My Writing Process: In Context

In the 1960s and 1970s, the field of writing studies took a transformative turn through what came to be known as the “process movement.” Contrary to popular notions of the time, which put emphasis only on the students’ abilities to write a final paper, the process movement emphasized that a student should be graded “not for his product, not for the paper we call literature by giving it a grade, but for the search for truth in which he is engaged” (Murray 5). This new goal in teaching writing lead to many studies of writing as a process. Early leaders in the movement, such as Donald Murray, represented writing as a linear process composed of prewriting, writing, and rewriting. However, the concept proved to be much more complex.

In 1979, Sondra Perl produced a study using the “think-aloud protocol,” which asks students to write for an hour, in a laboratory setting, dictating their thoughts while they write. She then quantified the information using a set of codes to categorize individual activities in the writing process. What she determined was that “composing does not occur in a straightforward, linear fashion” and it “always involves some measure of both construction and discovery” (Pearl 207). Linda Flower and John R. Hayes put together a study using a similar method, and also agreed that writing is a non-linear process. However, they developed this idea even further, determining that writing is a goal-oriented, hierarchical process, which “requires the writer to juggle all the special demands of written English” (Flower and Hayes 373), and they make the claim that “a good writer is one that can juggle all of these demands” (Flower and Hayes 369).

In her 1983 study, Carol Berkenkotter makes reference to this study, saying that “writers move back and forth between planning, translating, and reviewing their work. And as they do, they frequently discover’ major rhetorical goals” ( Berkenkotter 225). Berkenkotter discovered this through an approach similar to that of the previous scholars, with a new twist: she studied a professional writer instead of students. She also argued that “When researchers remove writers from their natural settings…they create a ‘a context of a powerful sort, often deeply affecting what is being observed and assessed’” (Berkenkotter 218). Therefore, she allowed her test subject to write in his own office for a period of two months. However, she found herself “double-coding for revising and planning, a sign the two activities were virtually inseparable” (Berkenkotter 223). As is shown in this statement, the writing process is not linear, and planning takes up a majority of a writer’s time, not only before he or she begins writing, but also in the course of drafting.

How I Did It

    For my study, I wanted to develop an overview of my own writing process in the context of the process movement research. I wanted to see if my process contained some of the trends discovered by these researchers. To do this, I used a method that blended the approaches of Perl and Berkenkotter. I recorded myself composing aloud, while using a screen capture software, for the period of an hour, as was done by Perl and Flower and Hayes. However, because I was without the presence of a researcher and in my own chosen surroundings (a study room in the library), the study had a hint of Berkenkotter’s naturalistic approach.

After recording myself writing, I went back and rewatched two, 10-minute periods of the protocol, one in the beginning of my writing process and one in the middle. I chose these specific intervals because I wanted to see which trends, if any, existed throughout the process in its entirety. I wondered if the process would differ from early stages of writing to the more developed stages. To analyze the recording, I used the system of coding developed by Sondra Perl, recording my actions in a chart made up of 30 second intervals, attaching one action code to each interval. Then, in order to make my data more easy to interpret, I attempted to organize the codes into the three distinct categories typical to writing: pre-writing/planning, writing, and revising/editing. A copy of my final chart can be found in Appendix A.

What I Found

    Out of the 60 time intervals available in the time I was analyzing, I spent about 45% of my time planning, 39% of my time writing, and just 16% editing. Similar to trends discovered by other researchers in the field, I discovered that my process included an overwhelming majority of planning, throughout all stages. I also discovered another trend in my writing, similar to the back and forth motion suggest by Flower and Hayes, which was reiterated in the studies of Berkenkotter. I noticed that my writing seemed to go through cycles, as I always began with planning, whether global or local, then wrote based on that planning, and then revised that writing, which often lead me to go back to thinking and planning. Berkenkotter recognizes a trait similar to this in her subject, as she writes, “I was aware that editing (i.e. reading the text aloud and making word- and sentence-level changes) sometimes led to major planning episodes” (Berkenkotter 220).


What Does This Mean?

    The first interesting observation that I made through this analysis is based on an idea that originally appeared in the Flower and Hayes study: “Writers appear to range from people who try to move to polished prose as quickly as possible to people who choose to plan the entire discourse in detail before writing a word” (Flower and Hayes 374). I have definitely found myself to be the first kind of writer, preferring to dive right into a project and see where it takes me, rather than planning extensively beforehand. I made this inference based not only on the physical writing I observed myself doing, in which I began writing the first paragraph before making an outline or specific plan, but also through the amount of general planning (PL) and global planning (PLG) that I did, throughout the entire draft. When I was planning during my writing, it wasn’t local planning (PLL), as in thinking about what would come next in the paragraph or sentence, but rather ideas about how to make the writing logically flow globally, from beginning to end.

Another observation I made was also related to my planning process. While I had an overwhelming amount of planning time, in comparison to writing and editing, what was even more interesting to me, which is not reflected in the empirical results, is the type of planning that I did. In her research report, Berkenkotter differentiates between two types of planning activities done by her subject, Donald Murray: the stating of process goals and the stating of rhetorical goals. She defines process goals as “mentioning procedures…that [the writer] developed in order to write” (Berkenkotter 222). I did a lot of this type of planning, making lists, editing outlines, or trying out different ideas. However, I found that I lacked the second kind of planning, rhetorical planning. Berkenkotter defines this as “planning how to reach an audience”, or in other words, addressing the rhetorical situation (223). I think that in the entire hour of my recording, let alone the 20 minutes I analyzed in detail for this report, I never once explicitly mentioned an audience. My scope was too narrowly focused on addressing the prompt, rather thinking how a reader might respond to certain elements of my writing.

However, the writer that Berkenkotter studied, who did an overwhelming majority of rhetorical planning, was a professional, confident, very experienced writer. Therefore, I have deduced that an awareness of audience and the rhetorical situation is a planning activity that comes only when a writer is comfortable enough with the other demands of writing that they can expand beyond themselves. This is in alignment with Flower and Hayes’ notion that writing is hierarchical process and only skilled writers can meet the cognitive demands of balancing its many different aspects. Rhetorical planning is something that becomes a part of the writing process as a writer progresses because, while it is extremely important, it may fall to the back-burner of a writer’ conscious efforts, until the more basic skills below it, such as grammar, word choice, and sentence structure, become somewhat second nature. Therefore, awareness of the rhetorical situation is one of the marks that may characterize a skilled writer, and is something that I should work to be more aware of in my own writing.


Appendix A


Works Cited

Berkenkotter, Carol. “Decisions and Revisions: The Planning Strategies of a Publishing Writer.” College Composition and Communication, 1983, pp. 156-69.

Hayes, John R., and Linda Flower. “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 32, National Council of Teachers of English, 1981, pp. 365-87. JSTOR, Accessed 21 Mar. 2008.

Murray, Donald M. “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.” The Leaflet, Nov. 1972, pp. 11-14.

Perl, Sondra. “The Composing Process of Unskilled College Writers.” Research in the Teaching of English, 1979, pp. 317-36.