Public WritingThis is a featured page

Defining "public writing."

Before incorporating a "public writing" assignment into a course, it is important to be clear about what is meant by "public."
  • Is the word "public" understood in terms of audience for or in terms of the purpose of the writing ?(see here Lede and Lunsford's 1984 "Audience addressed/Audience invoked").
  • Is the goal to create assignments that will help students write for a broader audience than the classroom's, a sort of "real-world" audience"? To perhaps have students locate writing in a public space of sorts?
  • Is the goal to expose students to "written discourse that attempts to engage an audience of local, regional, or national groups or individuals in order to bring about progressive societal change" (Weisser, 2004, p. 231)?
  • Is public perhaps a substitute for "digital" writing (in so far as writing on the web is "public," i.e. seen and read by others)?
Ultimately, how one defines public writing should be reflected not only in the assignment's design, but also in the ways the assignment is articulated to students. However, if it is understood, to draw from Weisser, as writing for change, then we will want to do the following with our students:
  • examine how examples of public writing are influenced by the context in which they emerged;
  • reflect on how social inequalities shape public writing.
  • consider the multiplicity of the "public" in public writing.
  • reflect on the definitions of "public" and "private." (Weisser, 2004).
Our definitions of public writing interlink with our goals for a writing assignment. If your definition of public writing is writing for change, then your definition is closer to Weisser's. This type of writing occurs both on and off the web but always for a public audience. If your definition of writing is writing professionally, then your definition will center on public writing as web-based writing, and it will be concerned with how the form and style match the content and appeal to the audience. And then if your goal is to teach students to express themselves (including expressing their opinions on academic topics) and to find their voice in the classroom, then their writing will include expressive elements as well as academic elements.

Web genre

However one defines public writing, moving writing to a web interface implies confronting the issue of web genres and their multiplicity. Reflecting on their own practice of incorporating web writing in their first year writing courses, McKee and Edwards (2005 ) remind us that "teachers must understand the heterogeneity of documents on the World Wide Web and the heterogeneity of possible responses to those documents, and maintain such an understanding in incorporating Web-based assignments into composition curricula" ( p. 197).
Equally important is to recognize the variety of discursive practices on the web, and to acknowledge that students may be more familiar with certain types of web discourse than we are (McKee & Edwards,2005).

Professional Writing

Public writing and professional writing overlap in certain genres; assignments should clearly state expectations and students should examine examples, if they are trying to write professionally. Policy papers are one example of this type of writing, and policy documents of many types can be found online. For example, Oxfam International publishes policy papers, first with a summary of the document and then with a link to the document itself.

public policy example

The Bonner Foundation provides guidelines for students who want to write policy papers: and
(The second link provides specific instructions on how to write a policy paper.)


A good place to go for resources is Computers and Composition Online:
For an example of research writing for the web, check Shipka's "This was (NOT) an easy assignment" at

Ede, L. & Lunsford, A. (2003). Audience addressed/Audience invoked. The role of audience in composition theory and pedagogy. In V. Villanueva (Ed.) Cross-talk in comp theory. A reader (pp. 77-95). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Edwards, M. & McKee, H. (2005). The teaching and learning of web genres in first-year composition. In A. Herrington & C. Moran (Eds.) Genre across the curriculum (pp. 196-218). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Weisser, C.R. (2004). Public writing and rhetoric. A new place for composition. In B. Couture & T. Kent (Eds.) The private , the public, and the published. Reconciling private lives and public rhetoric (pp. 230-248).Logan, UT: Utah University Press.

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