“But is that how it really happens?” (Flower & Hayes, 1981). That may be the best question I’ve ever read when it comes to writing theory. As a teacher I have taught all kinds of writers, and each one seems to have a personalized path for working out a writing process. I give them tools and ideas and theories, but the bottom line is I don’t stand over them and dictate their processes.
This is not to say that I don’t believe there are more efficient ways to construct a document or compose a text. There are standards that must be met, and audiences need to understand the final product. For years I taught the traditional linear model because it was one I knew and it was one that worked for me. I still work from outlines most of the time, even if the outlines are in my head. I teach and speak from outlines, not scripts. I invented clever acromyns and graded outlines more stringently than papers. (Actually, I was on the right track with that; the process matters most in high school composition classes.) Over time, though, I realized that some students wrote the outline to turn in, but never actually used it. Often they scratched out ideas, composed an outline because I told them to, and continued on their merry way. Flower and Hayes (1981) articulate my personal reality when they write, “An important goal for research, then will be to discover how this process of representing the problem works and how it affects the writer’s performance” (p. 369).
I love this concept of planning instead of formula. Not an outline (unless it works for particular students), not a five-paragraph essay (a term I have rebelled against since I started teaching), but some kind of internal representation of what the writer knows and what s/he plans to do with that knowledge. Of course, orgainization matters, but it can look different for each individual. Outlines work for me, mind maps work for my husband, and I’ve had some success with students using photographs to organize their thoughts.
Flower and Hayes (1981) use the term translate to describe the process of converting ideas to language. The idea of translating ideas to text makes more sense than telling students to organize their thoughts and write, which is the more traditional model I have used in the past. There’s something more organic about translation. It seems to incorpoate more of the process between the mind and the written page, including discussion and experimentation. It encourages revision as part of the process rather than as a way to fix mistakes. I think this idea is why I have shifted all my writing and all my students’ writing to Google Docs. Being completely online, work can be easily shared with others who can interact with the author, asking questions, noting errors, and helping clarify the ideas as they move from vague thoughts to something more fully developed. Planning and brainstorming can happen at the same time through the affordances of the comments and chat box when multiple people have access to the document. My students have been more deliberate and thorough in their peer editing in the comments than when I used hard copies and rubrics, partly because they feel comfortable conversing in an online space. That conversation becomes part of the writer’s translation process. Similarly, I can look over the shoulder, so to speak, of the writer and help when needed in real time, beyond the classroom clock.
Even more, Google docs allow easy illustration through the drawing features of the software and the ability to easily add images, video, and audio links.. Some students need illustrative tools to put the ideas down without the requirement for finding the right words. Flower and Hayes (1981) discuss the generation of information through multiple symbol systems including movement and images (p. 373). Those non-word iterations, no matter what they are, become a step in the translation process. There is something about the online shared nature of Google that gives students a form of permission to try. As other companies improve their document sharing and editing capabilities, there will be other options, but Google docs, at least for now, is the best tool I have used in the classroom to encourage experimentation as they compose. There is a lot of freedom in translation, freedom to work in a linear manner or recursive, freedom to express ideas in symbols other than words, and freedom to easily engage with other people throughout the writing process.
Flower, L., Hayes. John R. (1981, December). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication. 32.