Metacognition and the Academic Writer

  • Metacognition in academic writing means paying attention to your writing process, to how well your sources support your thesis, and to which style of writing is likely to fit the needs of your reading audiences.
  • Academic writing is a complex cognitive endeavor that requires authors to attend to the perspective of the authors of their sources, their own perspective on their topic, and the perspectives of their intended readers simultaneously.
  • Bloom’s taxonomy provides a good road map for engaging metacognitively with each stage of the writing process.
  • On the journey to analysis, it’s important to give your brain breaks so it can make the intellectual connections that will lead to your unique understanding of your topic.


Metacognition is poorly defined, in my opinion. Researchers routinely trot out the concise statement that metacognition is thinking about thinking. But what does that mean? And how does the concept relate to academic writing? According to the education literature, teachers teach students to think metacognitively from the time they’re in elementary school. So why is the concept so unfamiliar and so ill-defined?

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Srsly, what the heck is metacognition?

For academic authors, metacognition means conscious thought about your writing process. Metacognitive thought monitors how well what you’re writing fits the structure you’ve made for your piece, evaluates how well your arguments are supported, and has a clear sense of where you’re going. It’s the key to strong analysis and strong organization. When you don’t engage metacognitively with your sources, there will be tears before bedtime. Trust me.

Some authors generate drafts by selecting quotes and stringing them in a file. This isn’t a bad strategy in the early stages of a draft. But much more needs to happen after that. I’ve seen some texts that consist largely of a string of quotes followed by restatements of what the quotes say. There’s a logic to how the quotes are organized, but there’s no original contribution from the author. This strategy on its own won’t get you where you need to be. You need to engage metacognitively with your sources to get to the next level.

The key to metacognition is a level of engagement with your sources that enables you to come up with some ideas about what your analysis will be even before you start writing. This is the key to next-level writing. You need an overarching idea that will help you organize your chapter or article before you start writing. That way, your sources will be working on your behalf instead of you toiling away to serve your sources and feeling frustrated when they don’t come together nicely. It’s about having power over your sources–probably one of the few places in your life when you can exercise power over something without feeling guilty. It’s what you’re supposed to do.

Three Stages of Writing Expertise

Cognitive psychologist Ronald Kellogg divides the journey to writing expertise into three stages. For the first 10 years, a writer’s interaction with texts is almost absent. For example, a writing assignment for children in this age group might ask them to write some persuasive sentences about Oreo cookies (so easy!) or some cultural event (e.g., Mother’s Day). The writer draws on what they already know for content. Kellogg calls this stage knowledge-telling.

During the next 10 years, the verbal ability of writers deepens and they begin to interact with texts. They can write about what particular authors say about a topic and they can plan an essay that compares and contrasts different points of view. During this phase of development, writers learn to juggle content, planning, and organization. Kellogg calls this the knowledge-transforming stage. This is the level of writing that educators expect of high school and college students.

The third stage also takes 10 years, Kellogg feels. This is the stage of development you’re in as academic writers, or skilled professional writers, as Kellogg puts it. In this stage, writers learn to present what a text says in a way that advances their own arguments while at the same time keeping in mind the needs of their readers–what they know or don’t know, what details will be persuasive, what arguments they will accept as convincing. They don’t just report knowledge or organize it; they use it to advance their own purpose. This is what Kellogg calls knowledge-crafting, and it’s the most difficult level of writing to master.

Kellogg argues that it’s not enough to keep the standpoint of imagined readers in mind as you write, although it’s important to do that. The thing that makes expert writing so tricky is that you need to coordinate the perspective of readers, the perspective of the authors of the texts you’re using, and your own interpretations of those texts. He writes, “Executive attention, in particular, must be fully mature and effectively deployed to maintain and manipulate all three of these representations as the writer recursively plans, generates, and reviews the emerging text. In knowledge-crafting, the reader’s interpretation of the text must feed back to the way the text reads to the author and to the message the author wishes to convey in the first place. Knowledge-crafting, then, is characterized by a three-way interaction among representations held in working memory” (Kellogg 2008, 9). Managing and coordinating these three perspectives simultaneously puts a heavy burden on working memory. This is why academic writing is so difficult, particularly when you’re in the early years of mastering that skill. Kellogg refers to academic writing as “a major cognitive challenge” (2006, 389). One of the best writing researchers of our time says that academic writing is very hard. I hope that makes you feel better about your struggles! You’re completely normal.

This cognitive balancing act is the cauldron of creativity, the source of analysis that makes original contributions to your field. But how do authors get there? It turns out there’s a model out there that works pretty well. It’s based on a stepwise construction of knowledge that transfers very well to expert writing.

Steps to Reaching Analysis through Metacognition

In the 1950s, a committee of educators came up with a taxonomy of intellectual development that has stood up fairly well over the decades. Bloom’s Taxonomy (named for Benjamin Bloom, the chair of the committee) was designed to help teachers think about education goals in the classroom, but it also works very well for writers.

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Source: Jessica Shabatura, “Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Write Effective Learning Objectives,” Tips for UofA Faculty, March 19 2018, Credit: Jessica Shabatura.

Each of these levels is important for any writing project. The first level, “Remember,” is about shoving information into your long-term memory so your short-term memory will have the resources it needs to think about how to organize your text. It’s about learning as many facts as you can from your sources and putting them in long-term memory.

The second level, “Understand,” is about knowing what your primary sources mean in their proper context. So, for example, if you’re a sociologist and you’ve chosen to work with nineteenth-century sources, you’ll need to do some reading in the secondary literature by historians to understand fully what the words in your sources meant at the time they were written. If you’re a historian using sociological sources, you’ll need to do some background reading about the sociological ideas you’re working with. You need to know more than the facts of what your sources say; you need to know what those facts meant to the people who wrote them and to their readers. This is the stage when you’re doing what I call “reading around”–reading everything you can to learn the deep cultural context of your sources.

