out what the other person is trying to say.

    The only way I know to teach good communication is to teach good writing. From there you have a base to build on.

    Has anything changed in what is important in writing? I think it has always been about achieving the purpose of the communication. If your audience is about to hop on a plane, you either have to get right to the point, or be so compelling that they will miss their flight.

    We have always taught students to write to their audience. The audience has changed, but not so much the writing process. Write to your audience. I think it is easier for kids to understand their audience than ever before.

  7. Fantastic article! The concept of composition is truly crucial, especially in the context of our evolving understanding. Although it’s deeply rooted in traditional practices, particularly in writing as a fundamental element of communication, the definition of composition is constantly undergoing change.

    Your emphasis on conveying the potency of language and empowering students to become discerning contributors to the literacies and literatures that shape our collective past and future resonates strongly with me. In essence, that encapsulates the core message for me.

  8. I have read your article, but I don’t think I will get all these answers. The concept of composition is genuinely crucial, especially in the context of our evolving understanding.

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