It’s Not You, It’s the System That Educated You

Main Points

  • Academic writing is an extremely complex skill that takes at least ten years after college to master.
  • For decades, the writing curriculum in U.S. public schools abandoned formal instruction in grammar and sentence structure, depriving students of some of the building blocks of writing expertise.
  • The information we need to complete a task is stored in working memory. Working memory is also where planning and analysis takes place. Working memory capacity is limited.
  • Writers can reduce the demands on working memory by moving skills, particularly knowledge of grammar and sentence structure, into long-term memory, thus freeing working memory to focus on planning and analysis.

Recently a client told me that many of the junior faculty he knew would rather do almost anything than sit down and try to write for publication. He said that they found it almost physically painful. I can understand why. Here’s my message to academic writers: It’s not you, it’s the system that taught you, and you can use specific strategies to improve your writing and make up for a gap in your writing education.

To understand why you struggle so much with writing, you need an understanding of how complex academic writing is and a quick tour of writing education in the United States.

The Complexity of Academic Writing

Writing experts compare mastering the skill of professional writing to achieving excellence in playing chess or composing music. They note that it takes at least ten years to master basic writing (reporting on what other people have said in a coherent way) and ten years of practice after that to master adult-level writing (writing in a way that restructures and reorganizes knowledge to suit a specific purpose). (Kellogg 2006).

One psycholinguist has described writing as one of the most complex tasks human beings do (Olive 2004). Doing it effectively requires you to use multiple cognitive and metacognitive skills simultaneously. And academic writing adds layers of complexity. You’re required to write in ways that contribute original results or analysis to an existing body of literature. You need to process and organize huge volumes of information each time you write. You need to write in the style your discipline requires. You need to find the sweet spot between deference to the previous generation and confidence about your own contributions. You need to think about multiple readerships so a publisher will be interested in your work. And all of this must be done with impeccable grammar and style.

People who study the acquisition of expertise say that high-quality instruction and focused practice are necessary to achieve mastery of a skill (Zimmerman 2013; Ericsson 2013). Yet academics are expected to acquire the extremely complex skill of professional writing with little or no mentoring or training and almost no guidance or feedback about how to practice writing. Each person is left on their own to figure it out as best they can. Once you get your PhD, the U.S. education system lets you down just at the moment in your career when you need mentoring the most.

A Quick History of Writing Education in the United States

If you were born after around 1965, the system began letting you down some years before you got your degree. Around the mid-1970s, there was a major shift in how writing was taught in U.S. schools. For several centuries before that, writing was taught using the product model. This model emphasized formal instruction in grammar, syntax, and sentence structure. It required rote learning and memorization of the parts of speech and types of sentence structure. Students were expected to learn to write from reading good literature and imitating it. This method has a deep history; Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write by rewriting texts he admired using his own language (Kellogg 2006). In these writing exercise, Franklin focused on the quality and style of the finished product.

The problem with this way of teaching writing was that it didn’t work for all students. In fact, it didn’t work for a lot of students (Hairston 1982). Reformers who were concerned about the students who were falling behind argued that understanding the process of writing was more important than learning rules. The process model deliberately avoided teaching grammar and sentence structure. “The student uses his own language” pronounced Don Murray, one of the early proponents of this method (Murray 2009, 4). The process model encouraged students to write from their own experiences instead of learning from examples of excellence. Prewriting, freewriting, and brainstorming became mainstays in English classrooms. Instead of giving students specific feedback on their writing, teachers encouraged students to learn from each other through peer review. The battle cries of this revolution were “students need work in invention” (Hairston 1982, 80) and “mechanics come last” (Murray 2009, 5).

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These learners are being trained to do complex tasks in small increments. They receive positive reinforcement as they master each layer of the new skill and each stage of learning builds on previous learning. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t how you learned grammar.



By the late 1980s, the process method dominated the teaching of writing in U.S. public schools. It has generated innumerable studies in the fields of cognitive psychology, linguistics, and educational psychology since then. But it hasn’t led to better writers. A recent national assessment found that only 27 percent of twelfth graders could write coherent sentences and present their ideas in writing in logical and clear ways (NAEP Writing Achievement Levels 2011).

And it hasn’t led to students who are enthusiastic because they are writing from their own experiences. By the last year of high school, many U.S. students have developed an aversion to writing: in a national assessment in 2011, 65 percent of males and 46 percent of females disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “writing is one of my favorite activities” (“Top Stories in NAEP Writing” 2011, slide 4).

