Flower & Hayes “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing”

Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes. “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing.” CCC 32.4 (Dec. 1981): 365-387. (23 pages)

Using protocol analyses of thinking aloud protocols, Flower & Hayes outlines their cognitive process of composing. As they write, “Unlike introspective reports, thinking aloud protocols capture a detailed record of what is going on in the writer’s mind during the act of composing itself” (368). Their theory is organized around four key points.

  1. “Writing is best understood as a set of distinctive thinking processes which writers orchestrate or organize during the act of composing” (366).

It is here that Flower and Hayes challenge stage models of writing (i.e. Pre-Write/Write/Re-Write by Rohman or Conception/Incubation/Production by Britton et al) which have dominated our understanding of writing process theories up to that point (1981). As they explain, their critique of such models boils down to two points: (1) such models take the final product as their reference point; and (2) such models privilege distinct stages that are linear in completion as opposed to reciprocal and recursive.

They propose a process model, “the major units of analysis are elementary mental processes, such as the process of generating ideas. And these processes have a hierarchical structure such that idea generation, for example, is a sub process of Planning. Furthermore, each of these mental acts may occur at any time in the composing process” (367). From here, the authors describe their model.

The rhetorical problem: “it includes not only the rhetorical situation and audience which prompts one to write, it also includes the writer’s own goals in writing” (369). The key for good writing is the ability to (re)define the problem: “people only solve the problems they define for themselves” (369).

Long-Term Memory: LTM is a “storehouse of knowledge about the topic and audience as well as knowledge of writing plans and problem representations” (371). This “relatively stable entity” can be accessed through cues to “retrieve a network of useful knoweldege” (371). The first issue, then, is to find the cues. And second, “reorganizing and adapting this knowledge for the demands of the rhetorical problem” (371).

Planning: an internal process, Planning involves the representation of knwoeldge in the mind of the writer, either visually or in language. Here, writers generate ideas which involves the retrieving of information from LTM. They imply that some ideas like genres define the piece more widely, while others need organization, grouping ideas and forming new concepts (see: assemblage, invention, etc). Goal-setting aids in such organization while the reorganization may then prompt different, more complex goals.

Translating: The translation of meaning into key words “organized in a complex network of relationships, into a linear piece of written English” (373).

Reviewing: this process is not given a lot of initial attention, but as they develop later, reviewing plays a role in unifying the written text by reflecting different kinds of goals along the hierarchy upon the written text.

The Monitor: “writing strategist which determines when the writer moves from one process to the next” (374). The key for a good writer is to know how and when to move between processes.

  1. “The process of writing are hierarchically organized, with component processes embedded within other components” (375).

For example, “revision” is not seen as a separate, unique stage at the end of the composing process; rather, it “can occur at any time a writer chooses to evaluate or revise his text or plans. As an important part of writing, it constantly leads to new planning or ‘re-vision’ of what one wanted to say” (376).

  1. “Writing is a goal directed process. In the act of composing, writers create a hierarchical network of goals and these in turn guide the writing process” (377).

The structure of goals, for Flower and Hayes, is networked and hierarchical. Wider goals are accomplished through the creation of sub-goals, but often, poor writers are unable to generate these subgoals on their own and scour assignment sheets for pre-determined subgoals (379). The authors describe two kinds of goals, process goals (“how to carry out the process of writing”) and content goals (“all things the wrter wants to say or do to an audience” 377).

  1. “Writers create their own goals in two key ways: by generating goals and supporting sub-goals which embody a purpose; and, at times, by changing or regenerating their own top-level goals in light of what they have learned by writing” (381).

Here, the authors outline how the writing process allows for the creation of new knowledge. Explore and Consolidate: writers will lay out disparate or fragmented ideas related in some way to their purpose, but will then “pops back” to top-level goals to consolidate those fragments, “producing a more complex idea than she began with by drawing inferences and crating new concepts” (382). State and Develop: moving from high-level goals and moving toward sub-goals to accomplish high-level goals. Write and Regenerate: same as explore and consolidate only in writing prose.


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