Tagged: flower and hayes

Technical Communicators and Diagrams

Last week, when we discussed methodological practices, and their value in fields like Technical Writing/Communication, I came out of our class meeting skeptical about quantitative methods. Though I thought it was (and is) important for technical communicators to understand scientific language, I didn’t think they necessarily needed to throw engineering jargon, or anything like it, at the audiences reading their technical documents; worrying too much about quantitative methods, then, when discussing technical communicative practices – which I’d hoped would focus on removing the scientific and anything jargon-like as often as possible – seemed like more effort than it was worth.

It didn’t help, either, that when I began this week’s readings, I found that we were reading Flower’s and Hayes’ “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing”, a piece that’s maligned amongst much of the pedagogy literature (Berlin, for example) I have read in ENGL 609. I myself don’t mind reading criticisms of cognitive rhetoric, or of anything that has to do with cognitive psychology. As Faigley reminded me:

“The idea that thinking and language can be represented by computers underlies much research in cognitive science in several camps, including artificial intelligence, computational linguistics, and cognitive psychology” (533).

Each of these “camps” would fall under the “Computational Cognitive Science” umbrella I learned about in classes at a previous program, and the limitations of that area of cog sci (“computational models are relatively rarely used to make new predictions” about behaviors since they can only mimic human ones [Fundamentals of Cognition 11]; computational models don’t account for humans’ “conflicting motivational and emotional forces” [Fundamentals of Cognition 12]) are items I’m always fond of mentioning.

There is something to be said, though, for having, as Charney advocated, some uniformity in research. As Slattery writes, in “Undistributing Work through Writing”, “a research methodology grounded in the study of writing can be a fruitful way to examine individual workers’ practices” (312). The idea of grounding (or couching – I like that word because it reminds me of days, before graduate school, when I had free time) any research in something recognizable, like a methodological framework, aids those who sincerely wish to test that research so they can either refine it or rip it to shreds. And Flower and Hayes, as Faigley mentions, helped to make research about the writing process more scientific, applying the conventions of another field to the field of composition in an effort to “springboard for further research” by others through “testable hypotheses” (Flower and Hayes 366).

That Hart-Davidson, Spinuzzi, and Zachry would write that Flower and Hayes’ work, which not only provides testable hypotheses but argues that the act of writing is driven by goals (366), would be rejected by practitioners blew my mind. When I refer to practitioners, I mean writers that “might have [questions] like: ‘what kinds of things have I done that lead to a successful outcome?’” (Hart-Davidson, Spinuzzi, Zachry 73). I would assume that such writers would appreciate Flower’s and Hayes’ work. The comment in the paper by Hart-Davidson, Spinuzzi, and Zachry about the need for visual conventions left me a little dumbfounded, too. Those authors call diagrams like the one based on Flowers’ and Hayes’ theory “high-level, abstracted views of writing processes” (Hart-Davidson, Spinuzzi, and Zachry 72), but diagrams like that seem fairly common to fields like engineering and information science – fields in which, from what I understand, there are two things:

  1. Lots of cognitive theory (I came across “information architecture” and “knowledge management” a few times as I was reviewing my assigned journal for Tuesday’s presentation), and
  2. Lots of technical writers.

I found a few examples of similar diagrams online through Google:

Some conventions I can point out amongst these visuals are: Arrows, boxes, characters denoting words that look a lot like jargon, and a lack of color.

How do some technical communicators succeed in their field if they can’t handle those visuals? I’m not saying that it’s easy to understand those diagrams for me or anything, but shouldn’t technical communicators be better about handling these diagrams than the average writer?