While the underlying philosophy of the process method that a student’s own interest would naturally lead to improvement in writing skill may have come from good intentions (some of its early proponents saw it as a logical extension of the civil rights movement), in hindsight it seems somewhat curious. It’s analogous to a belief that a child who is handed a violin for thirty minutes every day will eventually become able to play Vivaldi or that children who are sent to a practice field every day for half an hour will eventually become a team that plays football by U.S. rules.

The underlying structure of every complex skill must become part of the learning process at some point. Piano students who want to play classical music must learn scales. Young people who want to become professional athletes must practice the basic skills of their sport every day. People who want to become software designers must learn the rules that govern commands in computer languages.

The absence of formal instruction in grammar and sentence structure becomes all too evident when students get to college. Today, most undergraduates don’t know the basic parts of speech. They don’t know how pronouns work. They don’t know about different ways to write a sentence or even realize when a sentence they’ve written doesn’t make sense. They become visibly frustrated when instructors raise these topics. That’s because they don’t have neuronal networks about this knowledge. The set of information they have in their brains about writing and the set of information instructors try to introduce about grammar simply don’t match.

This is why if you were born after 1965 you may be struggling with writing. Your writing has improved considerably from the day you first stepped into a college classroom. But because you most likely didn’t get any formal instruction in grammar and sentence structure, the building blocks of written language, you need to allocate a large amount of attention to writing sentences. It probably feels as if each one is pulled out of your gut. That’s because you have to focus so much on writing good sentences that there’s not enough space left in your working memory for thinking about what you want to say next, how the various ideas you’re writing about fit together, or how you want to analyze the topic you’re writing about.

The pendulum is gradually swinging back toward a middle ground. Some educators now realize that children need lots of practice writing good sentences rather than practice in any kind of writing regardless of its quality. Instead of relying so heavily on peer review, some teachers now give focused feedback on student writing. And some educators have returned to showing students examples of good writing and asking them to imitate it (Goldstein 2017); the difference is that now those examples are much more likely to reflect the life experiences of students than they were forty years ago. Recent research shows that students who learn to write from teachers who use the process model but also give them focused direction tend to become better writers and to have positive feelings about themselves as writers (Pritchard and Honeycutt 2005). And the latest edition of the Handbook of Writing Research includes a chapter on a topic that has been a pariah for over forty years: teaching grammar (Hudson 2016).


The Good News

If you are struggling with academic writing, I have very three pieces of very good news for you. Recent research in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology has changed our understanding of how the writing brain works. We now know very specific information about which parts of the brain are doing what when we are generating text. As a result, we know strategies for easing the burden on certain brain functions. These practices give writers greater access to the cognitive resources they need for planning, analysis, and creativity.

  1. Your brain has a wonderful workhorse called working memory. Working memory is where you temporarily hold all the information you need to complete a task. Working memory is also the place where you generate creative ideas, where you put together knowledge and information in unique ways. As a writer, you need to know two important things about working memory: it stores information only temporarily and it’s limited in size. Information in working memory is just visiting; it’s there only for a short while. And the size of working memory is finite and can’t be increased. (When you do well on exercises to improve your memory, you’re not increasing the size of your working memory; you’re moving things from working memory into long-term memory.)


  1. You can do many things to reduce the load on your working memory when you’re writing (Kellogg et al. 2013). Some of these are ongoing processes that will lead to increases in writing skill for the rest of your life. For example, you can learn grammar rules–not all at once, but gradually and organically, in response to the issues you see in your writing. You can practice writing for at least ten minutes a day–after a few months, you’ll be surprised at the improvement you’ll start to see in your first drafts. You can learn a variety of sentence structures. You can read more–all kinds of reading about all kinds of things. You can learn to use metacognitive thinking in every step of the writing process. You can devise a system for organizing the huge volume of information you handle when you write. This is just a partial list. (You can read more about these and other strategies in the essays on this website.)


  1. Your brain is neuroplastic. It can develop new synapses and pathways that become hardwired. When you practice a new skill through repetition, your brain creates new neural pathways so using that skill becomes reflexive and no longer requires intense effort. Cognitive neuroscientists tell us that repeatedly doing a particular activity increases the space the brain allocates to that activity and increases our ability to focus while doing it. However, as skill level in that activity increases, the brain also becomes more efficient and needs to use fewer resources to accomplish the task, particularly in working memory (Hill and Schneider 2013). Thus, learning a new skill and practicing it repeatedly moves it into long-term memory and frees up resources in working memory.


