From madmen to judges

Sandy Dorley
Conestoga College
Spring 2011

Many of us teach what has become known as the service course in technical writing.  Usually offered as a second-level writing course (after the obligatory essay/academic writing course in most colleges and universities), it contains students from many different disciplines. Often, their writing process is hit-and-miss at best.

Students take the course either because it is a required component in the two-course writing sequence in their degree or because it is one of the “non-program electives” they are allowed to take. In some cases, faculty in technical programs, who know that students will need good writing skills for their careers in technology, advise students to take the course.

Whatever the reason these students assemble weekly, they almost never do so because they plan on being technical writers.  Like so many students these days, they believe that an education is meant only to give them “practical” coursework and experience in their field.  And working, for students in technical fields, often equates with field work, lab work, design, and assembly—never sitting at a desk writing a report. 

All of these factors make the service course challenging to teach and like many of us, I keep on the lookout for new ways to meet this challenge. Recently, however, I was reminded (yet again) that not-so-new theory and pedagogy can be resurrected, years later, to find new uses in the technical writing classroom when I heard a presentation by Dr. Sarah Copland in which she talked about madmen, architects, carpenters, and judges as metaphors for students’ roles in the technical writing process.

I was part of faculty hiring committee, and one of our candidates talked about madmen, architects, carpenters, and judges as metaphors for students’ roles in the technical writing process.  These terms were first applied in 1981 by Dr. Betty Sue Flowers of the University of Texas in an article titled: “Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process.”  These four characters exist in all of us and particularly come into play when we (and our students) sit down to compose a document.

The madman is the one who “full of ideas, writes crazily and perhaps rather sloppily . . . [and] gets carried away by enthusiasm or anger.”  The judge is a second kind of critical entity who looks at what the madman has created and immediately shouts “’That’s trash!’ with such authority that the madman loses his crazy confidence and shrivels up.”  Flowers posits that the give-and-take energy between these two characters is what keeps students from going forth in their writing.  They immediately look at what they have written, declare that it’s crap, and get stuck.  The trick, says Flowers, involves “separating the energies.”  You cannot let the judge immediately jump on the madman.

And so enters the architect.  Her job is to look at what the madman wrote and select those chunks of material that look promising and arrange them into a pattern that might go forward.  The architect doesn’t worry about the sentence level but looks at “large, organizational, paragraph-level thinking.”

The carpenter is the one who comes along, after the large chunks of the document have been organized, and begins to do the fine millwork, “nail[ing] these ideas together in a logical sequence.” He makes sure that the document leads “logically and gracefully” from idea to idea, sentence to sentence. When the carpenter is done, the document should be “smooth and watertight.”

Now the writer can allow the judge to come back on scene and inspect the finished product.  This is where the finishing takes place as the document is polished with attention to spelling, punctuation, grammar, and tone.  Flowers points out that these details are “not the concern of the madman who’s come up with them, or the architect who’s organized them or the carpenter who’s nailed the ideas together, sentence by sentence.  Save details for the judge.”

It’s easy for us to get caught up in all the various aspects of technical writing: genre theory, structure, audience, and multimedia delivery, for example. But we need to remember how daunting any type of writing is for some of our students—particularly those who don’t plan on being writers.  Flowers’ paradigm may be old news, and perhaps a bit simplistic, but in that presentation that afternoon, I was inspired to try yet another way of making the act (and art) of writing accessible for my students.


Copland, S. (February, 2011). Presentation delivered to faculty of the School of Liberal Studies at Conestoga College, Kitchener, Ontario.

Flowers, B. S. (1981).  Madman, architect, carpenter, judge: Roles and the writing process. Language Arts, 58.

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