The Planning Strategies of a Publishing Writer,” and Donald M. Murray, “Response of a Laboratory Rat—or, Being Protocoled”
Table of Contents

Summary

In, “Decisions and Revisions: The Planning Strategies of a Publishing Writer” Carol Berkenkotter details a study which she did on writer Donald M. Murray. Berkenkotter, Professor of Rhetoric at Michigan Technological Institute, was interested specifically in how writers process and organize information as they compose literature. At the time of her study, there had been previous studies done which looked at the development of how children composed their thoughts as they began to learn how to write but none which examined a professional writer. Berkenkotter searched for a professional writer willing to subject themselves to becoming this study for the sole purpose of examining a writers process as they composed material. She found these qualifications for her study in author Donald M. Murray. Berkenkotter proceeded in doing this by studying the habits, thoughts, and normal everyday processes that Murray went through all day in three stages and over a period of 62 days.

For stage one, Murray turned on a tape recorder every time he went into his study and any other time when he worked on writing. He thought out loud and said everything that crossed his mind when he was composing. If Berkenkotter was going to have usable results for his study, he needed to know everything that happened to accurately examine his style of writing. Therefore, in addition to having the audio recordings, Murray sent him the actual texts which he compose. For stage two, Berkenkotter asked Murray to come to his university and compose a piece of writing with a specified an audience, subject, and purpose. Murray only had one hour to accomplish this stage. For the last stage, Berkenkotter visited Murray at his home and observed him as he composed an article for a professional journal. She then asked him a variety of questions about what decisions he had made as a writer and furthermore how he himself perceived his actions.

Through painstaking and close examination of all the data which she had acquired over those 62 days, Berkenkotter was able to separate each stage into the main components which she was interested in this study: planning, evaluating, revising, and editing . For stage 1(basic writing), she recorded that Murray had spent 45% planning, 28% evaluating, 3% revising and 24% editing. For stage 2(one-hour task), Murray had spent 56% planning, 21% evaluating, 3% revising and 20% editing. For stage 3(professional journal), Berkenkotter concluded that he had spent 35% planning, 18% evaluating, 0% revising and 47% editing.

Once Berkenkotter broke down the percentage of each step she found Murray to have used, she proceeded to describe some of the different methods Murray used to come up with. For example, in the planning stage, she found Murray to have used two different types such as first planning what he would write(the main goal) and then planning out how he would reach out to his specific audience. Additionally, she found that the stages of revising and planning blended together in a way of re-conceiving because often when Murray would revise, he would re-plan in a way the function of the paper.

Berkenkotter concludes by noting the intensive mental process which Murray exhibited while writing. Murray constantly evaluated himself, asking himself if he was making sense or if his point was being made clear at all. He constantly cycled through all four steps, evaluating, then editing, then revising, then planning again, and so forth. Murray forced himself to become the audience of what he is writing so that he could better understand how to word and best describe the main points he was trying to articulate. She concluded by noting that although Murray showed him many ways and methods of which he writes, every writer is very different and more studies should be done like this on different writers if ideas and principles about how literature is composed are to be formed in a more concrete way.

Once Berkenkotter published his article which discussed his research, Murray wrote a small response in retrospect to what she had documented. His impression was overall very positive(although he does describe himself as a rat being experimented on by Berkenkotter) and he expressed genuine surprise in certain elements of her findings. He expressed the need for authors such as himself to be open and willing to teach those willing to learn the methods which they use as authors. When recounting the one hour task of producing that piece of writing, he remembered it as utterly miserable with a feeling of being unprepared and out of place.

He expressed his shock at the amount of time he had spent on planning and revision and proceeded to describe revision as planning because of how he now understood the process. Additionally, he stated that he was more aware of the audience than he thought he was when writing his literature. He attributed this to possible blocking out of the audience to let the literature speak directly for itself. He finishes by stating the importance of not looking at the steps to writing as one after the other but rather as simultaneous processes. Aware of how eccentric his habits may have appeared, he suggests, like Berkenkotter, that other writers should be studied in order to gain a broader diversity. Regardless of what should be done in the future, both Berkenkotter and Murray left this study as goods friends, both grateful to each other for the opportunity that they gave each other.  