The third level, “Apply,” is where your expertise (your domain knowledge) starts to kick in and it’s where your creative juices will start flowing. Here you begin to make the shift from learner to creator. This is where you start plugging the knowledge in your primary sources into the context of what you know in your field of specialization. It’s where your work beings to converse with the work of colleagues in your field who have written about your topic. And here I’m not talking about a superficial literature review. I’m talking about a deep engagement with the thinking of these colleagues, thinking about how their ideas support yours (or not) and how your ideas add to theirs (or perhaps go in a different direction). Writing researchers Kara Taczak and Liane Robertson refer to the kind of knowledge this stage will generate as “integrated knowledge,” which they define as how a writer knows what they know, how they continue to build on what they know, and how they use what they know in particular contexts for a particular purpose (Taczak and Robertson 2017, 212).

This isn’t something you can force. You need to know the literature and you need to know your sources. And then you need to take a walk and let your mind wander so your brain can do its work. This is the stage where you begin creating hypotheses and analysis that will guide you in your writing. It happens after you’ve collected your sources and taken notes on them and formed some preliminary ideas about how to use them to support your own analysis of their content. It happens before you begin writing your first draft.

Your first ideas might not work: they might be too basic and may grow as you work through your drafts. Or you may find that your first ideas don’t work at all–but! you know what other ideas will work. Or you may find that your ideas aren’t working in the way you envisioned and you feel stuck. This is not the time to say to yourself “I’m a crap writer with crap ideas.” This is the time to say “Every writer hits this stage at some point and it’s time to call in the troops.” This is the time to start talking with trusted colleagues or with a supportive editor. Talking with others is often a key part of generating analysis. One study found that nursing students solved problems much more quickly when they talked through them with a listener who played the role of monitor. The monitor’s role was to listen but not provide advice. Monitors could say things like “I heard you mention a potential obstacle to solving the problem earlier, but then I didn’t hear more about that,” but they couldn’t say “I see a couple of other obstacles that you didn’t talk about.” This is called Talking Aloud Partner Problem Solving (TAPPS), and it’s a good aid to increasing metacognition (Tingley 2012). There’s just something magical about talking through an intellectual problem with a supportive listener. It helps your brain make connections and bring to consciousness insights that are already there in your mind–you just need to bring them to the surface.

The fourth level, “Analyze,” is where your craft as a writer begins. You have a sense of where you analysis will go. Now it’s time to get all your sources into line to support your ideas. (Keeping in mind that this may be a process you go through several times. Don’t get discouraged. Just keep going.) This is a stage where your inner office-supply geek will be ecstatic. Different colored Post-Its on a whiteboard! Different colored highlighters! An Excel table with different shading for different topics! A brand-new notebook and your lucky pen! Any of these will work as you decide how to organize your sources. Try several different organizing schemes before you start to write. Don’t get impatient: this is a stage of the writing process where your brain is working very hard to see patterns in the knowledge you’re working with and connect those patterns with your domain knowledge–the knowledge you’ve acquired about your field of expertise. Those patterns and connections are the cauldron of creativity; they will lead you to your own unique way of understanding a large volume of knowledge. This stage will take you to a rough outline of your piece, each section of which will be driven by your analysis. Each section will be far more than a mere report of what others have said.

This creative process of organizing your knowledge will take you to level five, “Evaluate.” Think of this as product testing. (Remember, all of this happens before you begin writing your draft.) In this stage, you assess what you’ve done. You consider your plan from every angle to look for weaknesses. How strong is your analysis? Do your sources give your analysis strong enough support? Does any part of your analysis need more support? Should any of your sources be set aside now because they don’t work as well as you thought they would? Do you need some new sources now that you have a clearer idea of your writing plan? To what extent is your work in conversation with the ideas of other authors? Can you tweak your analysis to make it deeper? Do the sections you’ve roughed out flow nicely into one another?

Here, and this is very important, take another break. I mean a serious break. Listen to music. Go on a good walk. Visit a botanical garden. Play a game of squash with your nemesis. Massage your dog. Play a board game with your peeps. Do whatever activity will fill your brain with endorphins. Give that hardworking brain the nurturing it needs and step away from conscious effort regarding your writing. You’ll be surprised with what your unconscious brain will offer you when you give it space and time to bring ideas into your conscious mind.

Now you’re ready for level six, “Create.” Here’s where you start drafting your text. You know your sources backward and forward, you’re aware of what other authors have said about your topic, and you know what you want to say. You’ll probably find that you have even more to say than you realized. What you’re writing is bringing something new into the world. You’re saying something important about something you care about.

This final stage of the writing process is when metacognition kicks into high gear. As you write, “the task situation is constantly changing . . . so the writer is never thinking about the text in exactly the same way” (Hacker, Keener, and Kircher 2009, 159). Metacognitive thought enables you to know how to respond to the many microchanges that take place as your thinking evolves while you write.

I’m not saying that using these six stages as scaffolding for writing is a magical process that will make writing painless. Writing is hard work and most authors feel like they’re either going to throw up or have a stroke while they’re doing it. (As you gain more years of experience as a writer, those birthing pains will subside somewhat.) But going through each of these stages (and not skipping any!) will prepare you and your brain for the kind of thinking and the kind of organization that will make it easier for you to start putting your thoughts into words that matter.

