Flower and Hayes, “Problem-Solving Strategies and the Writing Process”

Flower, Linda S., and John R. Hayes. “Problem-Solving Strategies and the Writing Process.” College English 39.4 (Dec. 1977): 449-461.

One of the earliest collaborative precursors to Flower and Hayes’ cognitive
process model, this essay presents heuristics and problem-solving as ways
to address the morass of the same old same old: “our basic methods of teaching writing are the same ones English academic were using in the seventeenth century” (449). Flower and Hayes argue that while practitioners do well to get students analyzing writing-as-product, there has not been especially much to illuminate aspects of process. Process, they write, has been left “up to inspiration” (449). They invoke heuristics
much in the same light Janice Lauer does in 1970 with her brief essay and related bibliography, arguing that heuristics are “a kind of shorthand for cognitive operations…they give the writer self-conscious access to some of the thinking techniques that normally constitute ‘inspiration.'” (452). If we were use a line chart to illustrate a continuum between algorithmic approaches to invention and  aleatory approaches to invention, with heuristics as an intervening term, Flower and Hayes’ variety of heuristics would probably be located herex, nestled among the algorithm-heuristic hybrids. Their cognitive process model–circa 1980–resides in this same area, an area regarded with suspicion by many of the critics of the cognitive process, so suspiciously, in fact, that doubters tend to glide across it like they would Lock Ness:


Still, Flower and Hayes make a positive argument, sharing their
goal-directed heuristics as “an alternative to trial and error” (450) and
as an approach that views writing as a “thinking problem, rather than an
arrangement problem” (450). The thick teleology governing this approach is
something of a concern to Berthoff (for all of the reasons she points out in “The Problem with Problem-Solving.” Flower and Hayes offer heuristics as a fourth alternative to the three pervasive strategies for writing: 1.) formulism and prescription (as comes, oftentimes, from text books), 2.) inspiration (kept mysterious and often following Romantic misconceptions), and 3.) writer’s block (nothing works). Heuristics offer “problem-solving techniques.” Like the journalist’s “Who? What? When? Where? Why?” (451), heuristics “give the writer a repertory of alternatives and the power of choice” (452). Their problem-solving strategy is derived from protocol analysis; researchers focused on two key tasks: “(1) to generate ideas in language and then (2) to construct those ideas into a written structure adapted to the needs of a reader and the goals of the
writer” (452). Consider this a moment where the proposition takes on a
mechanistic character. The heuristics are broken down as follows.
Each item includes an explanation:

1. Plan
1.1 Set Up a Goal
1.2 Find Operators

2. Generating Ideas in Words
2.1 Play Your Thoughts
2.1.1 Stage a Scenario
2.1.2 Play Out an Analogy
2.1.3 Rest and Incubate
2.2 Push Your Ideas
2.2.1 Find a Cue Word or Rich Bit
2.2.2 Nutshell Your Ideas and Teach Them
2.2.3 Tree Your Ideas
2.2.4 Test Your Writing Against Your Own Editor

3. Constructing For An Audience
3.1 Ends
3.1.1 Identify a Mutual End You and the Reader Share
3.1.2 Decide on Your Own Specific Ends
3.2 Roadblocks
3.3 Means
3.3.1 Develop a Rhetorical Strategy
3.3.2 Test Your Rhetorical Strategy

Flower and Hayes anticipate and answer concerns about the ordering of the heuristics: “Do writers dutifully Plan, Generate, Construct, then turn out the light with the paper done? The answer is an emphatic no. Although we have grouped these heuristics together by their function, the process of writing rarely if ever exhibits those autonomous stages textbooks describe as Gather Information, Outline, and Write. Instead, thought in writing moves in a series of non-linear jumps from one problem and procedure to another” (460). They go on to call the process “iterative,” but perhaps there isn’t enough here too address the ways a goal changes or the sort of writing that sets out toward a moving or undetermined end. Continuing in the spirit of positive assertions, Flower and Hayes describe writing, “like problem-solving thinking in general, [as] a performance art” (461), and they are explicitly interested in “replacing the mystique of talent and the fear of failing with the possibility of an attainable goal” (461).

“Because inspiration is always dependent on the mental preparation that went before, it often does fail for the passively expectant writer waiting for the flow of magic ideas” (451).

“In formulating our strategy in this two-part way, we have made
a fundamental assumption about the composing process: namely, that it can often be divided into two complimentary but semi-autonomous processes, which we designate as generating versus constructing on one level and playing versus pushing on another” (452).

Terms: product (449), process (449), heuristics (450), problem solving as hot
area in cognitive science (450), protocol analysis (451), inspiration (451),
prescription (451), writer’s block (451), repertory of alternatives (452), power of choice (452), operators (453), goal-directed play (454), synectics (455), pockets of knowledge (455), flow(456), rich bits (456), code words (456), nutshelling (456), reverse outlining (456), pattern and discovery process (459), writing as performance art (461).