One of the key components of improving your writing skills is reducing the demands on working memory. Moving knowledge of grammar and sentence structure into long-term memory is one way to do that. In other words, you’re not fatally wounded as a writer if you weren’t taught grammar and syntax in secondary school. You can learn it now and it can become part of your long-term memory. It might even be easier to learn it now than when you were in secondary school because a) now you have very good incentives to do so (tenure, job security, increased income); and b) you have much more context in your brain to help you apply new knowledge than you did when you were younger.


Resources for Increasing Your Knowledge of Grammar


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

Get your hands on this one 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, 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 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.

Grammarly Blog:

Has pages on many aspects of grammar knowledge, divided into four broad categories: Grammar, Punctuation, Mechanics, and Techniques. I can’t speak for the accuracy of its online grammar check feature, though.



Ericsson, K. Anders. 2013. “The Influence and Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 1st ed., edited by K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman, 683–703. New York: Cambridge University Press.

“Grade 12 National Results, 2011.” The Nation’s Report Card. Accessed March 26, 2018.

Goldstein, Susan. 2017. “Why Kids Can’t Write.” New York Times, August 2. Accessed March 27, 2018.

Hairston, Maxine. 1982. “The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 33, no. 1: 76–88.

Hill, Nicole M., and Walter Schneider. 2013. “Brain Changes in the Development of Expertise: Neuroanatomical and Neurophysiological Evidence about Skill-Based Adaptations.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 1st ed., edited by K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman, 653–682. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hudson, Richard. 2016. “Teaching Grammar.” In Handbook of Writing Research, 2nd ed., edited by Charles A. MacArthur, Steven Graham, and Jill Fitzgerald, 288–300. New York: Guilford Press.

Kellogg, Ronald T. 2006. “Professional Writing Expertise.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 1st ed., edited by K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman, 389–402. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kellogg, Ronald T., Alison P. Whiteford, Casey E. Turner, Michael Cahill, and Andrew Mertens. 2013. “Working Memory in Written Composition: An Evaluation of the 1996 Model.” Journal of Writing Research 5: 159–190.

Murray, Don. 2009 “Teach Writing as a Process, Not a Product.” (1972). In The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher, edited by Thomas Newkirk and Lisa C. Miller, 1–5. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton.

NAEP Writing Achievement Levels. 2011. Accessed March 26, 2018.

Olive, Thierry. 2004. “Working Memory in Writing: Empirical Evidence from the Dual-Task Approach.” European Psychologist 9, no. 1: 32–42.

Pritchard, Ruie J., and Ronald L. Honeycutt. 2005. “The Process Approach to Writing Instruction: Examining Its Effectiveness.” In Handbook of Writing Research, 1st ed., edited by Charles A. MacArthur, Steven Graham, and Jill Fitzgerald, 275–290. New York: Guilford Press.

“Top Stories in NAEP Writing.” 2011. The Nation’s Report Card, slide 4, accessed March 26, 2018,

Zimmerman, Barry J. 2013. “Development and Adaptation of Expertise: The Role of Self-Regulatory Processes and Beliefs.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 1st ed., edited by K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, and Robert R. Hoffman, 705–722. New York: Cambridge University Press.


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Maybe It’s Mechanical

Main Ideas

  • If you’re struggling to generate sentences, the problem may be very simple: you may not have enough practice writing sentences. Practicing writing sentences will ease your cognitive burden when you write.
  • One way to improve your sentences is to rewrite sentences from texts you admire.
  • If you want to take it one step further, practicing rewriting sentences from texts you admire for several different reading audiences.
  • The best way to learn about good writing is to read widely in a variety of genres.
  • Thinking about writing better sentences isn’t enough. You have to actually write lots of sentences to acquire expertise in the skill of generating good, clear sentences.


Let’s say that several months ago you had an idea that excited you intellectually. You felt that maybe you had something to contribute to a conversation in your discipline. You identified the sources you wanted to use. You did your research. You took notes. You probably sketched out an outline or a flow chart or a diagram. And now you’re sitting in front of a computer screen, trying to make the leap across the chasm between “I think I have something to say” and “I don’t know how to start.” The longer you stare at the screen, the more anxious you get. You may feel like Lord Loudon, a British general who was sent to colonial Pennsylvania to mediate a dispute between the governor and the assembly. He once took over two weeks to write an important letter to the governor. Each day the governor’s messenger waited at Loudon’s hotel, ready to carry the letter to Philadelphia, and each day the letter wasn’t ready. Benjamin Franklin asked the messenger how that could be, since he knew Loudon sat at his desk for hours every morning with his pen in his hand. The messenger replied, “Yes, but he is like St. George on the signs, always on horseback, and never rides on” (Franklin 1906, 172).

