Discovery Writing and Multiple Dispositions

I have recently completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. Discovery writing is the notion that writers can ‘discover ideas’ as they write. For many writing theorists, the so-called Forster quote exemplifies this sense that speaking, or writing, can constitute thought:

How do I know what I think until I see what I say. (Forster, Aspects of the Novel, kind of)

David Galbraith is perhaps the most influential theorist of discovery writing, and has approached writing in terms of how writing can ‘constitute thought‘, or, in simple terms, how writing can play a role in forming or creating ideas. Writing process theorists, such as Galbraith, Torrance et al, Kellogg, (and many others), have focused their studies upon academic writing, such as student essays. These theorists tend to compare writing in terms of the different strategies, or processes, that writers use. Planning before writing, and discovery during writing, tend to be considered as polar strategies, where writers, in extremes, are termed as ‘planners’ or ‘discoverers’. Some theorists, such as Kellogg and Galbraith, attempt to control the degree to which writers plan or discover, by asking writers to plan in advance of writing, or asking writers to leap straight into writing. Here, the theorists create specific writing tasks in controlled environments, much like exams – e.g. giving writers an essay question and giving them half an hour to write an essay. Other theorists, such as Torrance et al, have based their studies upon students’ own essay writing, such as university essays, and have asked students to keep a detailed log as they write, where they note the extent of their planning, and the extent of ideas that then occurred during writing. Each of these theorists is interested in the efficacy of different writing strategies. The questions they tend to ask are whether particular writing strategies are associated with high grades, or whether writing or planning might be associated with the creation of ideas.

I think Galbraith’s model of writing is the most subtle, which is to say that I like it. Galbraith’s model (below) looks very complicated. It is pretty complicated!

Galbraith ModelBut in very simple terms, that network thing (the little circles joined by wires) in the middle represents a mind (considered as a network). TOPIC + TASK SPECS serve as prompts, such as an essay question or a topic starting you off. B represents ideas being formed in writing, as emergent, in a seemingly sequential process – since writing, word after word, sentence after sentence, is often sequential. C represents feedback, as does E, from writing back into thinking – written ideas are pumped back through the network/mind. The overall model, thus, presents a cycle, in which the more text and ideas that are produced, via thinking and writing, then provide an overall structure which helps to scaffold and synthesise the resulting ideas.

For the notion of discovery, Galbraith’s use of a network seems extremely apt to describing and explaining experiences of discovery. A network presents thought as a largely emergent or subconscious process, since thought is created, or ‘constituted’ (to use Galbraith’s terms) in a network by the firing and connecting of particular areas. To think is to to make connections in your mind. So thought is emergent – is not known in advance of the process of making particular connections. So ideas, as they are created in your mind, can be experienced as new or novel, or surprising – as discoveries. The act of writing then helps to scaffold this process, since the writer can then see their ideas in a solid form, store these ideas, and build and chain ideas in light of their previous thinking. Ideas that don’t work, or don’t fit, can be edited out, discounted etc. Writing provides a control structure in this sense. Reading serves as an act of reflection. The overall process forms a cycle that is sympathetic to the Forster quote’s: How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

Galbraith’s theorizing brings together many principles from the cognitive work of Hayes and Flower, who exhaustively modeled various cycles (such as writing and reflecting). Galbraith then added a network, thereby putting a writer’s mind in the middle of the writing process. Whereas the previous cognitive theory (e.g. of Hayes and Flower) was highly rational and logical, describing writing in terms of processes (more computeristic than humanistic!), Galbraith’s network has very human elements. The network, as a mind, is akin to a personality, or a way of being or thinking, with particular (personal) knowledge, feelings, and emotions. Galbraith, indeed, borrowed this sense of a ‘dispositional network’ from writing theorists who wrote journals or fiction (e.g. Elbow and Murray). Elbow and Murray both described writing in terms of ‘feeling’ coming somewhat before ‘thinking’. They favoured an approach of writing quickly and somewhat unquestioningly – getting ideas ‘out’ onto the page, and shaping them later on. The sense of a ‘disposition’ is perhaps sympathetic to the experience of quickly forming an opinion or idea when reading a news article. You might form a response, such as agreeing with a piece, or someone, or disliking a statement, or otherwise forming an emotional response or reaction to something. Such reactions are often personal or individualistic. They are your responses. Elbow and Murray valued individualistic responses, recognising that such responses can represent your ‘voice’, and can thus be original or different in some way. So starting out from your own feelings or responses can be a valuable strategy for all kinds or writing, because at least then you might be starting out with a novel idea.