What won’t work is skipping metacognitive work until you sit down to write, hoping some good ideas will come to you and it will all work out somehow. That’s a recipe for everything that makes you anxious about writing. You’ll be overwhelmed because you “know too much” and can’t see the forest for the trees. You won’t see a clear way to put it all together. You’ll be able to do the knowledge-transforming stage of writing but you’ll run out of steam when you try to do knowledge-crafting. You need to engage metacognitively with your sources and your topic right from the git-go. Consciously attending to seeing patterns in the new knowledge you’re working with and making connections with the knowledge you’ve already accumulated is a crucial step in academic writing. It provides the base that will enable you to make that leap into original thought about your topic. You know you have something to say–that’s why you picked your topic. Give your brain all the support it needs so you can bring your brilliant thoughts into the light of day.

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Making the leap to analysis. So exhilarating!


Hacker, Douglas J., Matt C. Keener, and John C. Kircher. 2009. “Writing Is Applied Metacognition.” In Handbook of Metacognition in Education, edited by D. J. Hacker, J. Dunlosky, and A. C. Graesser, 154–172. New York: Routledge.

Kellogg, Ronald T. 2006. “Professional Writing Expertise.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, ed. K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman, 389–402.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kellogg, Ronald T. 2008. “Training Writing Skills: A Cognitive Developmental Perspective.” Journal of Writing Research 1, no. 1: 1–26

Taczak, Kara, and Liane Robertson. 2017. “Metacognition and the Reflective Writing Practitioner: An Integrated Knowledge Approach.” In Contemporary Perspectives on Cognition and Writing, ed. Patricia Portanova, J. Michael Rifenberg, and Duane Roen, 211–230. Fort Collins: WAC Clearinghouse.

Tingley, Judith C. 2012. “Enhance Metacognition and Problem Solving by Talking Out Loud to Yourself.” Sharpbrains, February 9.


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Core Ideas for Writing Success

This is the cheat sheet for this website. You’ll find more detail in the essays. This list presents the essence of the concepts and practices that will help you succeed as a writer.

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This champion knows that doing things in a particular way leads to rewards.


  • Better thinking, not more time spent working, is what will help you become a better writer.
  • Clarity and concision are more important than word count.
  • Working memory is the workhorse of the writer. It’s where planning and organizing and analysis happen.
  • Because working memory is a limited resource, it’s important to move new information and writing skills into long-term memory as soon as possible.
  • Your brain is neuroplastic. You can create strong neural pathways for new skills through repetition.
  • Metacognition is a crucial tool for academic writing.
  • Domain knowledge is the specialist knowledge you’ve acquired in your discipline. It will continue to increase over the years. As your domain knowledge grows, you’ll be able to connect new information to what you already know more quickly and more efficiently.
  • Your inner chatter about the writing process has great power to affect your thinking. You can change that inner dialogue from criticism to confidence by improving skill areas.
  • It’s important to diagnose which writing skill areas need improvement.
  • “Writer’s block” is simply a writing problem that can be fixed through diagnosis and action. You may need more knowledge about a particular issue, you may need a better organization strategy for your chapter or article, you may need some time for your brain to connect new information to domain knowledge, you may need a good conversation with a colleague or an editor to put language to your thoughts. Don’t get scared when you hit an obstacle. There’s always a solution.
  • Your brain processes new information while you sleep. You may find that sometimes you’ll go to bed feeling discouraged about your supposed lack of progress that day but then wake up the next morning with all kinds of fresh ideas. That’s because your brain is sorting and filing the new information you fed it during the day; it’s making connections between new knowledge and domain knowledge.
  • It’s important to be a good partner to your brain. Learn which times of day are best for your biological rhythms. Give your brain support between work sessions by doing activities that increase dopamine and serotonin levels. Don’t expect your brain to perform for you in a writing session if you haven’t done the preliminary steps that function as scaffolding for writing. Eat protein and drink plenty of water when you’re writing.


  • My review of the literature in neuroscience, cognitive science, and writing research has revealed practices for improving writing ability that I call the Big Three. When you’re struggling to get to analysis in your writing, talk about your ideas with a trusted friend or colleague. When you get stuck with a particular writing problem, take a walk. There’s something special about walking that supports your brain as it works through a problem. To sharpen your ability to move information into long-term memory and focus on specific cognitive tasks to the exclusion of others, strengthen your attention skills. Using these three strategies will have multiple spillover effects in other areas of your cognition that will translate to better writing and less frustration while you’re doing it.
  • Start working metacognitively at the very beginning of a writing project. Don’t think of some tasks (i.e., collecting sources, taking notes) as rote work. Every writing task requires metacognitive thinking. This will help you form a structure for your work and connect new information to your outline and to your domain knowledge.
  • Construct an outline that emerges from your sources. Don’t make an outline and then try to make your sources fit your preconceived notion. As you work with your sources, your understanding of your topic will change and your preconceived outline will suddenly be mismatched with your sources. Always work up from the sources.
  • Always work from an outline. Don’t expect good results if you wing it. Having a plan increases the quality of first drafts and saves you time.
  • Don’t make a highly detailed outline. Just broad strokes–three or four main sections. Leave space for your thinking to grow and change within each section of your outline.
  • Plug your notes into your outline immediately. Don’t take notes on a bunch of articles without plugging them into the relevant section of your outline. This reinforces in your brain what connects to what.
  • Always collect the citation for a source before you begin taking notes.
  • Following the steps in Bloom’s taxonomy will create a scaffold for analytical thought. Each step builds on the ones below it. This method of writing will nurture both metacognition and analysis.
  • When you’re processing new sources, take short breaks of wakeful rest. This helps consolidate new knowledge in long-term memory.
  • When you take notes from new sources, practice retrieval learning: before the end of your work session, write down as much as you can remember from the articles or books you’ve just processed, then review the material in those sources. This has the potential to increase your long-term memory of new knowledge by 80 percent. The more you repeat this process, the greater your recall will be. Getting this information into long-term memory frees space in your working memory for planning and analysis.
  • Work sessions should be anywhere between 20 minutes and 2 hours, but not more than that.
  • Have a detailed list when you begin a work session. Break each task into the smallest components and make each component a list item. This strategy rewards you for multiple accomplishments. Rewards increase the levels of dopamine in your brain, which in turn increase your ability to stay focused and motivated.