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“Always on horseback but never rides on”: it doesn’t need to be this way!

This is a common experience for all writers, not just academics. Even experienced writers speak of how hard it is to get words on the page that come something close to the ideas in your head. Susan Sontag described it as “winch[ing] the book out of your balky mind” (Sontag 2000). If you’ve looked for assistance with this issue in self-help guides for academic authors, you may have come away even more discouraged about your situation; almost all of those otherwise excellent resources assume that the problem is emotional. They talk a lot about anxiety and procrastination and fear. These of course are real issues for almost every writer and the suggestions these books offer for overcoming them are good.

But consider that the issue may be technical and mechanical, not emotional. You probably weren’t asked to write very much in secondary school: a recent survey of writing practices in middle school classrooms found that most students were required to generate less than two pages a week and that only about 7 percent of classroom time was devoted to writing instruction (The Hechinger Report 2014). If your experience of writing before you got to college was something like this, it’s likely that you don’t have mechanical skills for generating text hardwired in your brain. When you sit down to write, your short-term memory is overloaded. You need to focus on what you want to say and how to say it and at the same time you need to devote a lot of attention to the hard work of writing sentences. You may simply not have enough practice writing sentences.

If this is your experience, take heart. Two practices will help you transfer information about the mechanics of writing sentences to your long-term memory. It will be hardwired there and will support you as you begin to generate text.


Strategy 1: Practice Writing Sentences by Imitating Excellent Texts

Like a medieval monk, I laboriously copied out passages that I admired from books and articles.

–Camille Paglia 2016

Numerous expert writers have taught themselves to write well using this technique. You may have heard of some of them. Camille Paglia. Steven Pinker. Benjamin Franklin. When Paglia was in college, she filled notebook after notebook with passages she copied from texts she admired. She also made lists of the words she didn’t know and studied their meanings. She feels that this practice was crucial to her mastery of English (Toor 2016a). Steven Pinker did the same thing: he “lingered over passages of writing I enjoyed and tried to reverse-engineer them” (Toor 2016b, 26).

The most detailed description I’ve seen of this method comes from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. At the time he devised his program for training himself to write, he was a teenager apprenticed to an older brother who owned a printing business. This was not Franklin’s first choice; he hankered after life on the sea. But his father had bound him to his brother for seven years, so young Ben used evenings and weekends to develop his mind. He discovered the Spectator, a British newspaper that specialized in satirical essays. Here’s his description of the methods he used to increase his writing skills:

About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method of the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious. (Franklin 1906, 13–14)

His first step was to take purposeful notes, “short hints of the sentiment in each sentence.” He was no longer reading for pleasure; he was reading for content he needed for a specific purpose. Next, after a few days, he returned to his notes and attempted to write the essay in his own words. Then he compared what he wrote with the original and corrected his mistakes. But he found that his vocabulary was inadequate–“I wanted a stock of words”–so he rewrote the same piece in verse, which forced him to find words with certain sounds and numbers of syllables. After that, he turned his verse back into essay form, jotting down words and phrases again, sometimes scrambling “my collections of hints into confusion” to teach himself “method in the arrangement of thoughts.” He again checked what he had written against the original and corrected his mistakes. The finished product after all these rehearsals and exercises provided incentive to continue: he fancied that he “had been lucky enough to improve the method of the language” and felt encouraged that he might someday be a “tolerable English writer.”


The Spectator, the London newspaper Benjamin Franklin used as his writing mentor in his adolescence.

Franklin’s self-directed course of instruction used several techniques that recent research supports. We now know that taking notes works best when we are focused on a purpose. Instead of transcribing large portions of text, it’s best to jot down only the ideas that will suit your purpose. This forces you to process knowledge through a particular intellectual filter, which means that you’re much more likely to remember it when you return to your notes (Piolat, Olive, and Kellogg 2005; Olive and Barbier 2017). Three people with three different writing goals will likely have three very different sets of notes about the same article. We also know that taking notes in longhand moves information to long-term memory more efficiently than typing (Mangen et al. 2015; Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014). When we type, it’s possible to simply record information without processing it. This doesn’t happen when we write by hand: because we write more slowly than we type, we do the cognitive work of synthesizing and selecting as we go along. That cognitive process puts information in categories, a crucial first step in organizing large amounts of data.

