What factors related to college writing make it meaningful to students? Are these the same factors that make workplace writing meaningful to alumni? 

The meaningfulness of college writing is an important concept for educators and administrators. In their analysis of data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), Anderson, Anson, Gonyea, and Paine (2015) found that as “students interacted meaningfully with instructors, classmates, and others during the writing process; were challenged by writing tasks that required meaning-making; and received clear expectations for their written work, they experienced more coursework that emphasized deep learning strategies” (2015, 220). They also suggest that these “effective writing practices had a more robust relationship with deep learning experiences than the amount of writing students completed” (2015, 220).

Eodice, Geller, and Lerner (2016) draw on Anderson et al’s findings to show that these same features of assigned college writing make it meaningful to students. In The Meaningful Writing Project, a book-length study of almost 800 students across three institutions, Eodice et al. identify three key factors: agency, engagement with others, and connection to previous experiences and interests and future goals (2016, 4). They show that meaningful writing happens when students are invited to:

  • “tap into the power of personal connection;
  • experience what they are writing as applicable and relevant to the real world and connected to their future selves; 
  • immerse themselves in what they are thinking, writing, and researching, including engagement in the processes of writing.” (Eodice, Geller, and Lerner 2016, 108-9)

The Meaning Writing Project (MWP) researchers were motivated to seek out meaningful writing in order to counteract narratives that circulate around students’ lack of writing and reading in college, and naturally their focus is on college writing. Yet, I’m curious if and to what extent these factors apply to the writing that students or alumni do in other contexts beyond the university, particularly in the workplace. Their findings related to learning that connects to previous experiences and future goals is relevant to alumni, as they draw on conversations regarding transfer of learning across different contexts. Eodice, Geller, and Lerner discuss two findings in this area:

  1. Writing projects are meaningful for student writers when they can draw on prior knowledge, especially related to topics they are interested in or passionate about [and]
  2. Writing projects are meaningful for student writers when they provide an opportunity to produce something in an unfamiliar genre, as it offers a new challenge or chance to learn something new (2016, 83)

While the first finding aligns with what we know about prior knowledge (Elon Statement on Writing Transfer, 2015), the second finding seems to  complicate the research that assumes that practicing a genre in multiple contexts over time is the best way to learn that genre  (Driscoll 2020; Droz 2019). Yet, perhaps “wayfinding,” as described by Alexander, Lunsford, and Whithaus (2020), helps to account for what seems like a tension between prior knowledge of genres and practicing something new. Alexander et al. propose the metaphor of wayfinding to describe the characteristics of writing and literacy for writers outside traditional university writing contexts, placing emphasis on recursivity and movement in and across writing contexts and ecologies (2020, 121). In a preliminary analysis of their data, focusing on the writing experiences of alumni Kaya and Miguel, the authors identify these characteristics of wayfinding:

(a) the importance of affect
(b) the impact of anticipated knowledge
(c) the challenges of wrestling with one’s identity as a writer
(d) a growing awareness of how different writing situations intertwine
(e) the impact media and writing technologies have on writing, and
(f) how unexpected discoveries about writing may be integrated into one’s ever developing knowledges about and practices of writing.
(Alexander, Lunsford, and Whithaus 2020, 123).

This emphasis on anticipation, identity, awareness, and unexpectedness suggests that alumni writers tend to balance drawing on what they know and have learned with openness towards the unknown and what they haven’t prepared for.

The MWP’s findings challenge us to think about how alumni define meaningful workplace writing (or meaningful workplace writing as it intersects with self-sponsored writing) differently from how alumni define meaningful college writing. Certainly, in the workplace, opportunities to collaborate with colleagues and supervisors may tap into the power of personal connection, and preparing work for a real audience will help alumni see the real-world relevance of their work. Yet other factors—such as preparing work that connects to their future selves, and seeing the value of producing work in new genres—may differ for students and alumni. For instance, it seems likely that students surveyed for the MWP are identifying themselves as learners when they think about their future selves and the creative challenge of a new genre; employees such as those studied by the “wayfinding” authors are at a different stage of their development as writers and may not see themselves as learners in the same way.

There is an opportunity for those researching writing beyond the university to productively build on the Meaningful Writing Project’s findings by incorporating workplace writing contexts into the MWP framework. By understanding how workplace writing can be meaningful for employees in different ways than university writing, as well as by taking into account the multiple and recursive pathways of writing experience and development described by the wayfinding authors, researchers and administrators can propose and design new opportunities for students and alumni to reflect on how meaningful writing differs by context, stage of life, and identity.


  • Alexander, Jonathan, Karen Lunsford, and Carl Whithaus. 2020. “Toward Wayfinding: A Metaphor for Understanding Writing Experiences.” Written Communication 37, no. 1: 104–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741088319882325.
  • Anderson, Paul, Chris M Anson, Robert M Gonyea, and Charles Paine. 2015. “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: Results from a Large-Scale Multi-Institutional Study.” Research in the Teaching of English 50, no. 2: 199–235.
  • Driscoll, L. Dana, Joseph Paszek, Gwen Gorzelsky, Carol L. Hayes, and Edmond Jones. 2020. “Genre Knowledge and Writing Development: Results from the Writing Transfer Project.” Written Communication 37, no. 1: 69 – 103.
  • Droz, Patricia Welsh, and Lorie Stagg Jacobs. 2019. “Genre Chameleon: Email, Professional Writing Curriculum, and Workplace Writing Expectations.” Technical Communication 66, no. 1: 68-92.
  • Elon Statement on Writing Transfer. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/elon-statement-on-writing-transfer/
  • Eodice, Michele, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner. 2019. “The Power of Personal Connection for Undergraduate Student Writers.” Research in the Teaching of English 53 no. 4: 320–39.
  • —. 2016. The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching, and Writing in Higher Education. Logan: Utah State University Press. 

Julia Bleakney is director of The Writing Center in the Center for Writing Excellence and assistant professor of English at Elon University. She is co-leading the 2019-2021 research seminar on Writing Beyond the University: Fostering Writers’ Lifelong Learning and Agency.

How to cite this post:

Bleakney, Julia. 2020, August 12. “What Makes Workplace Writing Meaningful?” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/what-makes-workplace-writing-meaningful