These models allow us to conceptualize the process of written communication so that we can discuss it. It's important to remember, however, that all models are limited: A model abstracts from a rich, analog reality. In abstracting from reality, a model selects only certain features to be presented and is simpler and poorer in information than the reality.
Claude Shannon was an engineer for Bell Telephone Laboratories after World War II. His mathematical theorems are a major basis of information theory as practiced by engineers. Shannon's concept of a communication system is formulated in a commonly found diagram. The diagram shows that information is transmitted from an information source through a channel to a receiver.
Shannon's diagram emphasizes the encoding of information to be transmitted and the decoding of received information. It also indicates the effect of noise on the channel through which the information is transmitted.
The value of Shannon's model for the theory of writing is its emphasis on encoding/decoding and on the effect of noise. Shannon's model is limited for the theory of writing in that it overlooks the motives of both the sender (writer) and receiver (reader). People have reasons for writing and reading; Shannon's model does not take the reasons into account.
Roman Jakobson was a Russian linguist. His model of the communication process represents spoken rather than written communication, and there are some who argue that it doesn't apply to writing. Nevertheless, it is often applied to writing.
Jakobson's model is often represented in a diagram. The elements of the diagram (changed to apply to writing) are: the writer, the reader, the context, the message, the contact, and the code. By naming the writer and reader as parts of his model, Jakobson does make an opening for motives and other "subjective" factors.
The contact (like Shannon's channel) is the medium through which the message is transmitted. In the case of this web page, for instance, the contact is complex: It includes the server which houses the file which you're reading, the computer and software with which you're reading it, and the means by which they are connected. This same information could be transmitted through a different channel, a printed book, a chalk board, or a speech.
The code is the language which, presumably, writer and reader share. (Translated writing complicates this aspect of the model). The code includes the type of writing as well as other conventions of written language.
Jakobson's model helps to chart the purposes of a piece of writing, according to which part of the model a purpose relates to. Jakobson's model incorporates some features of Shannon's (the transmission of information via a channel). Jakobson's model is limited in that it doesn't represent the discovery processes that writers engage in nor does it indicate the recursiveness of both writing and reading.
Often, a simplified version of Jakobson's model is used, diagramed as a triangle with writer, reader, and text at the angles. James L. Kinneavy wrote A Theory of Discourse structured on this model. However, by omitting part of Jakobson's model, Kinneavy's diagram loses some of strength of Jakobson's model, while retaining its weaknesses.
Ulric Neisser does not supply the kind of diagram of the communication process that Shannon and Jakobson do. However, I have constructed a model, based on his book, Cognition and Reality.
This model applies Neisser's psychology of cognition and perception to the writing process. Neisser emphasizes the exploratory and recursive nature of perception.
Guided by our desires, needs, ideas, images of the world, etc, we explore it. Our exploration produces new information. This new information affects the needs, desires, images, etc. with which we began. Our changed needs and desires guide a new round of exploratory activity which in turn produces new information.
This model fits the writing process well. We begin writing motivated by our current ideas, beliefs, motives, etc. As we write, we explore and discover information. This new information feeds back into our starting ideas and motives, changing or reinforcing them. From this point, we can engage in another round of exploratory writing.
This model adds important features to Shannon's and Jakobson's models. Based on Neisser, we can see both writing and reading as motivated, exploratory, and recursive.
I have also constructed a model based on the work of philosopher Michael Polanyi. Polanyi's work has valuable suggestions for the theory of writing. His philosophy emphasizes the engagement of the person in the act of knowing. It also highlights the importance of the "tacit dimension," of the fact that we know more than we can say and that we often say more than we realize.
This model is simple: A person discovers meaning in an experience. Subsequently, the person writes something (a poem, a novel, an essay, a letter, a journal entry . . .) that expresses the meaning found in the experience. Finally, someone reads the text and discovers meaning in it. The reader may be the writer himself or herself; the reader may be a complete stranger.
An important implication of this model is that the text does not convey the original experience to the reader. Instead, it conveys meaning to the reader. Further, the meaning the reader discovers in the text may not be the meaning intended by the writer. In other words, a text can not convey an experience; it can only convey meanings. Many texts do not convey a single, unequivocal meaning to all readers: These are the texts we call literature. Together with the model based on Neisser's work, this one highlights the importance of interpretation.
Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life. Simon and Schuster, 1982.
Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics. University of California Press, 1977.
Roman Jakobson, "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics." In Thomas A. Sebeok (ed), Style in Language. M.I.T. Press, 1960: 350-377.
James L. Kinneavy, A Theory of Discourse. W. W. Norton, 1971.
Ulric Neisser, Cognition and Reality: Principles and Implications of Cognitive Psychology. W. H. Freeman, 1976.
Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being. University of Chicago Press, 1969.