But Why?

But Why?

For the past month, I have talked about composition. I’ve explored many of its facets, from the use of the rhetorical triangle to the way in which experiences inform writing, and there are dozens more veins left to touch upon. However, I have come to realize that my exploration of these concepts begs a bigger, more universal question. Why? Why do we, as writers, choose to do the things we do, and why do these choices matter? These questions may seem like nigh impossible questions to answer, but the search for the answers is really what’s important.

Before we can even begin to formulate answers to these questions, we must first understand something called metacognition. In “Metacognition is Not Cognition,” Howard Tinberg defines metacognition as “the ability to perceive the very steps by which success occurs and to articulate the various qualities and components that contribute in significant ways to the production of effective writing,” (2116). In “Metacognition and the Reflective Writing Practitioner: An Integrated Knowledge Approach,” Kara Taczak and Liane Robertson define metacognition as “the ability to mindfully monitor and consider why specific choices were made in a particular writing moment [. . .] and to be able to utilize that knowledge there and elsewhere,” (216). In other words, metacognition is the skill that allows us to analyze our actions and the choices we make as writers and determine the role these choices play in our success at effectively executing whatever content we have set out to create. Essentially, utilizing metacognitive processes allows writers to isolate specific patterns in their writing and understand why these patterns exist in order to recreate them purposefully in future writing.

Metacognition is the first step in answering the “why?” because, if we are able to analytically evaluate the methods we employ as writers, we can begin to understand how these methods interact in the larger scheme of our writing. In understanding our methods and approaches, we can objectively catalogue the things that we know about writing. Then we are able to examine writing situations we are placed in and determine “which skill and knowledge sets apply…” (2124). This allows writers to be adaptable. We can mix and match the skills needed for the creation of specific content and enact them while leaving unnecessary skills out of the equation.

Essentially, metacognition is a “consciousness of process that will enable [writers] to reproduce success,” (2109). It takes writers away from a one-size-fits-all approach to writing, instead encouraging writers to thoughtfully and deliberately review the choices the make, analyze the purpose behind these choices, and then determine in which situations they can duplicate this formula. Through this introspective review, writers are able to move toward a better sense of awareness—what Berthoff refers to as “thinking about thinking,” (qtd. Tinberg 2124). This sense of awareness helps writers not only determine what they know but also why it is useful in the writing situation at hand.

Taczak, Kara and Liane Robertson. “Metacognition and the Reflective Writing Practitioner: An Integrated Knowledge Approach,” Contemporary Perspectives on Cognition and Writing, Ed. Patricia Portanova, J. Michael Rifenburg, and Duane Roen, The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado, 2017, 211-229.

Tinberg, Howard. “Metacognition is Not Cognition,” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Ed. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Kindle ed., Utah State University Press, 2016.


  1. I really like the way you set this up because I’m sure plenty of writers ask themselves “why” all the time. With metacognition, I agree, it is easier to take those skills and apply them in other areas and become a more versatile writer and thinker. I think you might like the assignment that I describe in my most recent post. I would love to work with you and hear what you are planning for your students to use metacognition.

    1. W. Lawson

      I read your post, and I definitely think reflective writing is an important part of the metacognitive process. I also think it’s a great teaching tool to get students understanding how grammar, mechanics, syntax, and style play into the effectiveness of their writing.

  2. Your first paragraph brings up a good point: “Why?” Explaining “why” to students may make them more open to the idea of writing. Relaying how these skills will benefit students in other classes could also prove to be useful.

  3. I completely agree with you and also with Conner and Peyton. More writers need to ask why. But, more writers need to learn that they need to ask why, and how, and all those other questions. I am very interested in hearing what comes out of the conversations you and Conner have to teach these students how to not only ask these questions but also how to begin the process of answering them for themselves.

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