 Works Cited

Faigley reading

Flower and Hayes

Hart-Davidson, Spinuzzi, and Zachry

5: It’s a Technocracy

I can’t decide if digital work environments are creating more or less efficiency in the workplace. On the one hand, instant messaging (G-chatting) and e-mail generally keep an interaction short and very on task, with no anecdotal sidetracking or room for other questions or topics. But, on the other hand, if a technical writer (or any writer) is constantly asking or being asked questions all day long and constantly having to manage IMs or e-mails, they’re left little time, certainly little quality time, to focus on their writing project. I believe people in the workplace—really, any workplace, writing or not—are having to learn a new level of time management. Slattery’s research on the topic of collaborative documentation and IT skills in the workplace was a very well studied and articulated piece looking at the DSU writers. I thought, however, Slattery ought to have been more inclusive, or at least acknowledging, of the fact that any writer or any employee in modern times really has to have and has technical skills. There is nothing exclusively “technical” about a technical writer’s job. IT is, arguably or at least in some ways, causing fragmentation (Hart-Davidson, Spinuzzi, and Zachry’s concept) in the workplace, no matter the industry.

I’m noticing a recurring theme in our readings: the idea of consensus. Slattery writes that “writers work toward the end product by creating and modifying a target document until it becomes authorized by the group to be the finished documentation” (319). The wording might vary, but the concept is the same: a product, document, or philosophy, once created or in the process of creation, can be modified until a consensus is reached that the product or document is complete or the philosophy is the accepted truth.

In Faigley’s piece, he explains that “Rohman defines ‘good writing’ as ‘that discovered combination of words which allows a person the integrity to dominate his subject with a pattern both fresh and original…’” (529) According to this, then, Slattery’s definition of “reusing text” is bad writing because it’s simply a taking over of someone else’s combination of words. Good writing, or a person’s ability to dominate a subject with a pattern both fresh and original and the discovery of uniqueness within that subject—this definition does not allow today’s technical writers the option of being a “good writer” because technical writers, though they may dominate their subject, cannot do so with freshness, originality, or uniqueness (529).

Given Elbow’s point, based on “one of the standards of Romantic theory: that ‘good’ writing does not follow rules but reflects the processes of the creative imagination,” it’s no wonder I’ve always called myself a Romantic (530). I like this theory. I like to believe that, in some ways, anyone has the inherent ability to write using their processes of creative imagination. I don’t think though that teaching only creative writing could really work for most people. I think the cognitive process of decision making is a given, with any writer of any skill level. But I think writers have to have teaching in the skills of writing well. That is not always intuitive, as original and intuitive the creativity may be.

I really like the question Flower, Hayes, and Britton are asking: is this really how writing happens? Is writing “a process of making linguistic choices from one’s repertoire of syntactic structures and lexical items” (366)? My inclination is to wonder: how can anyone do anything that is not a process of making choices and decisions based on a repertoire of pre-existing thoughts, ideas, knowledge? However, the romantic in my thinks writing, at least, is very much a creative and intuitive process. At least, in certain circumstances. Certainly, writing is a cognitive process in some situations, such as in the academy. I would amend Flower and Hayes’ position that “The process of writing is best understood as a set of distinctive thinking processes which writers orchestrate or organize during the act of composing,” by saying that the process of writing can be best understood as a set of distinctive thinking and creative processes which writers orchestrate or organize during the act of composing (366).

There is so much to talk about this week, with these readings, I think. I really liked the readings. I love the topic of studying the process of writing. I love discussing the different theories (cognitive versus creative/Romantic). I like looking in detail into the modern day workplace and studying this concept of fragmentation and collaborative document production and IT/technical skills required for today’s technical writers. So much great material to cover!!


Faigley, Lester. “Competing Theories of Process: A Critique and a Proposal.” College English 48.6. (1986): 527–542. PDF.

Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes. “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 32.4 (1981): 365–387. PDF.

Hart-Davidson, William, Clay Spinuzzi, and Mark Zachry. “Visualizing Writing Activity as Knowledge Work: Challenges & Opportunities.” ACM SIGDOC. (2006): 70–77. PDF.

Slattery, Shaun. “Undistributing Work Through Writing: How Technical Writers Manage Texts in Complex Information Environments.” Technical Communication Quarterly 16.3 (2007): 311–325. PDF.