The Cognitive Theory Process of Composing: Where Have You Been Hiding?

For most of my college career, I have felt as if there must be something a little askew about the way that my writing process works.  I have never been comfortable with the models that have been most often recommended—the pre-writing, writing, revision model primarily.  Supposedly writers are supposed to brainstorm, to spill out a first draft in the heat of inspiration, and then to do major rewrites with a cooler head.  Writing does not work that way for me.  It works the way that Flower and Hayes describe in their article “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing.”  I found that reading this article made me feel much more justified in my personal process than I have in the past when instructors talked about writing from the perspective of that other model.  Now I see that it’s OK to have chaos whirling about in my head in a tangle of interrelated and amorphous image-words that each may be the seed for a major set of ideas to unfold.  It’s OK to continuously revise, or revision, as I go, polishing along the way, so that for the most part, the boundary between first draft and final draft is meaningless.  It’s OK to start out with a direction, not knowing entirely where I will end up, yet still being in control of the process by means of recursive goals.  I feel liberated!

I also appreciate how Flowers and Hayes address a puzzling writing process phenomenon that I have experienced on occasion (and I imagine many other writers have, too): having the text take over and lead me in a direction other than the one I originally intended to develop.  Early on in my college writing career, when I experienced this independent streak from my own words (were they really mine, anyway?), I was puzzled and did not know quite how to regain control.  Most often, I simply reoriented my intention in the new direction, and sometimes I was led in productive directions.  Still, I remember asking myself why I could not seem to make my paper say what I had first desired.  Now, I can generally wrest control back from a runaway text by tracing back to its breakaway point and grabbing the reins once more, if I so desire.  But the explanation by Flowers and Hayes made this veiled process explicit for me: Sometimes “syntactic and semantic structures” make demands that “violate the writer’s initial (and still appropriate) plan” (380).  In the organization-out-of-chaos cognitive process of composing, the writer’s knowledge and goals are actively grappling with the growing text in a sort of literary ménage à trois for the writer’s attention.  Again, very useful insights.

At least for me, the cognitive process theory of Flowers and Hayes seems so much closer to what I experience than other writing process models I have encountered.  Why have I never heard of it until now?  Why is this not used to help beginning writers understand how messy writing is, yet also give them hope of finding a way through the mess by understanding and trusting the process.  I suppose that part of the reason is that the cognitive process theory is harder to ‘teach’ than pre-writing, writing, revising.  But being easier to explain is no advantage if the concept is fundamentally inadequate or inaccurate.

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