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Neuroplasticity and Academic Writing

Main Ideas

  • The structure of your brain changes throughout your life depending on how you use it. You can determine what areas become stronger.
  • Focused practice with feedback, incremental change, and rewards for success that lead to the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine are key principles of neuroplasticity.
  • Neuroplastic change can have spillover effects: the brain learns to apply new connections in other areas of cognition.
  • Two cognitive skills can be strengthened through neuroplasticity that will improve the quality of your writing: increasing verbal skill and increasing ability to focus attention.

Source: Jurie Roussow, “How Neuroplasticity Changes the Brain,” Rforce, March 8, 2017, Used by permission.

Basic Concepts of Neuroplasticity

Thanks to the pathbreaking research of neuroscientist Michael Merzenich and many others, we now know that the structure of the brain changes across the life course. This is because of synaptic plasticity (the strengthening or weakening of the synapses between neurons). Various kinds of training can cause physical changes in brain structure. For example, one study showed that London taxi drivers had a mental map of the entire city; they knew how to get to any address without consulting a map. Brain scans showed that their hippocampuses, the part of the brain where we store information about maps and memories of how to navigate, was larger than those of the general population (Costandi 2013). Musicians provide other examples of neuroplasticity. The area of the brain that controls finger movement is longer in a professional pianist who can play up to 1,800 notes per minute than in the general population. Musicians also have more connections across the hemispheres of the brain because they coordinate visual information, information about beat and rhythm, and movement of various parts of their body when they play an instrument (Stewart 2008).

Our knowledge of neuroplasticity is relatively young; Michael Merzenich first formed the hypotheses that the brain changes based on activity in the 1960s. At first he was ridiculed because his hypothesis contradicted long-held beliefs about the limitations and static nature of the human brain. But as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) developed in the 1990s, Merzenich’s hypothesis was proven. Studies of the neuroplasticity of the brain have exploded since then.

Merzenich offers some basic principles of neuroplasticity based on his extensive study of the phenomenon. Some of these ideas are relevant to academic writers.

  1. Change is mostly limited to situations in which the brain is in the mood for it. Merzenich writes, “If I am alert, on the ball, engaged, motivated, ready for action–the brain releases those chemical modulatory neurotransmitters that enable brain change.”
  1. The harder we try, the more we are motivated, the more alert we are, and the better (or worse) the outcome, the bigger the change. “If you are paying just a little bit of attention, are half-trying, do just a tiny bit better than the last time, . . . then only a small dose of modulatory neurotransmitters are released and the attempt results in only very small and ephemeral change.”
  1. Initial changes are just temporary. “The brain has the remarkable ability to first record the change, then make a determination–after the fact–of whether it should make that change a part of the permanent record. It does this by storing the change temporarily, then releasing modulatory neurotransmitters . . . as soon as it is reasonably certain that the behavior has, or is likely to have, a good or bad outcome. The release of these chemicals turns the brain plasticity switch ‘ON,’ which converts the temporary plastic change into a permanent, enduring, physical change.” If you feel pleased by success when you get something right as you’re learning, dopamine is released that tells the brain “Save that one!” (Merzenich 2013, 41).

Spillover Effects of Neuroplastic Change

Neuroplasticity can have spillover effects: That is, improving one function of the brain improves function in other areas. Michael Merzenich learned this when he observed language-impaired and learning-disabled children who were using a plasticity-based computer training program he and his colleagues had designed called Fast ForWord. One type of training exercise requires children to distinguish between the short and long sounds of a mooing cow. Other exercises help children learn to distinguish between similar sounds, such as “ba” and “da.” Another exercise helps them distinguish the frequency of sounds. When the child reaches a progress goal, they get a reward that reinforces the successful behavior and prompts their brain to release dopamine, thus linking a pleasure sensation with choosing correctly. (An animated character appears who does something funny like eating the correct answer or doing a little dance.) The program keeps each child performing at at least 80 percent of correct answers. As the child masters the content of one level, the program increases the level of difficulty in small increments (Rogowsky et al. 2013). Children do exercises for an hour and forty minutes for either eight or twelve weeks. The level of language ability of children who complete the program soon becomes normal for their age and their progress is very fast: most move ahead in language ability by 1.8 years in just six weeks (Doidge 2007). (If you’re interested in learning more about how Merzenich helps children who struggle with language skills, see his talk on neuroplasticity at Merzenich [2014].)

Merzenich observed that a number of children who completed the Fast ForWord program increased in other abilities besides reading and speaking: they also improved in math, science, and social studies. He believes that this is because the brain teaches itself to learn as it changes neuroplastically. He believes that “practicing a new skill, under the right conditions, can change hundreds of millions and possibly billions of the connections between the nerve cells in our brain maps” (Doidge 2007, 47). Beth Rogowsky and her colleagues observed the same spillover effect in a group of college students whose writing ability was below average. After 11 weeks of daily training with the Fast ForWord program, their scores on a standardized test of writing ability improved from 1 standard deviation below the norm to 1.3 standard deviations above the norm. The training the students received wasn’t about writing: they did exercises to improve cognitive, language, and reading skills. As their brains changed to strengthen the neural pathways for these skills, the improvement in those areas transferred to improvement in writing skills (Rogowsky et al. 2013). This evidence suggests that Merzenich is right: when we learn new skills, our neuroplastic brain learns how to transfer those skills to other tasks we do.

