What is the Secret, Hidden Writing Process?
Writers speak of listening to or following an embodied feeling about what it is they’re trying to say versus what they’ve said thus far. Sondra Perl, a professor of English and researcher in the field of writing studies, has theorized that composing decisions are largely informed by intuition and the process of listening to one’s felt sense–an embodied feeling (aka a form of embodied knowledge), a prelinguistic sense, an inchoate form of thought before thought finds form in language.
Traditionally, the writing process is described to be a series of steps that writers work through as they work their draft through revisions: prewriting, invention, research, collaboration, planning, organizing, designing, drafting, rereading, revising, editing, proofreading, sharing or publishing.
Alternatively, experts in writing studies describe the writing process as a problem-solving process:
“We frequently talk of writing as if it were a series of independent temporally bounded actions (e.g., pre-writing, writing, rewriting). It is more accurate to see it as a hierarchical set of subproblems arranged under a goal or set of goals. The process then is an iterative one. For each subproblem along the way — whether it is making a logical connection between hazy ideas, or finding a persuasive tone — the writer may draw on a whole repertoire of procedures and heuristics” (Flower & Hayes, 1977, p. 460-461).
The “writing steps” and the “problem-solving” models of composing are useful frameworks for you to consider. They can help you understand different ways to generate ideas, structure your work, and handle the challenges that arise during writing. Yet those models alone cannot account for how you actually work through the process, how you make composing decisions. And — frankly — those models are deeply cognitive: they don’t really account for the role of emotion, intuition, and embodied knowledge.
In “Understanding Composing,” Sondra Perl (1980), an English professor and leader in the writing studies community, introduced a third model of composing, one which puts the spotlight on intuitive processes. Perl speculates that writers make composing decisions based on their “felt sense,” which she defines, following Gendlin (1962), as a vague, pre-verbal, bodily awareness that writers report feeling when composing:
“When writers pause, when they go back and repeat key words, what they seem to be doing is waiting, paying attention to what is still vague and un-clear. They are looking to their felt experience, and waiting for an image, a word, or a phrase to emerge that captures the sense they embody. Usually, when they make the decision to write, it is after they have a dawning awareness that something has clicked, that they have enough of a sense that if they begin with a few words heading in a certain direction, words will continue to come which will allow them to flesh out the sense they have.” (Perl, 1980, p. 365).
Simarly, Ann Berthoff posits that comoosing is a dance from intution to
Felt sense, inner speech, and embodied knowledge are all concepts that acknowledge the profound role our bodily and sensory experiences play in shaping our cognitive processes during composing. These concepts highlight that composing is not just a mental exercise; it involves the whole self and is informed by our broader physical and emotional experiences.
Felt sense refers to a pre-verbal, bodily awareness or understanding that we have about a particular situation, problem, or task. In the context of composing, it’s the intuitive feeling or sense that helps us identify when a piece of writing ‘feels right’ or when it needs more work. It’s the gut feeling we have about our ideas, arguments, or the words we choose to express them. Tapping into this felt sense can help us connect more deeply with our writing and can guide us through the composing process (Gendlin, 1981).
Vygotsky (1962) proposed the concept of inner speech as a key mechanism of thought. Vygotsky posits that writers often engage in an internal dialogue or ‘talk through’ their ideas before and during the act of writing. This inner speech is not always logical or fully formed, but it can guide the writing process, helping writers generate ideas and shape their message.
Vygotsky theorizes that inner speech is not simply the internalization of external speech; instead, it has its own syntax and structure that aids in abstract thinking. In composing, inner speech might involve silently ‘talking through’ ideas or arguments, or ‘listening’ to how the words sound in our heads before we put them down on paper.
Embodied knowledge, finally, is the knowledge we acquire through bodily experiences and senses. It’s the kind of ‘knowing’ that is often difficult to articulate because it’s not purely cognitive; it involves the whole self. For example, a dancer’s embodied knowledge might include understanding rhythm and movement in a way that cannot be fully captured in words. Similarly, in writing, embodied knowledge might involve the physical sensations of writing (e.g., the feel of the pen on paper or the rhythmic tapping of keys on a keyboard) or the emotions evoked by the act of writing. It can also refer to the physical and emotional experiences that inform our perspectives and provide substance to our writing.
CUNY Composition Community. Felt Sense.
Written by the “CUNY Composition Community,” Felt Sense includes a video introduction by Sondra Perl, a Foreword by Peter Elbow, and some self-time videos to help you get more in touch with your own felt sense. This is the go-to site to review Sondra Perl’s vision of the role of felt sense in composing. STRONGLY RECOMMENDED! A must read!