Rewriting a text that’s an example of excellence is a tried and true method. Some would call it old-fashioned and out of date, but it does several very useful things. Imitating well-written sentences transfers information about word order, parts of speech, vocabulary, and emphasis to the brain. It accustoms the writer to generating good sentences. Sentences that have subjects and verbs in the front rather than in the middle or at the end. Sentences that clearly say who did what. Sentences that are arranged to emphasize the point the author wanted to make. Sentences that don’t have extra words. Sentences written using a variety of structures. Sentences that likely were revised repeatedly until the author was satisfied. The practice of using sentences from well-written texts as models will teach you more than you realize at the time.

There’s one important difference between the practices Franklin, Paglia, and Pinker used and that much-hated pedagogical method of forcing students to copy sentences ten times each that was the hallmark of English classes until the 1970s. Each of these future expert writers chose texts they loved and admired. They were learning from writers they trusted and from texts that spoke to them. They were following their passion as they learned.

Franklin took the practice of imitating a text even further: he practiced writing texts for several different audiences. He deconstructed and reconstructed the essays in multiple ways, playing with language and learning new skills as he went. The fact that Franklin was sitting in a print shop as he was honing his skills doubtless reminded him that readers are customers: to reach his audiences, he needed to write in a way that pleased them and was easy for them to process. He was learning to think of his audience as he wrote. This is another element of skilled writing, one that many academics have trouble with (Pinker 2016a; Toor 2016b; Kellogg 2006).

Finally, Franklin’s practice of jumbling up his phrases and clues pushed him to think flexibly about organizing what he wanted to say. He became adept at reordering his thoughts and making several different structures work at both the essay level and the sentence level. He also became adept at using words and phrases to cue larger volumes of information as he wrote. These are all skills and practices that expert writers use.

The brilliance of Franklin’s method was that he did all of this practice without having to focus on content. The content was already present in the Spectator essay he was using as a model. His practice increased his skill in other aspects of writing: writing sentences, increasing vocabulary, organizing material. He was putting these skills into his long-term memory and through practice he was strengthening the areas of his brain that performed those tasks. As a result, when he wanted to generate text based on his own thoughts, his working memory wasn’t overloaded. He could focus on what he wanted to say without the additional burden of concentrating on how to say it. An arsenal of skills about the mechanics of how to say it was hardwired in his brain.


Strategy 2: Read as Much and as Often as You Can

Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.

–William Faulkner in Inge 1999, 80

Research shows that “more experienced readers make better writers” (Epting et al. 2013, 254). One reason is that reading exposes us to a larger number of language structures than oral speech does: reading increases our verbal ability because printed texts are a source of rich stimulation. In addition, reading increases domain knowledge, knowledge related to a particular topic that’s stored in long-term memory (Stankovich and Cunningham 1992). Domain knowledge is important to understanding and interpreting information, but it’s also important because depth of knowledge decreases the time we need to put new knowledge in the right context. Expert writers understand how to incorporate new information into a text more fluently than novice writers because their domain knowledge is broader and deeper (Bransford et al. 2000, chapter 2). Writers who read widely have a larger writing repertoire to choose from: they generate sentences more easily and have a larger variety of sentences to choose from. They find it easier to try different ways to express their thoughts and their vocabulary is larger than that of writers who read less.

You might compare the domain knowledge that comes from extensive reading to the mind palace Sherlock Holmes accesses in the BBC’s brilliant remake of the Arthur Conan Doyle tales. The concept goes back to Greek mythology (Zielinsky 2014). Holmes’s mind palace is a huge storehouse of long-term memories. What makes him exceptional is his superior ability to retrieve the right information at the right moment. It’s a wonderful metaphor for how long-term memory and working memory operate in partnership. Working memory sends a message to long-term memory that says “I need this particular type of information to solve a problem.” Using the cue from working memory, long-term memory retrieves the set of data that’s needed for the task at hand. The larger your mind palace, the easier it will be for you to see connections between the points you can make in your writing, organize your text fluently, and retrieve verbal information as you compose sentences. And reading is an excellent way to expand your mind palace.

All of the writers I’ve mentioned here agree on two key points. First, good writing takes practice, practice, practice. And second, a good way to learn is from imitating good writing. Your favorite authors can become your writing mentors. It’s not an intellectual exercise: you won’t transfer information to long-term memory by simply observing and admiring good writing. You have to actually write sentences. In your own words. Preferably by hand. Get up on your horse and ride on, my friend. You’ll get there.



Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, exp. ed. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Epting L. Kimberly, Evan M. Gallena, Stephanie A. Hicks, Elizabeth N. Palmer, and Traci Weisberg. 2013. “Read and Think before You Write: Prewriting Time and Level of Print Exposure as Factors in Writing.” Journal of Writing Research 4, no. 3: 239–259.

Franklin, Benjamin. 1906. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

The Hechinger Report. 2014. “3 Keys to Teaching Kids to Write.” U.S. News and World Report, October 27. Accessed March 30, 2018.

Inge, M. Thomas, ed. 1999. Conversations with William Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Kellogg, Ronald T. 1994. The Psychology of Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mangen, A. L. G. Anda, G. H. Oxborough, and K. Brønnick. “Handwriting versus Keyboard Writing: Effect on Word Recall.” Journal of Writing Research 7, no. 2 (2015): 227–247.

Mueller, Pam, and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Laptop: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Notetaking.” Psychological Science 25, no. 6 (2014): 1159–1168.

Olive, Thierry, and Marie-Laure Barbier. “Processing Time and Cognitive Effort of Longhand Note Taking When Reading and Summarizing a Structured or Linear Text.” Written Communication 34, no. 2 (2017): 224–246

Piolat, Annie, Thierry Olive, and Ronald T. Kellogg. “Cognitive Effort during Note Taking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 19 (2005): 291–312.

Pinker, Steven. 2016. “Why Academics Stink at Writing.” Reprinted in “A Guide to Writing Good Academic Prose,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 2016: 5–10. Originally published in Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2014.

Sontag, Susan. 2000. “Writers on Writing: Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed.” New York Times, December 18. Accessed March 29, 2018.

Stankovich, Keith E., and Anne E. Cunningham. 1992. “Studying the Consequences of Literacy within a Literate Society: The Cognitive Correlates of Print Exposure.” Memory & Cognition 20, no. 1: 51–68.

Toor, Rachel. 2016a. “Scholars Talk Writing: Camille Paglia.” In “A Guide to Writing Good Academic Prose,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November: 28–29. Originally published in Chronicle of Higher Education, November 9, 2015.

Toor, Rachel. 2016b. “Scholars Talk Writing: Steven Pinker.” In “A Guide to Writing Good Academic Prose,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November: 25–27. Originally published in Chronicle of Higher Education, August 1, 2016.

Zielinsky, Sarah. 2014. “The Secrets of Sherlock’s Mind Palace.”, February 3. Accessed March 30, 2014.


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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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Crush It

Main Ideas

  • Numerous preparatory steps need to happen before your brain will be ready to generate sentences about your topic.
  • Your brain won’t always be functioning at a level where it can generate text. If you’re having an intense day or are underslept, you’ll have trouble focusing enough to generate text.
  • It’s important to adjust your expectations for a writing session to the state of your writing brain.
  • Breaking down the tasks that prepare you to generate text into smaller and smaller components will enable you to be productive even on days when you’re struggling with focus.

When you sit down at your computer for a writing session, your brain isn’t always ready to generate text. If you haven’t done the preparatory steps of taking notes and organizing your thoughts, for example, you’ll have a heck of a time generating sentences about your topic. Your knowledge will emerge from your sources–from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Another reason your brain might not be ready is that you’re having an intense day with several important issues competing for your attention. Achieving enough mental focus to write will be difficult on those days. Or perhaps you’re short on sleep; you’ll also find focusing very difficult on those days.

All is not lost. You can still use your writing time productively. Many things need to happen before the moment when you generate sentences. Think of it as scaffolding that supports your final product. And some of those tasks are quite time consuming. When I really want to write but haven’t done these preparatory steps, I find myself feeling very impatient about the time it takes to complete them. So getting these jobs done on days when your brain isn’t ready for writing is an excellent way to use your time.

Here’s a partial list of the tasks that prepare your brain to think analytically about your topic and see lots of connections in the information you’re processing for your writing project:

  • Identifying possible sources
  • Selecting sources from the pool you’ve identified
  • Skim-reading sources you’ve selected for relevant content
  • Selecting potential quotes from your sources
  • Installing the full citations to your sources in your working file
  • Taking notes on your sources
  • Highlighting the key ideas in your notes
  • Making notes for yourself about how key ideas from sources connect with your own thinking and the thinking of other scholars
  • Looking for patterns in the content in your notes
  • Making a road map for yourself for the next section of your chapter or article based on all of the previous activities
  • Making a list of the next tasks
  • Putting PDFs in folders based on categories you’ve created
  • Bookmarking relevant websites based on categories you’ve created

All of these activities will move you forward on low-energy days.