Quotes

“One final problem is intrinsic to the case study approach. Although the tapes are rich in data regarding the affective conditions under which the writer composed (he was distracted by the university problems, had to contend with numerous interruptions, encountered family difficulties that he had to resolve, not to mention experiencing this own anxiety about his writing), as Murray reported, the further away he was in time from what he had done, the less able he was to reconstruct decisions he had made.”

“I was able to distinguish between those occasions when Murray’s composing was, in Janet Emig’s terms, ‘extensive’, and when it was ‘reflexive’, by comparing the relative ease with which he developed an article from well-rehearsed material presented at workshops with the slow evolution of a conceptual piece he had not rehearsed.”

“Another coder and I independently coded the transcripts of the protocols made in the naturalistic and laboratory settings. Using the same procedure I employed in my study of how writers considered their audience (i.e. first classifying and then counting all audience-related activities I could find in each protocol), my coder and I tallied all planning, revising and editing activities as well as global and local evolutions of text that we agreed upon. I was particularly interested in Murray’s editing activites.”

“Some of the more provocative findings of this study concern the sub-processes of planning and revising that have not been observed in conventional protocols” (Berkenkotter, 1983, p. 165-166).

“This project has been a first venture in what may be a new direction” (Berkenkotter, 1983, p. 167).

“I think my contribution is not to reveal my own writing habits but to show a way that we can study writers who are far better writers than I” (Murray, 1983, p. 172).

Response

Carl Berkenkotter is trying to do a study on how the process of a writer works. The way she goes about this is very interesting. She wants to use an experienced writer (as opposed to an amateur writer) and see his processes. The methodology approach she took seems to be repetitive. She does not seem to explain what it is exactly that she is doing differently during the three stages that would yield such different results in the processes. She admits herself also, that the information she had gotten from Murray is not necessarily everything because this was not the only thing he was doing. He got distracted with life and other interruptions. I do not think that the study just based off the methodology would yield many accurate results. I believe the information she received based on her own analysis is flawed. This does not mean though that the information she did gather was wrong or that off, it just means that her methodology was not that well thought out.

At this point, Berkenkotter starts to describe a process of incubation but I feel that she just uses another author’s definition of the incubation period that uses too many technical terms and makes it hard for the reader to understand if they are not familiar with these terms. Upon describing this period of planning and incubation, Berkenkotter is able to show how much time Murray puts into planning, even when it does not seem that he is actually doing any planning. Upon her own analysis in the introspection section, Berkenkotter relishes in the self-analyzation that Murray participates in that contributes greatly to the piece. This was very important to the piece because it allows the reader to see exactly what Murray was thinking and why he was thinking it as he was writing. This first-hand testimony allows the reader to see exactly what the author was thinking.

In Summary, Berkenkotter tells the reader about the fact that this is simply a step in the right direction and should not be taken as a final, conclusive study. I wholly agree with this and think that it would be very interesting to see how this piece influenced other studies. The piece was a great example of an experimental study that was taking a new, creative approach to analyzing writing. The future studies based off of Berkenkotter’s study are probably very informative about the processes a writer takes when approaching a piece of writing.

Murray’s response to Berkenkotter showed his surprise in the results. He did not realize how much time he spent on the planning part of writing, as I am sure many of us would find the same surprise. Murray goes on to discuss the same thing that Berkenkotter said about the fact that this was just a preliminary study that could lead to many future experimental studies. One thing that I found interesting is how much Murray disliked the setting where he was timed and given an unknown prompt that he was unfamiliar with. This reminds me of many of the writing prompts that we receive on standardized tests under similar situations. Murray goes on to praise Berkenkotter for her research and he discusses how other professional authors need to take the same approach he did and be a “lab-rat” for other experimental studies. I believe that if other authors did this, we would be able to become more familiar with the best ways to approach writing.

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