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The Importance of Forming New Habits

It's common for writers to develop rituals in preparing for, executing, and finishing a piece of writing. For some writers, those rituals appear to be foolproof. Others are working on those rituals and are figuring out what works best for them. More besides have had established rituals and found that they don't always match the intentions behind their projects, and this can be frustrating.

Muriel Harris' Diagnosing Writing-Process Problems: A Pedagogical Application of Speaking-Aloud Protocol Analysis provides a very interesting starting point to "diagnosing" some common habits of writers with blocks that they can't always identify. Her purpose, however, is to address and attempt to close a gap between researchers of writing instruction and practitioners.

More simply, Harris states that she's encountered researchers who look down on practitioners for not engaging in high research. I would add that while research is valuable, it's difficult to do research on writing pedagogy that's equally accessible for all students of writing. Education should ideally be tailored to the learner as much as possible.

Harris' point about practitioners is that they don't always engage with the research and will sometimes dismiss it as irrelevant. The posed result is that practitioners should engage with research and find some practices that could be useful for them. I would add that practitioners could adapt some new practices if they appear useful.

An ideal method of research of the writing process, according to Harris, is the least intrusive. A writer will know themselves and their processes best, but will not always be able to explain them. They might also experience blocks in trying to adapt their explanation to whomever they may be speaking to.

Harris cites some methods of researched outlined by Mike Rose in a 1981 publication.

  1. Post-Hoc Questioning A writer will be observed by a researcher through their writing process and will answer questions about their process afterwards. Reflection is valuable, and there is no doubt of that, but Harris points out that there's no guarantee that a writer will remember exactly what they were thinking when they made a particular decision. I add that the kind of behavior a research might notice in one writer could be negligible compared to another. While some valuable research and observations can be drawn from this, a researcher must take a correct approach, listening to the writer about what they prioritize as much if not more than they perform their own observations.

  2. Stimulated Recall If this form of research is still practiced, it's likely being done differently today. While a writer composes, their page is being videotaped. After the recordings are completed, the writer comments on their choices and the researcher asks questions. This is a different form of reflection in which a writer can watch themselves at work and make discoveries. The act of recording, however, could influence some of the writer's choices or otherwise act as a distraction [as could any method of research]. Seeing a recording play back supposedly records a finished product and not necessarily the mental processes or planning processes employed.

  3. Speaking-Aloud Protocols While composing, the writer is prompted to speak their thoughts aloud. This method has probably uncovered the most in research of this kind, but speaking can interfere with thinking and alter the process. This is especially true in writers who aren't accustomed to talking through their writing or haven't received formal individualized instruction often.

As flawed as all of these methods are, there is value in them. Much of the current available research in writing pedagogy and instruction either contains one of these methods or otherwise draws from them. In the section that follows, Harris reviews the individual writing blocks exhibited by five of her students and how she has used variations on these protocols to help them work through and change their writing habits.

While a practitioner might use a piece of research to reflect on their pedagogical methods, Harris uses her interactions with students in order to highlight one of many common blocks and how, based on her knowledge of the student and their work, she was able to help them identify and begin to work through that block.

She first describes a type of indecisive writer who approached her for help in time management. More simply, this student felt that they were spending too much time on their project and not producing as much as they'd hoped in a certain span of time.

To get a better idea of how this student was spending their time, Harris had them retrieve a project they were working on and continue in her presence while talking through their thought process. This student, when working through their writing, always had multiple goals in mind. They use their time to narrow down those goals to the one that they want to use. This is a careful and ambitious writer who is attentive to their task and constantly wants to ensure that they are making the best possible impression through their argument.

After talking through this habit with the student and observing that they apply this level of attention in many aspects of their life, Harris tested a method that might help this student with their time management skills in writing. First, Harris had this student test various problem-solving methods to help them stick to different ideas and push through them. Then, for their next assignment, Harris helped this student apply those problem-solving techniques in the planning phase. For this student, this required a lot of trial and error, but learning new planning techniques was the best possible option.

I argue that what mattered most in the interaction between Harris and her student was that the student was listened to.


Thank you to everyone who has been reading and providing feedback to Purposeful Prose thus far!

There will be a part two to this article where I review the other student sessions and the conclusions that can be drawn from this piece. Next week, I plan to continue by engaging with the second chapter of A Sense of Style. Again, these will not be as in-depth as this is a more recent publication. In the future, readers can also expect more collaborations with my amazing colleagues at The Urban Writers!

If there's anything that you would like to see covered on the Purposeful Prose blog, feel free to send a message through any method of contact available on this site including the live chat! Your suggestion could be featured in a post or eventual series.

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As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Harris, M. (1985). Diagnosing writing process problems: A pedagogical application of speaking-aloud protocol analysis. When a writer cant write, 166-181.

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1 Comment

Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Nov 19, 2021

So interesting to learn about Harris' work. You make such an excellent point about the need of being heard and having that validation on the part of the learner. It's from that point that progress can begin. Nice work!!!

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