So, OK, here’s where I begin to add my own ideas and research into the mix….

I interviewed fiction writers about their writing processes. I based the interviews upon a piece of writing that they had recently completed, such as a recent novel or short story. I was hoping that their writing experiences would still be fresh in their minds, so that they could take me through these experiences and processes – explain them to me.  One thing that was fairly common was that writers would begin with a rough sense of a story or plot, but would then create many ideas as they wrote. Many writers described making discoveries about characters as they wrote, kind of regardless of if they felt that their writing was plot-led or character-led. One aspect of these character based discoveries was that writers would put characters into situations without fully knowing how the characters would react or behave. I think that there is an argument to say that writers were trying to think in character, as a character. For some writers, this process was explained in highly romantic terms, in terms of experiencing voices or presences (i.e. the characters experienced as ‘real’, and as ‘other’ – i.e. as presences that are not the writer themselves). One writer described writing a character as like ‘getting to know someone’. Other writers conveyed this experience in more rational terms, feeling that they were creating a character that ‘stood’ for a real person, but was not actually experienced as ‘real’ for the writer. It quickly become apparent that the term ‘real’ isn’t much use for describing characters. We are better off with literary terms, such as simulacra or representation.

So….Galbraith, and Elbow and Murray, consider writing as emanating from a writer’s disposition, where the disposition is central in some sense. Their sense of a disposition is that it somewhat represents the writer’s thinking, the writer’s personality. It is somewhat singular or unitary in this sense, since it is the writer’s ‘voice’ (for Elbow) – ‘the only one you have.’  And yet my fiction writers are describing a sense of thinking not as themselves, but as another person. They kind of put themselves in someone else’s position, to think as them. So I think that my fiction writers were describing a process that involves a more nuanced or multiple sense of disposition than is evident in Galbraith’s model. There is perhaps a sense that fiction writing requires writers to either flip between dispositions, as they write each character, or to think in ways that allow them to understand different positions. Because Galbraith’s model is built around a network, there is a sense that the network can account for all different kinds of thinking, including thinking ‘in character’, as it were. However, I also think that thinking ‘in character’, or in multiple voices, perhaps represents possibilities for how the writer’s personality, or disposition, may interact with with the disposition of characters. Some of my writers, for example, described being surprised at how their characters behaved or reacted, as if the character’s thought was somehow experienced as distinct from their own – as if they learned about the character from how they acted or responded. So ideas, in a strange sense, can be experienced as someone else’s ideas. Discoveries may be ‘strange’ in this sense. That’s quite a departure from a ‘single disposition’ model.

So I think that a more multiple notion of disposition would perhaps be better suited to modelling fiction writing processes.

I haven’t created such a model yet. It’s just an idea that I am floating here.

Perhaps my theorizing, here, could draw upon the experiences of people who are used to thinking in character, such as actors or ventriloquists. I would love to hear from ventriloquists and their experiences of their dolls. Ventriloquists often give the impression of being surprised by what their doll says. That’s obviously part of the act, but I’m willing to bet that it feels pretty real sometimes too. I like to put on voices and accents sometimes, and I find myself saying things ‘in character’ – things that are a bit weird and not me – or not the ‘normal’ day to day me. I think that we all have this facility to take on different personas. It’s just that many of us don’t find the opportunity to explore these different parts of ourselves.

Anyway… that’s it for now.

Suffice to say that I think fiction writing represents some different writing and thinking experiences than essay writing or journal writing (which is what most cognitive writing theory is based on).

Please feel more than welcome to comment here or to contact me, email me, with any ideas or thoughts.

Perhaps I should talk to a ventriloquist. I’d love to!


I should mention that, after rereading this blog post, I realise that my ideas have quite a bit of crossover with Charlotte Doyle’s article The Writer Tells: The Creative Process in the Writing of Literary Fiction. I read Charlotte’s article a few times before and after working on the main body of my PhD, and it kept striking me as simple and true, in the best sense.


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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