By Michael Greco
I am an adjunct at several Kyoto-area universities and moved house to that city earlier this year. In the disarray of unpacking at the new place I came across an old handout hibernating within a dusty notebook—Linda Flower’s “Writer-Based Prose: A Cognitive Basis for Problems in Writing” (1979). I didn’t recall reading the article before, but when I grabbed some time I sat down with it.
Glad I did—It was one of the most illuminating reads I’ve ever had.
We know that languages are structured differently, and we read about the cultural factors that weigh on the ability of non-natives to write well in a second language. As writing teachers, it’s impossible not to sympathize as our Japanese students struggle to master, for example, the illogic of so many of our idiosyncratic English idioms. It’s true: English is just plain hard, and it behooves us as teachers to have some knowledge of the cultural differences our students carry into their writing classrooms.
But Flower’s article has convinced me that underlying cognitive processes present even bigger challenges for English writing students, both non-native and native.
I teach English academic writing classes, and we have high expectations of students, who often struggle with the straightforward act of communicating what they mean. In her article, Flower refers to this trouble as egocentrism—a kind of immaturity in one’s writing. These students probably suffer the indignity of being misinterpreted by the readers (other students; eventually the teacher), or even worse, taken to task for submitting an idea that is incomplete, not thought out, only half-baked.
But hold on—People have said that very same thing about my own writing. Hopefully, these accusations of being half-baked are something I have matured out of. But I’m not sure.
The following pages will look at Flower’s article—written over thirty-five years ago but quite relevant today—with the aim of applying her thoughts on this half-baked business for the benefit of students and teachers, as well.
Flower says that effective writers are able to somehow transform their thought processes for the needs of a reader (reader-based prose), but that ineffective writers offer up an “unretouched and underprocessed version of their own thoughts” (writer-based prose). She labels writer-based prose as undertransformed and analyzes psychological reasons for its ineffectiveness. She then offers two versions of a case study, in which she illuminates the differences between reader-based and writer-based prose. Finally, she analyzes the function, structure and style of writer-based prose, before offering implications for both the writer and the composition teacher.
The article offers incisive analysis that deals head-on with the issue all writers (students and their teachers) grapple with: What is holding us back from becoming better writers? Flower lays the blame here on egocentrism, positing that it is a prominent reason why writers are unable to assume the point of view of their readers. Egocentrism is the primary reason for both the obscurity in our own writing and the faulty assumptions that we make about our readers.
Flower refers to two giants in their fields—both Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, citing their studies with the developing thought processes of children, who, when absorbed in play, can sometimes carry on ‘spirited elliptical monologues’ which make no concessions to the needs of the listener. The child’s non-communicative, or egocentric, speech is a reflection not of selfishness, but of the child’s limited ability to assume the point of view of the listener. Vygotsky called it inner speech, a forerunner of the private verbal thought adults carry on. In elliptical language, the explicit subjects and referents disappear.
As adult writers, Flower goes on to say that the meaning we hope to convey may still be, to a large degree, in our heads. An example of this is the unstated subject “it”, which often substitutes for thoughts “that the writer neglects to articulate and that the reader must usually strain to reach.” No reader appreciates being forced into making this extra effort.
Another symptom of egocentric, or writer-based prose, may be words “saturated with sense”, or code words, which, though quite personal to the writer, have no meaning to the reader. Writers can become so attached to a scene, a line of dialog, or even a single word, that we struggle to remove it, even though revision dictates it no longer belongs there. Flower is spot-on here, at least in my case: as a struggling novelist, the task of getting rid of the unnecessary word(s) is referred to as killing one’s darlings, and irrationality (parental love?) sometimes wins over common sense—the darling stays put and the prose in the essay, or in the novel, suffers the just grousing of “obscurity” or “irrelevance”.
Flower drives home the point that egocentric writing can be transformed by citing two drafts of a student progress report for an organizational psychology class. The first draft displays obvious signs of writer-based prose; its underlying focus is egocentric, and it tediously presents facts and ideas when they were discovered by the writer. The reader is asking Why? and So what? “yet gets dragged through a blow-by-blow account of the writer’s discovery process.” Flower concludes that too many sentences are focused on the writers’ thoughts and actions rather than on an organization of facts that both writer and reader agree are important.
If we, as writers, aren’t able to immediately answer the Why? and So what? of what we write, complex material or not, get ready for your readers to tune out. Flower says that one of the “tacit assumptions of the egocentric writer is that, once the relevant information is presented, the reader will then do the work of abstracting the essential features, building a conceptual hierarchy, and transforming the whole discussion into a functional network of ideas”. Fat chance of that, right?
We come back to what I said earlier—writing English is hard. And Flower acknowledges such, saying that writers have a formidable task in just dealing with their own material, and for that reason may ignore the additional problem of accommodating the reader. Forming complex concepts and sentences is a demanding cognitive task, hence the tendency for adults to structure their information much like the first draft for the psychology class; as a narrative of their own discovery process.
Flower offers many illuminating examples of writer-based prose, which assume reader understanding. Then she contrasts them to a second, successful attempt, which “unburies” the meanings in the first drafts and “makes the loose connections explicit.”
Adapting these reader-based strategies and including the reader in the thinking process is clearly the best way to write. The “transformation” that produces reader-based writing includes considering this simple question: “Have I selected a focus of mutual interest to both reader and writer?” This transforms the egocentric act of “How did I go about the research or reading of the assignment and what did I see?” to a reader-friendly focus of “What significant conclusions can be drawn and why?”
Can I do that with my students? Can I get them to demonstrate a higher level of maturity in their writing by recognizing that their reader(s) may be quite different from themselves? Can I get them to provide an appropriate context for their statements, and base their arguments on values their readers are likely to share? Can I get them to anticipate and respond to objections, or questions, their reader s may have, while, at the same time, recognizing both the limitations and the legitimacy of other points of view on a given subject?
I suspect that many of the weaknesses that appear in our students’ writing may actually be problems of a cognitive nature. At least some of these issues appear because writers, at whatever age, have not learned to go beyond their egocentric, overly simple view of a subject, or have not come to understand that their reader is someone who may not see the world as the writer does, and who must, therefore, be accommodated in the ways that Flower mentions.
And let’s not forget ourselves. Are we guilty of using elliptical language in our own writing? Do we use words saturated with sense? Are we, as writers, immediately able to answer the questions of Why? and So what? in our own prose?
If any part of these pages have confused you, the reader, this writer may still be guilty of egocentric writing—the major cause of the breakdown of communication between writer and reader. This paper may be—oops!—only half-baked, requiring more consideration on my part.
But with a sincere thanks to Ms. Flower’s keen, long-standing observations, I’m confident in the ability to transform any lingering obscurities and presumptions into smooth and communicable ideas to the satisfaction of the reader. In turn, through these reflections on transforming our own writer-based prose, we might all be better able to address the challenges of egocentric writing prevalent in most classrooms.
Flower, Linda, Writer-based Prose: A Cognitive Basis For Problems in Writing, College English, pp. 19-37, Vol. 41, No. 1, September, 1979