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Cognitive Writing Processes

John R. Hayes and Linda S. Flower of Carnergie-Mellon University wrote about “a cognitive-process theory of writing” in their 1981 book chapter “Uncovering Cognitive Processes in Writing: An Introduction to Protocol Analysis.” The article is really about writing in the sense of research, but to start the chapter they explain how “people behave as they write” which is really interesting to anyone that chooses to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). They claim four features of writing to be discussed:

1 “writing consists of distinct processes”

2 “writing processes are highly embedded”

3 “writing is goal directed”

4 “writing stimulates the discovery of new goals”

The processes of writing are so complex they were given a sort of flow chart (see below).

You can see three major areas here:

1 Task Environment: everything outside the writer, including the reason for writing (whatever the exterior reason, it is internalized and “what finally matters will be the problem the writers represent to themselves”).

2 Long Term Memory: this isn’t just everything the writer knows about the topic, but also everything she knows about writing too and of course choices are made about what to recall

3 The Writing Processes:

  • The Planning part is “the whole range of thinking activities that are required before we can put words on paper.”
  • Then Translating that mental activity to written words happens. That Translation process often forces writers back to the planning phase as problems or needed clarifications arise.
  • Finally Reviewing is seeing what has been written, and this too often leads back to planning—Reviewing can be by choice at the end or mid word and done self-consciously.
  • Looming above the writing processes is the Monitor which is “the executive” decision maker “that determines when to switch from one writing process to another.” The Monitor makes various types of executive decisions based on the Task Environment and Long Term memory.


The important thing to keep in mind here is this: there is no sequence of Plan-Translate-Review. All three of the processes are “embedded” and can be used at any moment dependent on demands the Monitor determines. For instance, a short sticky note to a co-worker requires little planning, and we might jump straight to translate, whereas a ten page paper for class or a report to the boss requires more planning. This is key—there is no one path to writing, hence why the authors here chose to use a sort of flow chart to represent it.

Moving on from the distinct yet embedded processes, the chapter turns toward Goals. There are obvious Goals to fulfill—Who is the audience? What is my assignment or reason to write? But there are also “more local goals and plans that guide the act of writing.” This has a lot to do with the “ability of the writer” which ties back into Long Term Memory.

Finally (and what really caught my eye) is the idea that “writing stimulates the discovery of new goals.” A writer may begin with an objective, but midway through the embedded processes there could be “a radical redirection of the writer’s efforts.” These realizations in writing seem to be tied to a writer’s experience with prior writing, and are often “welcome but unexpected.”

So what does this all have to do with Reflection Journals by Emily Bufford? It’s really the last part I want to discuss. It’s important to write, to go through these cognitive (and tough!) processes. It keeps our brains sharp, and more importantly it can reveal new goals to us. What may have started as a written diatribe about a co-worker’s bad habits could turn into a reflection on our own habits at work and how to improve ourselves there which could lead to thinking about starting an exercise routine to better our health and happiness. That’s the point—writing is about self discovery! All of us wonder and chew on our thoughts, but the act of writing (pen to paper, or fingers to key board) actually reveals more to us than simply mentally spinning. That’s why I think it’s important to ‘take time each day to reflect.’ And I’d say Hayes and Flower have proven why it’s important to reflect in writing each day.


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