The Fast ForWord program works so well because it’s based on fundamental principles of neuroplasticity. First, it uses intensive practice geared toward incremental change. With each session, performance improves just a bit more. Neuroplasticity isn’t about trying for large change all at once. It’s based on many small changes that build on each other. Second, it uses rewards for reaching a goal that trigger dopamine release, which induces a sense of pleasure that reinforces the reward (Doidge 2007).

There’s another thing about neuroplasticity that seems almost magical: you don’t actually have to be doing the activity you’re learning to increase the neural pathway for that new skill. When you mentally rehearse the new skill, the same changes take place in your brain as if you were actually practicing it. In 2006, neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone did a study at Harvard with volunteers who weren’t musicians. They had jobs that didn’t require manual dexterity. They didn’t even know how to type. He divided them into two groups. All of the volunteers participated in the first phase of the experiment. They sat at a piano and practiced a simple 5-finger exercise for 2 hours a day for 5 days. They were instructed to keep as close as possible to a particular metronome beat and to do the exercise as fluidly as they could. Every day after practicing for 2 hours, they took a 20-minute test of their performance and got feedback about how they could improve.

Then Pascual-Leone divided the volunteers into two groups. The first group continued in the same way: daily practice for four weeks. But the second group didn’t practice. They sat at a piano and imagined they were practicing. They mentally rehearsed the actions their fingers would make as if they were actually playing the piano.

Then Pascual-Leone used trans-cranial-stimulation (a short electric pulse) that targeted the motor cortex of the brains of the two groups to infer the function of the neurons in that area. He found that both groups had similar amounts of neuroplastic change in the part of the motor cortex that controls finger movement. He concluded that “mental practice alone seems to be sufficient to promote the modulation of neural circuits involved in the early stages of motor skill learning. This modulation not only results in marked improvement in performance, but also seems to place the subjects at an advantage for further skill learning with minimal physical practice” (Pascual-Leone 2006, 321). The subhead Pascual-Leone used for the section of his article that discussed these findings was “If You Cannot Do It, At Least Think About It.”

Here’s another interesting finding about neuroplasticity and spillover: If you learned to play a musical instrument when you were a kid, you’re a lucky duck. Neuroplastic changes that are made earlier in life seem to punch above their weight. They teach the brain how to learn, what cognitive neuroscientist Lauren Stewart calls “metaplasticity.” She writes that “learning during sensitive periods [when the acquisition of certain skills is facilitated during certain periods of development] not only affects the development of that particular skill at that particular time, but can also determine how the brain responds to future learning experiences” (Stewart 2008, 307). Intense training during a period of what Stewart calls “exuberant neural development” appears to give a brain the ability to adapt in new learning situations long after the sensitive period of development is over.

So here’s a summary of what we know about neuroplasticity:

  • It is based on focused repetition of a new skill many times combined with feedback about how to improve.
  • It uses rewards to prompt the brain to release dopamine so the brain will associate the new activity with pleasure.
  • It has spillover effects: improvement in one cognitive function can produce improvement in other cognitive functions.
  • Mental rehearsal of a new skill has the same effect on neuroplastic change as physically doing it and in fact can lead to greater acquisition of skill.

One last point about neuroplasticity: this is what Norman Doidge calls the plastic paradox. “The same neuroplastic properties that allow us to change our brains and produce more flexible behaviors can also allow us to produce more rigid ones” (Doidge 2007, 242). This is why it’s so important to get feedback when you’re learning a new skill. It’s not about how many times you do it–it’s about how many times you do it right.

Neuroplasticity and Academic Writing

Neuroplastic learning can benefit academic authors in two ways I can think of. I’d say both are equally important. The first is learning to increase your verbal ability, a suite of skills that includes vocabulary, knowledge of grammar, the ability to write using variety of sentence structures, and the ability to write in different ways for different readers. No matter what level of verbal ability you have right now, you can increase it. And the more verbal ability you have stored in long-term memory, such that using those skills has become automatic for you, the more your working memory can devote to the crucial tasks of planning, seeing patterns and connections in a body of knowledge, and generating analysis.

The second area of neuroplastic learning for writers relates to your ability to focus your attention. This is a skill where we all have tremendous room for improvement.

Learning Grammar and Sentence Structure

Learning even a few grammar rules and increasing your inventory of sentence structures by one or two will go a long way toward making the task of generating sentences more fluid. That, in turn, will take some of the burden off your working memory so it will be able to devote more resources to planning and analysis. Putting this new knowledge in long-term memory and using it on a regular basis will strengthen the neural pathways that retrieve it when you need it. This is a significant way that neuroplasticity can help a writer.

You may find that writing a sentence or a paragraph is hard work. Pulling sentences out of your brain and putting them into text may feel very effortful. That’s because it is. If you haven’t had sufficient practice writing sentences, it’s more difficult than it needs to be. What you’re experiencing is that your ability to think about your work is more developed than your level of verbal skill. This is a common experience for writers, particularly at the beginning of their publishing career. Check out this account from writer Derrick Jensen.

For me, writing has gotten much easier. If writing were as hard for me today as it was fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t be writing. Life is too short to work that hard at something that feels so uncomfortable. Part of the earlier sensation of difficulty and discomfort for me, though, wasn’t the writing itself. It was frustration because my skills didn’t match my reach. In other words, when writing felt difficult, which most of the time it did, it was almost always because I didn’t have the skills, information, or perspective to be able to adequately to convey whatever I was trying to communicate. (Jensen 2004, 72, my emphasis)

Sound familiar? You’ll be heartened to know that Jensen is now an award-winning author who has published at least 21 books on a broad range of topics. He’s a perfect example of how verbal ability increases with practice.

You can decrease the time it will take you to acquire writing expertise by using the power of neuroplasticity to deepen and automate some of the writing skills that cause you anxiety when you write. Learn some grammar. Increase your vocabulary. Learn a few more sentence structures. Practice writing the same sentence using a variety of structures. Practice writing sentences with the same content for a variety of audiences. Your brain will reward you with a more fluid writing process and a greater ability to focus on structure and analysis. Writing will get easier for you.