I find that I have three levels of expectations about the work I can do in a writing session. Matching my expectations to my level of brain functioning helps me use writing time productively almost every day.

Bouldular Level

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Bouldular-level thinking involves thinking about a whole article or chapter (or even a whole book) at once. This level of thought is a potential pitfall because you can easily get overwhelmed or scared or discouraged. There are only two good times for bouldular-level thought:

  • When you’re in the beginning stages of thinking about your project and you’re formulating a research question. During these early days, you’re thinking about the overall scope of your project and about how your book or chapter or article will engage with colleagues who have written about your topic.
  • When you have a polished draft of the book or chapter or article and you’re writing the introduction and/or the conclusion. Now you know what the scope of your project is and you know what you argued. So it’s easy to write an overview of your work and draw some conclusions.


Pebbular Level

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You’ll have lots of days when you’re well rested, your belly is full of protein, you’ve got a full bottle of water to keep you hydrated, and you have a period of time when you’re not likely to be interrupted. But you’re not sure you’re not ready to write text yet because you still have to process a lot of information that’s new to you. These are the days to approach your work session with a pebbular set of expectations.

For example, your goal for a work session on a day like this might be to take notes on six articles and decide which quotes (if any) will work well in a specific section of your chapter.

Another pebbular goal might be to revise what you wrote the day before, type in notes to yourself about where you’ll be going next in this section of the chapter, and list the sources you’ll be drawing on in your next work session. If you have any gas left in your tank after that, you might look for a few sources to support a point that’s new to the chapter or article (i.e., one that wasn’t in your original plan but came up as you did the metacognitive work of deciding what you’ll be saying). Any work you do to set yourself up to generate text in the next writing session is progress.

As you’re doing these preparatory tasks, you may be surprised to find that ideas about what to write start popping up. You may find that suddenly you feel ready to write. In this first session of generating text about this part of your outline, you might not be able to write complete sentences. That’s okay. Write phrases. Write notes to yourself. Write down questions that come to mind. Any writing you do will be a platform for your next text-generating session.

Keep in mind that generating text shouldn’t be about word count. Success in writing isn’t about word count. Successful writing is based on good thinking, and that requires many preparatory steps. If you’re working at the pebbular level and your goal is to generate text, think in terms of covering one particular, small part of your outline.

You may find that you’re not able to cover all of the aspects of that topic in one session. Don’t get freaked out–that’s actually a very good thing. Your brain is hard at work feeding you knowledge and insights. When this happens, be confident that when you return for another session, you’ll have plenty to say and you may even see new angles of analysis. Don’t get hung up on word count. The number of words means nothing. It’s the content of what the words say that’s important to focus on.

If you end a work session with some notes with good insights that provide a road map for your next writing session instead of the 2 pages of text you were hoping for, realize that you’ve done well. You’re working at a high level because you’re investing time and effort in the kind of thinking that leads to higher-quality writing.

A pebbular work day is a very good day. Give yourself extra stars for every pebbular writing session you have–not just for your success but because these sessions are evidence that you’re being a good partner to your writing brain. You’re going through all the steps to give it what it needs to produce for you.

A word about setting goals for days when you can write: Make your goals very specific. Don’t set a goal that says “cover point B in my outline.” Instead, make your goal something like “write three paragraphs about what authors X and Y say about topic Z,” where “topic Z” is clearly related to the argument you’re making in that chapter or article. Set a goal that you know you can reach. That gives your brain a hit of dopamine, which supports the hard work it’s doing to make connections and see patterns. Plus it makes you feel good. You’re a winner!

Gravular Level (aka Crushing It into Your Comfort Zone)

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Invariably, when I make a list of writing goals first thing in the morning I’m way too optimistic. My brain is functioning at pebbular level at 5 a.m., but by the time I actually get to 11 a.m., when I have time to write, I’m not there anymore. I’m at gravular level. This is normal for me. I’m a lark on the far end of the spectrum. I’m at my peak performing times from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Instead of beating myself up because I can’t accomplish the lovely and desirable goals I set for myself, I immediately move to crush-it mode, by which I mean that I break my goals into smaller and smaller components until I’m confident that I have a list I can work with. On many, many days, my list changes to accommodate the state of my brain.

