Monday, June 28, 2004

Reading :: The Variables of Composition

Originally posted: Wed, 28 Jul 2004 02:45:20

The Variables of Composition: Process and Product in a Business Setting

by Glenn J. Broadhead, Richard C. Freed

When I began my studies at Iowa State, one of the first classes I took was a proposal writing class with Rich Freed. (I got a B.) Freed's book Writing Winning Business Proposals, which I've raised often enough, was in draft form at that point. That book was (and is) full of insights and heuristics, and remains one of the more valuable practical aproaches to argumentation I know. Later, I found out that the book had been preceded by a scholarly monograph Freed had written with his then-office mate Glenn Broadhead. That monograph, of course, was The Variables of Composition.

Reading this monograph nearly twenty years later, I find myself taking a trip down Memory Lane. The Variables of Composition is a product of the mid-1980s interest in process and in close textual analysis. So we get to read a lot about T-units and incremental changes to drafts, all in the context of the "seven variables of composition." Broadhead and Freed allow that their method of exhaustively coding every word in multiple drafts of long documents is somewhat time consuming. No kidding.

What really interested me here wasn't the intricate coding scheme, nor the seven variables, but the discussion of the organization and contexts in which the authors wrote. This is the part that seems the most consequential for me and the most far-reaching in its implications -- and coincidentally the part that later became the foundation of Freed's Writing Winning Business Proposals.

But I was also interested in the computer analysis of texts. Their technique -- transcribe the text into a text file, assign a long code to each line, and run the whole mess through a series of scripts -- is actually still viable, even though a variety of qualitative research packages have been developed to make things easier. We've come a long way, but perhaps not as far as we could have.


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