Increasing Mental Focus

Strong mental focus is closely related to skillful use of verbal ability. Because the capacity of working memory is limited, it’s crucial to be able focus on a specific task when other cognitive tasks are competing for working memory resources, or as psychologist Daryl Fougnie puts it, “selectively process information” (Fougnie 2008, 1). If you think of writing a chapter or an article as a series of writing problems to be solved, you can see how the ability to focus on one problem or a single category of problems would be useful. Instead of thinking about spelling and syntax and organization and analysis all at the same time, most writers separate these tasks and attend to at least some of them separately. As your level of writing expertise increases, you’ll be able to do more tasks simultaneously because some of them will be stored in long-term memory and won’t take up working memory capacity (Kellogg 2001; Olive and Kellogg 2002).

One good way to increase your ability to focus attention is to regularly do something that puts you in a meditative state. One study suggests that focused-attention meditation–the type of meditation where you focus on controlling attention and regaining it when the mind wanders–strengthens three skills that increase your ability to focus on a specific topic or task longer: 1) “the monitoring faculty that remains vigilant to distractions without destabilizing the focus”; 2) “the ability to disengage from a distracting object without further involvement”; and “the ability to redirect focus promptly to the chosen object” (Lutz et al. 2008, 164). Another study found that as little as 11 hours of traditional Chinese meditation increases the amount of white matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, part of a network that is related to the ability to self-regulate (Tang et al. 2010).

If you’re willing to spend a little money for a training program to increase your mental focus, check out the BrainHQ program (see below). Michael Merzenich and a team of colleagues designed the program based on the principles of neuroplasticity. One of the areas it focuses on is attention. (I have no relationship with BrainHQ; I just think it’s a good resource.)

One final note about attention: Be extra careful with yourself after you’ve suffered an interruption. That’s when you’ll make mistakes (Foroughi et al. 2014). You’ll misspell words or even type the wrong word. You’ll return to a different place in your file than the place where you were working before you got interrupted. Just be aware that the work you do in the period after something broke your attention will need a closer second look.

Learn More


Costandi, Moheb. 2013. 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: The Human Brain. London: Quercus.

Doidge, Norman. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin.

Merzenich, Michael. 2013. Soft-Wired: How the Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life. San Francisco: Parnassus Publishing.

Merzenich, Michael. 2014. “How Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.” Talk given at Mind & Its Potential conference, Chatswood, Australia. YouTube video,


Grammar Books

Casagrande, June. It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2010.

This tiny paperback punches well above its weight. It’s a seminar on sentence writing, including all the things that can go wrong and how to fix them. If you have just ten minutes a day to work on your verbal skills, dip into this one.

Longknife, Ann, and K. D. Sullivan. The Art of Styling Sentences. Hauppage, N.Y.: Barron’s, 2012.

The strength of this slim paperback is its description of twenty basic types of sentence structure. If you need to expand your repertoire of sentence types, this is the book for you.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2003.

Get your hands on this from a used bookseller if you can. It’s a gem. It has a detailed index inside the front cover so you can quickly find exactly what you’re looking for. The chapter topics are excellent. This is a superb place to start when you’re looking to increase your verbal ability. Sections include “Understanding Grammar,” “Writing Correct Sentences,” “Writing Effective Sentences,” “Using Effective Words,” and “Using Punctuation.”

Stilman, Ann. Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation. Revised and updated. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.

The strength of this guide are sections 3, “Structure and Syntax,” and 4, “Style.” Stilman covers areas of writing skill that newer academic writers often struggle with and that aren’t often covered in writing manuals. At the end of the book is a useful, albeit brief, section called “Suggestions for Self-Improvement.”

Williams, Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 11th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

If you get just one book to help you with writing skills, get this one. It’s gone through many editions and all are good. Written by a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Chicago, this book explains basic principles and provides exercises so you can practice your new skill. Although Williams doesn’t label his topic as such, this book focuses on the metacognitive aspects of writing: asking questions about what you write, solving problems with your sentences and paragraphs, and thinking about the needs of your readers.

Williams, Phil. Word Order in English Sentences. 2nd ed. Brighton: Phil Williams.

This is a topic that style manuals rarely discuss. There’s a secret body of knowledge about order of words in fluent English sentences. Phil Williams shares the decoder ring.


Grammar Websites

Grammar Revolution:

Site owner Elizabeth O’Brien offers numerous resources that include a PDF titled “The Beginner’s Guide to Grammar,” video grammar lessons, and a guided multimedia course in grammar called The Get Smart Grammar Program. O’Brien’s resources work well for adult learners.


Increasing Mental Focus

Gladding, Rebecca. 2013. “This Is Your Brain on Meditation: The Science Explaining Why You Should Meditate Every Day.” Psychology Today, May 22.
McPherson, Fiona. “Meditation’s Cognitive Benefits.” About Memory, n.d.,
Schulte, Brigid. 2015. “Harvard Neuroscientist: Meditation Not Only Reduces Stress, Here’s How It Changes Your Brain.” Washington Post, May 26.
Scott, Elizabeth. 2018. “How to Get Started With a Focused Meditation Practice.” verywellmind, July 31.
Schwartz, Jeffrey M., and Sharon Begley. 2009. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: HarperCollins.

If you’re interested in more knowledge about the parts of the brain that are involved with attention (and there are many), you should check out the last chapter, “Attention Must Be Paid.”

Zylowska, Lidia, and Daniel Siegel. 2012. The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD: An 8-Step Program for Strengthening Attention, Managing Emotions, and Achieving Your Goals. New York: Random House.