Here’s an example:

A pebbular list item for me might say “Draft 1/2 of Long-Term Memory essay.” Woo-hoo! It would be so great if I could do that in one session! And on some days, that would be entirely possible. But, I’m out of my wheelhouse when I’m writing about neuroscience. I don’t have a lot of domain knowledge to draw on. So writing about long-term memory is a more laborious process for me. I’ll need to refer to the literature more often to make sure I’m not using terms or concepts incorrectly and I’ll have to keep looking for new sources as I realize I don’t know things. Even though I have detailed notes from the sources I’ve already processed, my writing process will be stop and start because I lack domain knowledge.

Now if I’m in peak writing mode (well rested, free of distractions, proteined up and hydrated), I maybe could produce half of a draft of a six-page essay in one session. The key would be my ability to stay focused. It would be possible.

But most days I’m not in that mode by the time I’ve done half a day’s work of paid labor. So by 11 o’clock in the morning, I’m often not in pebbular mode anymore. I’m in gravular mode.

What to do? I need to keep generating essays. I can’t just lose a day’s work session. So I move into crush-it mode. Instead of plunging right in, I take 15 minutes or so to break “Draft 1/2 of Long-Term Memory essay” into a list of small, discrete tasks that will prepare me to generate text on another day.

Here’s a typical crush-it list for me:

Make a table of full citations of sources
Color-code the table (one color for source is processed and I have notes, another for source is processed and I have notes and have selected quotes, another for source isn’t processed yet)
Make a list of topics I need sources for
Find sources for those topics
Add these citations to the color-coded table
Take notes on two new sources

I might even assign time budgets to each list item:

Task Minutes
Make a table of full citations of sources 20
Color-code the table 5
Make a list of topics I need sources for 15
Find sources for those topics 40
Add these citations to the color-coded table 10
Take notes on two new sources 30

Boom! There’s a work session of 2 hours. That’s just about the limit for any writing session, regardless of what mode your brain is in. That’s a very respectable session.

This may look like a lot of busywork, but actually in this session I’ll be doing some valuable activities that support a writing brain.

  • When I create a table of full citations, I’m removing a potential distraction from working memory. Now my working memory doesn’t need to constantly be running a loop that says “don’t forget the citations, don’t forget the citations, don’t forget the citations.” That frees up space in working memory to plan and strategize and draw on vocabulary and all those other good things that prepare writers to generate text. Removing a distraction also improves my ability to focus.
  • Color-coding the table of citations does three things for my writing brain. It gives me an instant visual overview of where I am in my project. This is a powerful weapon against my archenemy: feeling overwhelmed. I can see that I’m making good, steady progress as I process my sources. I even consolidate the colors, so the section that’s color coded for “haven’t started with this one yet” keeps getting smaller and smaller. Seeing a clear visual marker of my progress as the list of articles I haven’t processed dwindles changes my inner narrative. Now my inner narrative is “I’m almost done processing the articles” instead of “I haven’t even processed all the articles yet.” Changing the color of a list item as I complete it is a reward for my brain. Color makes me very happy and makes my brain sing. When I change a list item to from an “in progress” color to a “completed” color, my brain gets very happy. This releases dopamine in my brain, a neurotransmitter that helps me stay focused and motivated.
  • Generating a list of topics I need sources for is part of a continual process of monitoring for lack of domain knowledge. It’s crucial for writers to know what they don’t know and have good strategies for compensating for lack of knowledge. As I look at the notes I’ve taken in the field of neuroscience, I invariably see terms and concepts that are new to me. It’s my job to know what they mean so I have an accurate understanding of what an author is saying. This doesn’t necessarily have to involve a lengthy Google session or deeper dips into literature that isn’t in my field. Almost always there will be a short overview of a field of knowledge that’s written in language that nonspecialists can understand.
  • Taking notes on a few new sources adds to my knowledge base and increases the raw material I have for drafting new text.

A crush-it work session is actually very productive. Breaking down the steps that are preparation for writing into smaller and smaller tasks generates a list that’s doable even if you’re not having a peak day mentally. It gives your writing brain plenty to process, and that good partner will deliver for you the next time you sit down to work. These types of work sessions are excellent supports for metacognition, for drafting new text, and for generating analysis about your topic.

And a crush-it list is seductive for the whiny part of my brain that says “I just can’t do it today!” My brain sees the crush-it list and says, “Well, maybe I could do that one thing. That one doesn’t look so bad.” And once I start, I’m in it. I’m working.

Gravular mode is where all the good stuff happens that supports the generation of text and analysis. So don’t feel disappointed when you realize you’re having a gravular day. Those are the days when you’re doing valuable work to support your writing brain. Those are the days when you’re crushing it.


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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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