Research & Theory on Composing Processes

Successful communication has been a preoccupation of humans since antiquity.

Across disciplines (e.g., Communication Studies; Composition Studies; Current-Traditional Rhetoric; Education, Learning Sciences; Linguistics, Corpus Linguistics; Professional and Technical Communication; Psychology; Rhetoric and Technology)–researchers have used multiple methods (e.g., anecdotal accounts, protocol analysis, surveys, ethnographies, case study, and corpus linguistics) to investigate composing processes, rhetorical principles, and writing development.

The trend over the past fifty years has been increasing awareness of the complexity of composing.

Consider, e.g., these three dominant models of composing that inform contemporary research and practice in Writing Studies:

  1. The Process Model of Composing
  2. The Cognitive Model of Composing
  3. The Cognitive, Intrapersonal, & Interpersonal Model of Composing , 2012-2020

The Process Model of Composing

It has been commonplace, since the 1970s to 1990s, for writing teachers and writing textbooks to depict composing processes as involving four major steps:

  1. Prewriting: some preliminary planning and brainstorming
  2. Drafting: begin freewriting/getting words down on the page
  3. Revising: rethinking substantive rhetorical concerns, such as appeals to ethos, pathos, logos
  4. Editing: refining the language to ensure it conforms to Standard English.

Donald Murray’s argument in 1972 to Teach the Process not the Product represented a sea change on the part of middle schools, high schools, and universities in the U.S. In writing classrooms across higher education, faculty turned their attention from explicating the great works of literature to coaching students through’ drafts. Now, as illustrated in the diagram below, instructors coach students through multiple revisions and edits. They engage students in the writing process: They challenge students

The process movement largely guides the practices of current writing classrooms in the U.S. (see Fulkerson). In the modern writing classroom, as illustrated below, the focus is on the students’ texts as they evolve, draft after draft. The focus of the belletristic tradition on works of literature is replaced by a focus on the ever-evolving student draft.



Critics have faulted Process Pedagogy for being to simplistic.

Critics argue conceptualizing the prewrite, research, revise, and edit model as a series of discrete stages belies the complexity and recursivity and organicity of thinking. Activities such as invention, organization, and revising aren’t stages: they are ways of thinking that occur throughout the writer’s efforts to draft a text.

Critics fault Process Pedagogy for under theorizing the role of psychosocial processes on composing.

The Cognitive Model of Composing

Rather than depicting composing as a series of steps writers work through (e.g., prewriting, writing, revising, editing, and sharing), some writing studies theorists have depicted composing as a cognitive process–i.e, as a series of intellectual activities that are rooted in neurological competencies such as the ability to recall information.

In 1980, Linda Flower and John Hayes theorized a cognitive process model of composing (see illustration below). In the first iteration of this model, they theorized that attention or consciousness, which they called a monitor, oversaw three major cognitive activities: planning, translating (moving ideas into words), and reviewing.

Flower and Hayes, 1980

Later, in 2002, Hayes further elaborated on the cognitive model of writing: Hayes substituted the Monitor with a Control Level that included Motivation, Goal Setting, Writing Schemes, and the Current Plan. To the Task Level, he added Collaborators & Critics as well as Medium and Technology. (see illustration below).

Hayes, 2012

The problem-solving models of composing theorized by Flower and Hayes reflect the complexities of writers’ composing processes. Ultimately, these models reveal more about we don’t know than what we do know. The challenges for writing researchers is that the mind is a black box. At times we can only speculate about how the brain functions in terms of composing and writing development.

Neurological, Psychosocial Models of Composing

Ongoing research about composing processes has resulted in ever-increasing sophisticated and complex models. In part this is because the mind is a black box. At times we can only speculate about how the brain functions or how psychocultural experiences and cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies impinge on composing and writing development.

Consider, e.g., White, Elliot, and Peckman’s 2015 model of all of the competencies and factors that impinge on composing. This model imagines composing as an amalgam of experience with disparate literacies, rhetorical knowledge,the Big 5 Personality Factors,sociocultural perspectives, and neurological factors,

Related Concepts

The composing processes a rhetor employs is largely determined by a variety of factors, including the rhetor’s psychocultural context and knowledge.

Psychocultural Context Knowledge
The rhetor’s Mindset (e.g., intellectually open? Capable of metacognition & self-regulation? Attitude and strong work ethic?

The rhetor’s rhetorical situation

The rhetor’s cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies
The rhetor’s knowledge of genre, information literacy rhetoric, style, and
Writing Studies

Composing Processes

Knowledge of how other writers get the work done will help you jumpstart writing projects. Save time and write more effectively by advancing your knowledge of Invention, Collaboration, Design, Organization, Editing, Research, and Revision.