Rhetorical Problems

In “The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem” (1980), Flower and Hayes argue that rather than thinking of writing as an act of discovery, we should think–and teach–writing as “a problem-solving, cognitive process” (468). They suggest that the metaphor of discovery is problematic because it elides the writer’s role in making (rather than finding) meaning. To counter this metaphor, they posit a model of the rhetorical problem, which they define as the rhetorical situation and the writer’s goals. The authors argue that this model is more useful than the discovery metaphor because writers respond to the problem which they define for themselves based on the assignment they’ve been given.

Flower and Hayes conducted a study in which they gave the same assignment to a group of expert and novice writers. Each writer recorded a vocalization his or her cognitive process, and the researchers developed generalization about what cognitions accompanied the best writing. Flower and Hayes conclude that good writers respond to the rhetorical problem in a more complex way, giving more thought to all aspects of the rhetorical situation and how to affect their audience, and also continuing “to develop and their representation of the problem throughout the writing process” (476). The authors believe that their study opens up new questions and directions for research and pedagogy.

I find this article interesting and potentially useful primarily because of their reframing of the act of writing as a problem solving process rather than discovery. While the discovery metaphor is also useful, I think that the problem-solving model provides space for a more intentional approach to writing that may, as Flower and Hayes claim, avoid some of the pitfalls and limitations of the discovery metaphor. However, the method they use to collect their data is problematic for several reasons. First, they assume that the verbalizations of their subjects’ thought process is both reasonably accurate to the subjects’ actual thinking and that the act of verbalization did not significantly alter their subjects’ thought process. Second, their subject sample doesn’t seem to include a range of writers, but rather a polarized group (expert and novice), which accounts for the predictable results (the experts thought about the rhetorical problem more than the novices did). Third, the authors don’t offer an explanation of their criteria for determining who was more successful at completing the task, but seem to take it for granted that “good” writing is self-evident. And finally, as Lester Faigley points out in “Competing Theories of Process,” this study doesn’t account for non-cognitive factors that influence a writer’s choices in defining the problem set before them.

Leaving those problems aside, though, their central claim makes sense to me–that a writer’s success is often contingent on his or her ability to define and respond to the problem at hand. The question that leaves me with is how can we help our students to develop a more nuanced cognitive approach to the problems that writing assignments present? What do we do already that is useful, and what can we do better?


Flower, Linda and John R Hayes. “The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem.” Rpt in The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: WW Norton & Co, 2009. 467-77.

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