Even though this book is marketed to adults with ADHD, it’s an excellent resource for anyone who is looking to increase their ability to focus. The chapters take you through a guided program of gradually increasing the cognitive skills that will lead to stronger focus.

BrainHQ Program.

In contrast to other brain-training programs, this one was designed in consultation with Michael Merzenich. It’s based on the key neuroscientific principles of repetition, incremental improvement, feedback and suggestions for improvement, and rewards for success. BrainHQ provides a lot of information about the neuroscience behind its design. One of the key areas of focus is attention. It’s a paid program of training, but the cost is quite reasonable.



Costandi, Moheb. 2013. 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: The Human Brain. London: Quercus.

Doidge, Norman. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin.

Foroughi, Cyrus K., Nicole E. Werner, Erik T. Nelson, and Deborah A. Boehm-Davis. 2014. “Do Interruptions Affect Quality of Work?” Human Factors 56, no. 7: 1262–1271.

Fougnie, Daryl. 2008. “The Relationship between Attention and Working Memory.” In New Research on Short-Term Memory, ed. Noah B. Johansen, 1–45. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Jensen, Derrick. 2004. Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Kellogg, Ronald T. 2001. “Competition for Working Memory among Writing Processes.” American Journal of Psychology 114, no. 2: 175–191.

Lutz, Antoine, Heleen A. Slagter, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson. 2008. “Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation.” Trends in Cognitive Science 12, no. 4: 163–169.

Merzenich, Michael. 2013. Soft-Wired: How the Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life. San Francisco: Parnassus Publishing.

Olive, Thierry, and Ronald T. Kellogg. 2002. “Concurrent Activation of High- and Low-Level Production Processes in Written Production.” Memory & Cognition 30, no. 4: 594–600.

Pascual-Leone, Alvaro. 2006. “The Brain That Plays Music and Is Changed by It.” Annals of the New York Academy of Science 930, no. 1: 315–329.

Rogowsky, Beth A., Pericles Papamichalis, Laura Villa, Sabine Heim, and Paula Tallal. 2013. “Neuroplasticity-Based Cognitive and Linguistic Skills Training Improves Reading and Writing Skills in College Students.” Frontiers in Psychology 4: article 137.

Rogowsky, Beth A., Pericles Papamichalis, Laura Villa, Sabine Heim, and Paula Tallal. 2013. “Neuroplasticity-Based Cognitive and Linguistic Skills Training Improves Reading and Writing Skills in College Students.” Frontiers in Psychology 4: article 137.

Stewart, Lauren. 2008. “Do Musicians Have Different Brains?” Clinical Medicine (London) 8, no. 3: 304–308.

Tang, Yi-Yuan, Qilin Lu, Xiujuan Geng, Elliott A. Stein, Yihong Yang, and Michael I. Posner. 2010. “Short-Term Meditation Induces White Matter Changes in the Anterior Cingulate.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 35: 15649–15652.


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Getting to Analysis in Your Writing

iStock-538036849_creativity_Working with Analytical.jpg

Main Ideas

  • The process of reaching analysis in academic writing is very similar to the process that leads to creativity in the arts.
  • Psychologist R. Keith Sawyer has made a list of stepwise actions that create a platform for creative thinking.
  • I’ve added a step for academic writers: talking about your ideas with knowledgeable colleagues, friends, or editors. Expressing your thoughts with speech helps your brain bring connections to consciousness and make new connections.
  • Opening your mind to many types of new sensory input can help you make a final connection that brings a lot of ideas together.

Every academic writer needs to produce new analysis. But how the heck are you supposed to get that? Where does it come from? How can you get you some?

For most writers, this part of the writing task seems mysterious, almost alchemical. Some days it’s there and a lot of days it’s not. Sometime it feels as if you’re striving to push through an invisible barrier. If you could only break through, you’d be in the magical land of analytical thought, where it’s all hearts and rainbows and you are known for your brilliant mind.

Like any other aspect of writing, getting to analysis usually happens only after a considerable amount of work. Sometimes writers have a magical burst of insight that changes the topography of their entire field. But these writers are rarely novices in their field. They’ve done a lot of work to prepare their mind for that brilliant idea. The path to analytical insight involves doing many steps that will prepare your brain to do this extremely complex work.

Analytical thinking is quite similar to creativity; it involves many of the same steps. In both cases–analysis and creativity–insight sometimes comes in a flash of brilliance while you’re walking or taking a shower. But here’s the thing: that flash didn’t come from nowhere. Lots of work prepares your brain to put all the pieces together in an original way.

So I’m borrowing a page from R. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist who’s been studying creativity for over two decades. In the second edition of his Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, he offers an excellent summation of the steps that lead to creative insight. It works just as well as a list of the steps that lead to new insights in academic writing.

Steps That Support Creativity (and Academic Analysis!)

  1. Find and formulate the problem. The first step is to identify a good problem and to formulate the problem in such a way that it will be more likely to lead to a creative solution.
  1. Acquire knowledge relevant to the problem. Creativity is always based on mastery, practice, and expertise.
  1. Gather a broad range of potentially related information. Creativity often results from alert awareness to unexpected and apparently unrelated information in the environment.
  1. Take time off for incubation. Once you’ve acquired the relevant knowledge and some amount of apparently unrelated information, the unconscious mind will process and associate that information in unpredictable and surprising ways.
  1. Generate a large variety of ideas. Unconscious incubation supports the generation of potential solutions to the problem, but conscious attention to the problem can also result in potential solutions.
  1. Combine ideas in unexpected ways. Many creative ideas result from a combination of existing mental concepts or ideas.
  1. Select the best ideas, applying relevant criteria. The creative process typically results in a large number of potential solutions. Most of them will turn out not to be effective solutions; successful creators must be good at selecting which ideas to pursue further.
  1. Externalize the idea using materials and representations. Creativity isn’t just an idea; creative ideas emerge, develop, and transform as they are expressed in the world. (Sawyer 2012, 88, 90)

This is an excellent description of the steps academic writers follow to produce writing that has depth and sharp analysis.

