Book title: The Science of Writing: Theories, Methods, Individual Differences and Applications

Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1996, ISBN 0-8058-209-0

Andrew Dillon

This item is not the definitive copy. Please use the following citation when referencing this material: Dillon, A. (1996) Review of Levy and Ransdall (eds) The Science of Writing. Information Society,13(3), 293-295.

The act of writing is one of the routine cognitive activities almost all members of the information society perform, and one that this society invests substantial resources in ensuring its young members are trained. However, unlike its information processing partner, the act of reading, writing has been poorly served by social science research. Whereas reading has been modeled by cognitive scientists, structured by educationalists, and designed for by media specialists, writing retains the status of poor cousin, secondary to and largely dependent for theoretical analysis upon a better understanding of the reading process.

The present volume seeks to redress the balance. Conceived as a successor to Gregg and Steinberg’s landmark 1980 work, Cognitive Processes in Writing, the new text is a major synthesis of diverse research and seems set to become the definitive volume for scholars new to the field. With almost 400 pages of text, the 19 chapters contained here are divided into three sections: Theories of writing and frameworks for research; Analytic Tools and techniques; and Individual Differences and Applications. Divided fairly equally between these sections, the combined work of 29 authors drawn from America, UK, Belgium, Sweden, The Netherlands, Germany, Australia, and Israel gives testimony to the breadth of coverage.

The first part of the book contains a major re-working by Hayes of his original, highly influential model of the writing process. Describing the new model as an ‘individual-environmental’ model, it adds more emphasis to affective components of text production and, in line with much that has happened in cognitive studies of real world activities since 1980, it places greater emphasis on the social context in which writing occurs. Interestingly, Hayes also goes to great lengths to couple writing and reading as inter-related acts, and in so doing builds a bridge between research communities that augers well for future research.

Other chapters in this section examine the role of working memory in writing, in which Kellogg and also the editors (separately) draw neatly on mainstream cognitive science research to support their analyses. Grabowski relates writing to speech, and Sharples extends the analysis of writing to draw parallels with the literature on design, citing work from architecture that itself has been influential in studying the activities of software engineers in HCI, further highlighting the inter-relationship between the writing process and other research domains.

One criticism I would make of this section is the preponderance of models. It is possible to open almost any chapter and find a unique model of the processes under discussion. Though parallels exist between chapters, these are left to the reader to develop explicitly. Furthermore, the term ‘model’ is used in a very loose way, referring more often than not to schematic representations of high-level activities rather than detailed articulations. Obviously this reflects the state of the art in writing research.

The middle section of the book contains six chapters that take the reader through the minutiae of data collection and analysis. This is an important contribution of the present volume. Process data from humans is always difficult to obtain reliably and to analyze meaningfully, and in the work described here we see how several researchers have handled these problems. Ranging from tools that capture edits and modifications in an evolving text (Eklundh and Kollberg) to consideration of the use of think-aloud protocols (Janssen, van Waes and van den Bergh) this section stands apart from the others but serves the purpose of grounding the book in the practical world of research concern. For students this section is a mine of information that should be consulted before ever undertaking data collection on writing. It is not exhaustive and should not be interpreted as such, and I would like to have seen at least some allusion to long-term process measures such as diary keeping, and self-reflection by both single and collaborative authors, techniques which I have myself used successfully and which I believe can add significantly to the science-base of writing research.

The final section of the book contains a further six chapters lumped under the heading individual differences and applications. While the heading is not entirely inaccurate, the treatment of individual differences is implied more than explicated. Levin, Share and Shatil examine pre-school writing in the context of written Hebrew, particularly to test assumptions about the relationship between emerging competencies and later performance. Britton considers the production of expository text, and Graham and Harris consider the problems of children writers with poor self-regulatory skills. While these are all issues related to individual differences, the section lacks a chapter that draws them together and offers a unifying perspective in the manner of Hayes’ opening model - which itself is little referenced here. The use of dictation tools is considered in the final chapter of the book by Reece and Cumming offers some hope for the use of dictation technology in writing, which is a first in this domain, though it is not always possible to separate out the technology from the process in their data.

In sum, this is a useful and authoritative synthesis of recent trends in research on writing. It is particularly praiseworthy for the international focus, the concern with detail (especially on the capturing and analysis of process) and the presentation of updated models of writing which point to new research questions. In delivery it meets its aim and seems likely to be the standard for scholars in this area. For readers of The Information Society, it might seem that there is little enough here that directly focuses on social level analyses, or on new media such as the Web, and if that’s the case, it probably reflects the lack of empirical work carried out on writing in these contexts, since empirical work is emphasized (correctly in my view) in this volume. I cannot fault the editors for imposing this standard, since it surely indicates where important research questions lie now.