The Cogs of Writing Cognition: "Knowledge-Telling" and "Knowledge-Transforming"

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Beginning expository writing presents a multitude of challenges for even the most experienced of authors in and out of academia. Blogs on the subject for students' use, while both prevalent and helpful in understanding academic conventions, do not often give in-depth answers as to how to bridge the gap between "knowledge-telling" and "knowledge-transforming" works. Let's break this down.

Popular writing blogs on expository writing are useful and hold merit. Students should use them as a tool to determine whether they are taking the correct steps in their own individual writing process and to make sure they are following academic expectations. What happens, however, when that blog does not address the expectations that the student must meet? What happens when the blog "tells" the students what components they need for their essay, but does not "show" how to produce that content on their own? What happens when the consumer of the blog is not a student, but another writer seeking guidance on how to put together a basic essay?

As of now, there is no singular answer. There is no magical tool that can produce the most ideal piece of writing for any purpose at any given time.

For this reason, there are academic pieces specifically focused on the cognitive aspects of writing, more specifically, on the role of planning a piece of writing, what that can look like, and how the most successful method of planning can produce successful works. The first selection of blog entries will break down some of the concepts introduced in "Planning in Writing: The Cognition of a Constructive Process" published through Carnegie Mellon in May of 1989.

While dated, this work provides a productive means by which to reconsider and even restructure knowledge on writing that we currently hold, types of knowledge that do not often present themselves in a format accessible to all writers.

To begin, let's first address the difference between "knowledge-telling" and "knowledge-transforming." A knowledge-telling process is often likened to an "information dump." A piece of writing that follows a knowledge-telling process presents information as it is known and has the capacity to be both interesting and impeccably organized. Knowledge-telling can also produce well thought-out texts that fit the given expectation of the writing task, but does not necessarily guarantee that.

A knowledge-transforming process situates knowledge, both known and researched, within a set of integrated goals or criteria. Knowledge-transforming pieces of writing, in short, must involve some semblance of planning.

"Planning in Writing" states that the difference between "knowledge-telling" and "knowledge-transforming" depends on three essential factors.

First, the writer must understand the trajectory of the discourse taking place on their given subject. This involves studying not just the subject matter of the piece of writing, but also the expectations and conventions that writers on the same subject have set. More specifically, what is addressed is the "aims" of a discourse as defined by James Kinneavy.

"By aim of discourse is meant the effect that the discourse is oriented to achieve in the average listener or reader for whom it is intended" (1969, Kinneavy).

More specifically, the "aim" of a discourse is the goal that it is meant to achieve for readers. It's important to remember that the intention of the authors within the discourse is not necessarily what the works accomplish. Otherwise, there wouldn't be much room for the interpretation of a piece of writing.

Knowing the aim and trajectory of a discourse means understanding what the sources within a discourse do. To apply that knowledge successfully, a writer must be able to orient their understanding of a discourse, of their sources, towards their goal without taking information out of context.

Second, the rhetorical and social context of the subject and task must be understood. Writing is largely a collaborative process, and an effective way to better understand and plan a written piece on a subject is to both talk about it and to gauge how others talk about it.

A conversation may not always remain strictly within the bounds of a given task and it doesn't have to. Getting feedback on a subject is productive because it affects the way that subject is perceived. For example, the task at hand might be to write a persuasive piece. A conversation on the topic might reframe or assist to dispel prejudice or bias and could affect the tone that is taken in that piece of writing.

Last, but not least, it is important to understand your own thought processes. How you think, plan, and write a piece is just as important as what is written. The method by which a piece is written can affect whether a person has achieved their goals and met the expectations given through their writing task.

Standard academic practice involves writing an outline. An outline can be useful before, during, and after writing has been completed because plans can change throughout the course of the writing process. Some people only need to write bullet-point lists. Some people need to write an "information dump" in order to best organize their thoughts. Some people need to record themselves speaking on a topic or to have a conversation about it.

A writer is not limited to one singular cognitive process and that is the primary reason why there are several methods by which a person can effectively approach a piece of writing even if they are not sure how to begin. A writer can begin, for example, with a paragraph that belongs in the middle of their piece as opposed to the very beginning. This can be helpful for those whose ideas radically change through the course of their writing or planning process.

Rules associated with writing, in a lot of ways, are not strict. If there are two categories that pieces of writing fall into, they are pieces that do work and pieces that do not work. In a piece that does work, the language is effective, it meets the criteria of the task, and it falls in line with your personal goals associated with the project. A piece that does not work will not fully accomplish this. The task of the writer is to determine what tools will work best for them to produce the most effective and focused piece of writing.


Creating an Outline - Organization and Structure - Writing Resources - Writing Center - IUP. (n.d.). Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Caulfield, J. (2020, October 15). How to write an expository essay. Scribbr.

Flower, L. (1989). Planning in Writing: The Cognition of a Constructive Process. Technical Report No. 34.

Kinneavy, J. (1969). The Basic Aims of Discourse. College Composition and Communication, 20(5), 297-304. doi:10.2307/355033

Tips on Writing an Excellent Expository Essay. (n.d.). YourDictionary.

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