I would add two items to this list as it applies to academic writing.

6b. Be prepared to drop back to an earlier step in this sequence when you get stuck. Writing problems are just that: they are problems that need to be solved. Think of yourself as a doctor who needs a diagnosis when you hit an obstacle in your writing. Do you need more information? Go back to step 3. Are you finding that the sources you’ve collected aren’t producing the support for your thesis that you expected they would? Go back to step 2 or even to step 1–you might need a research question that’s more robust. Have you done steps 1 through 6 and still don’t know what your analysis is? Pay attention to step 4! Or move to step 6c, which is incredibly important for academic writers. It’s so important that I’ve made it its own section in this essay.

Talk about Your Ideas with Knowledgeable Colleagues or an Editing Professional

I’ve found in my work with struggling authors that talking can be magic. Most authors, even (perhaps especially) the ones who are struggling the hardest with generating text, can speak very eloquently about their ideas. When they talk, they draw on all their domain knowledge and speak of insights that are new to the literature. They just don’t realize that they’re already there because they’re struggling so hard with written words and that’s where their focus is. There’s something unique about using spoken language. It’s an entirely different cognitive process from generating text to express ideas. It’s much easier to talk about our work than it is to write about it. There’s a reason for this: engaging the cognitive tasks involved in speaking is something we do every single day. We’ve practiced that skill since we learned to speak and the neural connections in our brains for using that skill are dense and very strong. The part of our brain that generates speech is deeply connected with many other brain functions.

In contrast, when we work to express our ideas in writing, we’re drawing on skills that we’ve had much less practice with. Consider the number of hours you’ve spent speaking every day since you were two years old compared to the number of hours you’ve spent writing every day since you were about six. There’s a huge difference in investment there. So it’s no wonder that you struggle with some elements of writing but are brilliant when you speak. If you’re an academic writer, you’re on a journey to expertise that takes years. Your brain is learning new skills, strengthening the skills you already have, and generating new connections that link to what you know and all your past experiences. On this journey, you need every shortcut to new connections you can find.

Talking with someone about your work, particularly when that person has domain knowledge in your field or a field that’s relevant to your work, is one such shortcut. It will often help you clarify what your thinking is. You’ll be surprised at the words and phrases and ideas that will pop out of your mouth when you say them out loud to an informed and supportive listener. A skilled listener who plays multiple roles (mirroring back your words, poking around to see how you respond, noticing when you say important words that seem like the tip of an iceberg, pointing out when you say something that is a new idea for your field) will become part of the scaffolding that you use to produce and articulate your novel thoughts.

Use the cognitive skill that’s well developed to help you gain more depth in the writing skill you’re still developing. Talk about your work with anyone who’s willing to listen. And of course be prepared to return the favor!

Last Thought: Be Open and Patient

Sometimes an analytical idea is just around the corner. This often happens to me fairly late in my writing process. I’ve done all the steps: I’ve read new literature and taken notes, I’ve formulated a structure for the piece I’m working on, I’ve connected the new knowledge to what I already know, and I’ve started making notes about ideas I want to use. I know where I want to go with a piece. But I don’t have the key idea that will help me present my ideas so readers easily connect to what I’m saying. I don’t have the next-level thinking that will pull it all together.

This happened when I was drafting “Crush It.” I conceived of this title as a way to connect with the more recent use of this term to mean achieving a goal with style that is so devastatingly perfect that it stuns all observers. But I was also thinking of the meaning of breaking something into smaller and smaller parts.

I got stuck when I started to think about images. When I used “crush” as a search term in the online image libraries, I got lots of images of destruction. That was definitely not the concept I was going for. So I moved on to the idea of breaking something into smaller components. I hit on the idea of gardening–start with a picture of an entire garden, then move to a picture of a medium-level gardening task (mulching), then to a picture of a very discrete gardening task (deadheading flowers). But that was all way too disconnected from my idea of crushing it. I spent far too much time that day looking at pictures of “this is not it.” I went to bed that night feeling frustrated and knowing I hadn’t succeeded. I actually saw pictures of gravel in that work session, but my reaction was “Gravel! How boring can you get?” It’s almost embarrassing to write about how close I was and how unaware I was!

While I slept, my brain continued to work on my creative problem. And when I woke up in the morning, I instantly knew that boulder-pebble-gravel would be the perfect sequence for my images. Plus I could make up fun new adjectives. And that sequence worked very well with my entire concept.

This is how it often happens when you’re trying to reach a new idea or an idea to hang everything else on in a chapter or an article. If you’ve given your brain the material it needs to work with–getting new knowledge, taking notes on new knowledge, moving knowledge from working memory to long-term memory, connecting new knowledge with domain knowledge–it will be processing, processing, processing on your behalf quietly in the background. The idea you need is probably just around the corner.

There’s another element to this process. I call it being on the hunt. It’s a subtle process of opening your mind to stimuli. You may hear a phrase on a TV program or a snippet of conversation while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. A word or a phrase might jump out at you while you’re leafing through a magazine. You may see something while you’re walking the dog. A family member may say or do or even wear something that jogs a particular memory. A song may come into your head that just won’t leave. You may have a dream that stays with you after you wake up. Any of these things might be the last piece of information your conscious mind needs to bring everything together. And that last piece may enter your brain in any of several ways–through your eyes, through your ears, through your memory, through a dream, even through a smell. Opening your mind to these bits of information, noticing what’s coming in through your senses, may help you take that last mental step toward the new idea you need.


Sawyer, R. Keith. 2012. Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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