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Theoretical role of strategies and strategic processing in writing

The earliest cognitive models of writing (Hayes & Flower, 1980) to the most recent (see Graham, 2018a) emphasize strategies and strategic process as critical elements of writing. The earliest of these conceptualizations, the Hayes and Flower model, provided a description of the mental operations that skilled writers employ when writing (planning [goal setting, generating ideas, organizing ideas], translating plans into text, and reviewing [reading and editing]). A subsequent model by Hayes (2012) took a different approach, focusing on control processes such as goal setting (for planning, drafting, and revising) as well as task schemas for carrying out various aspects of writing such as revising, collaborating, summarizing, and so forth. In contrast, a model by Zimmerman and Risemberg (1997) concentrated on how writers use selfregulation strategies for managing the writing process, writing behaviors, and the writing environment.

The recent Writer(s)-within-Community (WWC) model by Graham (2018b, 2018c) represents a departure from these previous conceptualizations. It places writing and the cognitive resources writers and their collaborators bring to writing within the context of writing communities (consistent with the argument above about the importance of context in strategic writing). It also draws on both executive control and self-regulation to describe the strategic processes writers use when composing. The WWC model proposes that writing is simultaneously shaped and bound by the characteristics, capacity, and variability of the communities in which it takes place and by the cognitive characteristics, capacity, and individual differences of those who produce it as well as the interaction between community and individuals. The model further proposes that writing development is a consequence of participation in writing communities and individual changes in writers’ capabilities, which interact with biological, neurological, physical, and environmental factors.

The WWC model conceptualizes writing as a social activity that is situated within specific writing communities. A writing community is defined as a group of people who share a basic set of goals and assumptions and use writing to achieve their purposes. Examples of writing communities include a science class where students use writing as a tool for learning, an online website where writers share and support each others writing efforts, and a child and grandparent who send emails to each other to keep in touch. Skilled and developing writers are typically members of multiple writing communities at any point in time.

The purpose of each writing community determines the type of writing undertaken, its intended audiences and stances, norms for writing, and identity (including the identity of its members who will differ in terms of levels of affiliation, participation, roles and responsibilities, presumed value to the community, and power). A writing community further shapes writing through its use of tools and reoccurring typified actions that members apply to meet a community’s writing goals. Moreover, the writing produced by community members does not happen by chance, as it is molded by a collective history, the social and physical context of the community (e.g., on-line versus brick and mortar) as well as the other writing communities in which members are currently or previously engaged (e.g., writing practices learned at school are brought home). Thus, what is written and how it is written (strategies, schemas, and strategic processes) is embedded and dependent on the context in which it is produced.

While context shapes what is written, the members of a writing community exercise intentionality over what and how they write, including the degree of personal ownership they take for specific writing tasks. In essence, members of a writing community apply their cognitive capabilities and resources to achieve community and personal writing goals. These capabilities and resources include long-term memory resources (e.g., specialized writing knowledge and knowledge of the writing community as well as beliefs about the value/utility of writing, one’s competence as a writer, and reasons for writing), text production processes (conceptualization, ideation, translation, transcription, and reconceptualization), control mechanisms for orchestrating and directing the process of writing (attention, working memory, and executive functioning), and modulators that influence writing (emotions, personality traits, and physical states).

The control mechanisms proposed in the WWC model specify the strategic processes applied during writing. Attentional processes allow writers to choose what is attended to and what is ignored, and involve focusing, maintaining, switching, and inhibiting attention during all stages of the text production processes. This includes what a writer does in solitude, in conjunction with the tools selected for writing, and the actions undertaken with collaborators in the writing community.

Working memory provides a limited and temporary storage system where the internal work of writing occurs. It provides a space where all non-automated composing activities take place. Knowledge and beliefs from long-term memory and external information are brought into working memory, processed, and acted upon in order to regulate attention, production processes, writing tools, motivations, emotions, personality traits, and the environmental and social context in which writing takes place.

The third control mechanism in the WWC model is executive control. This involves the process of setting goals (formulating intentions), initiating actions to achieve them (plans), evaluating goals and their impact (monitor), and modifying each of these as needed (react). These processes are the mechanisms by which writers and collaborators establish agency and control over the writing process, and they are applied to all aspects of writing (e.g., defining the writing assignment, developing a writing plan, gathering possible writing content, organizing it, constructing sentences, transcribing sentences into text, integrating visual and verbal features into text, reading and rereading plans and text for evaluative purposes, reformulating plans or text based on these evaluations, and editing and creating a polished final product). They are not separate from the confines of the writing community but operate in conjunction with them, as they are used to manage interactions with collaborators, use of selected writing tools, and arranging the writing environment.

The WWC model further proposes that communities and writers develop schemas (or strategies) for carrying out the writing process. These include schemas for setting goals, gathering and organizing possible writing content, drafting text, and evaluating and revising plans and text. It also includes schemas for controlling thoughts, behaviors, inclinations, and the writing environment. For example, a writer may use a schema for brainstorming to help generate possible writing ideas. However, if a writer cannot draw the needed schema from long-term memory or one is not available in their writing community, a new plan can be generated through problem solving or by modifying an existing schema that appears somewhat relevant. Of course, a writer may also take action with a poorly articulated schema.

As the WWC model illustrates, writers employ specific schemas (which we will refer to as strategies from this point forward) to accomplish community/personal writing goals. These strategies are beneficial for at least three reasons. One, they direct attention to what needs to be done to carry out a particular aspect of writing. Two, they are efficient, as they provide a structure or set of mental operations which can be used repeatedly, as when a professor uses a particular strategy or structure for writing letters of recommendation. Three, they can reduce cognitive load, as they can break a demanding task like writing into smaller and more manageable tasks (e.g., write by planning, drafting, editing, and revising).

The use of writing strategies does not mean that writers stop engaging in strategic processes involving reasoning, monitoring, evaluating, making interpretations, or solving problems. If a known writing strategy is applied, writers can (and hopefully do) monitor, evaluate, and react accordingly to its use. Further, strategies known to a writer do not provide a solution to every problem he or she faces. For instance, the seemingly simple act of forming an idea into a written sentence requires making decisions about which words and sentence structure best convey the writers intentions. Even though strategic processing can be purposefully reduced, as when a knowledge telling approach is applied, writing always has the potential to be highly strategic, and as the WWC model illustrates, writers need to become strategic writers in multiple communities.

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