A Summary of
Linda Flower and John R. Hayes’
"A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing"

An academic summary by Leigh MacKay

In their article, "A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing" (1981), researchers Linda Flower and John R. Hayes report the findings of their study using a new model to observe the processes writers employ in the act of composition. They conclude that writers use a combination of cognitive processes, which come to the foreground when and as needed. Further, they suggest that there is a hierarchical structure to these processes and that varied, changing levels of goals are key aspects of the writing process. Flower and Hayes believe their cognitive process theory of writing demonstrates that the act of creation is fed and sustained by the ever-changing imagination, art, and goals of the writer.

Rejecting traditional research methods, Flower and Hayes used protocol analysis (p. 368). To create a protocol, writers were assigned the task of writing an interesting, short composition for a magazine. An important stipulation was the requirement to think aloud as they worked. A tape recorder captured their spoken thoughts. The recording and the writer’s written material, rough notes and the article, were combined to create a single protocol. The researchers report that the protocols provided a bounty of valuable data on the factors that affect a writer’s processes.

Flower and Hayes organize their findings into four key points. The first key point is that there is a set of unique thinking processes that the writer selects and sorts during composition. In their study, they observed that writers began with the rhetorical problem of writing. Writers react to the problem by writing. The rhetorical problem, the audience, and the writer’s goals provide motivation. Flower and Hayes point out that an individual’s success in this process depends upon a writer’s ability to define the problem. The text exerts an influence upon the writer as the work develops. The growing text continually narrows the writer’s options for the text that is to follow. In addition, they identify the writer’s long-term memory, which they define as his/her life experience combined with the writier’s external sources, as being involved in the creative process. Finally, the writer plans how to accomplish the assignment by creating an internal representation. That representation, the researchers suggest, is the spark that feeds the creation and organization of ideas.

Flower and Hayes define the process of converting ideas into words on paper as translating. This process places demands on the writer to take abstract thoughts and put them through the technical aspects of writing such as grammar. Review is a factor in the process. The writer evaluates what they have written and then changes the text to suit their developing concept of the document. Flower and Hayes observed that writers monitor their process of development and its progress as they write. Monitoring is affected by changing goals and the writer’s method of writing.

Their second key point is that the cognitive processes in writing are hierarchical. Processes can contain other, more specific sub-processes. A hierarchical structure has strength in its flexibility. They suggest, by way of example, that composition can contain idea generation. They admit, however, that this doesn’t answer researcher Lee Odell’s question, “What guides the writer's decisions and choices and gives an overall purposeful structure to composing?"

This brings Flower and Hayes to the third and central point of their cognitive theory. Writing is goal-directed. Goals have a hierarchical structure like the greater hierarchy of all the processes involved in writing. It is here that they begin to answer Odell’s important question. Writers create goals as they write. Goals evolve during the writing process and they guide the writer in choosing which process to use at any given moment. All the other processes are managed by the writer’s high, middle, and low-level goals. The researchers believe that good writers generate easily achievable mid-level goals of good quality and quantity. Poor writers, they suggest, are caught in top and low-level goals that have greater difficulty in advancing the process of writing. Flower and Hayes emphasize that, “In the act of writing, people regenerate or recreate their own goals in the light of what they learn" (381).

The fourth and final point in the study concludes that writers find purpose in goals and those goals evolve as the writer learns about their subject through the process of writing. The researchers classify patterns of goals as: explore and consolidate, state and develop, and write and regenerate. From these revolving patterns of increasingly complex goals comes learning and creativity. Flower and Hayes conclude that the source of creativity comes from the writer’s ability to create goals and generate ideas.

© 2003

Leigh MacKay is a graduate of the Print Futures: Professional Writing Program at Douglas College. Before taking the course, he spent thirty years of his life locked in small rooms playing music and chatting on the radio.

Leigh MacKay
A Proven Communicator for Over 30 Years