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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Working Memory: The Writer’s Best Friend

Main Ideas

  • Working memory performs many tasks during writing, but its capacity is limited.
  • Writers can improve the functioning of working memory by increasing their verbal ability (knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and inventory of sentence structures).
  • Writers can also improve working memory function by doing activities that increase their ability to focus their attention.

Chaser the border collie knows over 1,000 toys by name, retrieves them with perfect recall, and processes language that tells her what to do with her toys.

In the spring of 2004, retired professor and psychologist John Pilley adopted a border collie puppy he named Chaser. Pilley loved dogs and needed one after the loss of several family pets, but he was also interested in trying out a theory. Sheep farmers in his area had told him that border collies knew language, that they knew the names of each sheep in the herd they managed and could associate commands with individual sheep.

Intrigued, Pilley began a carefully planned course of instruction for his dog. He was careful to avoid subtle cues that would contaminate scientific findings. He began with nouns, teaching Chaser to fetch toys by name. By the time Chaser was 3, she knew the names of over 1,000 toys and would retrieve a specific toy even if Pilley had concealed it while other toys were visible.

By 2013, Chaser’s language abilities had expanded. She was able to follow the meaning of all the words in simple sentences such as “to Santie Claus take Flipflopper” and “to Flipflopper take Santie Claus.” She could do this with all of her toys. The unavoidable conclusion was that Chaser was using not just long-term memory (remembering which toy was Santie Claus and which was Flipflopper) but also working memory: she retrieved the names of the toys from long-term memory and held them in working memory while she processed the words “to” and “take” and figured out how each part of speech related to the others. Chaser the dog was using working memory. This finding was a sensation in the field of animal research (Pilley 2013a, 2013b). She also exhibits tremendous focus: she eliminates many other contenders for her attention when she retrieves a particular object. (Her favorite is her blue ball, though; that’s what she’s probably staring at in the picture.)

You are able to communicate in writing because you have a working memory. This brain function enables you to process parts of speech and hold new ideas in your mind while you connect them to knowledge stored in long-term memory. You can go a little deeper than Chaser, however. Your working memory enables you to bring new knowledge and stored knowledge together to create new ideas. It also enables you to construct language to describe and explain your new ideas and make plans about how to organize the language you’ll use for that task.

In the grand scheme of brain research, our understanding of working memory is relatively new, and our understanding of it is still evolving. Scientists used to talk about long-term memory and short-term memory. Short-term memory was originally conceived of as the part of the brain that stores a very limited amount of information for a very short time. In 1960, a team of researchers introduced the term “working memory” to take into account all of the tasks that this function performs, but it was several decades before research on working memory flourished (Costandi 2013, Kindle location 1571).

Researchers initially theorized that most people can hold about seven chunks of information in short-term memory concurrently, but further research has theorized that the number is actually only three or four (Baddeley 2017; Cowan 2000). Psychologist Nelson Cowan, who proposed the lower number, explains it this way: “aspects of the memory representation determine what chunks [of information] will be most prominent (relative to the available retrieval context), whereas limits in the focus of attention determine how many of the most prominent chunks in the representation can be attended at once” (Cowan 2000, 176). In other words, working memory decides which chunks of information are important, but limits in our mental focus determine that only three or four chunks of information can be contemplated simultaneously.

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Working memory can accommodate only three or four chunks of information at the same time.

Working memory lives in different places in your brain, based on the various functions it performs. Working memory also works in partnership with long-term memory. Thus, even though the capacity of working memory is limited, it taps into a much larger resource when it’s working on producing a complete sentence or generating analysis that combines new knowledge and stored knowledge. If you’d like to learn more about your working memory, one of the scientists who has done field-shaping work on this topic, Alan Baddeley, wrote an excellent overview of the topic in language us muggles can understand on the Serious Science website (Baddeley 2017).

Working Memory and the Writer

Your working memory performs multiple functions for you as you write. It holds the information you need for your writing session in readiness, particularly new information you’ve learned for the project that isn’t in long-term memory yet. In addition, humming along in the background, working memory is planning what you’ll say next when you finish with the sentence you’re writing. It’s also holding your overall plan in mind–your big-picture outline for the project (Kellogg 2008; Kellogg et al. 2013).

Working memory also retrieves information that’s stored in long-term memory that’s relevant for your writing session. This is sometimes referred to as domain knowledge. The absence or presence of domain knowledge is a factor in the difficulty a writer experiences. For example, when college students were asked to write about baseball, the ones who had domain knowledge about baseball found it much easier to draft short essays than those who don’t know much about the sport. The students in the latter group experienced cognitive overload–that is to say, their working memory was working so hard on squeezing out sentences about a topic they didn’t know very much about that there weren’t many resources left for planning how they would organize the essay or which words to choose as they wrote or the grammar of what they were writing (Kellogg 2001b). When you write, multiple cognitive functions compete for the resources working memory provides (Kellogg 2001a; Torrance and Galbraith 2006).

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Working memory is a limited commodity. Multiple cognitive functions compete for working memory resources when you’re writing.

Working memory also focuses on grammar and spelling and word order and word choice–what writing researchers call verbal skill. Here is an area where you can focus on improving specific skills. For example, if you were born after 1965, it’s highly likely that you didn’t get much formal training about English grammar. That’s why it may be difficult for you to write good sentences. You lack basic knowledge about a key verbal skill. And you can fix that (Kellogg and Raulerson 2007).

You may also have a low vocabulary. I can hear you saying “So what? The words I know work just fine for me in my discipline.” Here’s the thing: At some point in almost every text you write, you’re going to come to a point where you need a word that isn’t coming to you easily. Either you’ll just slide a word in there that sounds pretty good to you and is probably wrong or you’ll have to interrupt your writing process to consult a thesaurus. And interruptions are very hard on the working memory. The cost of interruptions is much higher than the time they take. Regaining the focus you need to exclude other stimuli is cognitively costly. In addition, you’re more likely to make errors in written work after an interruption (Foroughi et al. 2014; Foroughi, Malihi, and Boehm-Davis 2016). When your vocabulary is expanded, your working memory can say “Hmm, word needed here. I can think of three. Which one would be best?” And that all would happen so quickly that you wouldn’t even notice it happening, so your writing process wouldn’t be interrupted. The very best way to increase your vocabulary is to read widely in a variety of disciplines and genres. You’ll pick up a lot of vocabulary from context and when you don’t know a word, look it up. Online dictionaries have made the process of increasing vocabulary a lot faster than it used to be. A paid subscription to Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged is a very worthwhile investment for any writer. And numerous dictionary apps can be downloaded to your phone.

The good news for you as an academic writer is that you have domain knowledge about your topic. And your domain knowledge will be increasing over the span of your career. The more domain knowledge you have, the faster your working memory will connect new knowledge with knowledge stored in long-term memory. You’ll get quicker and more proficient at saying “Oh, this idea connects with this chunk of information that I already know.” You won’t need to devote as much of your time to learning new facts because your domain knowledge will continue to expand over the years (Kellogg 1987; Kellogg 2006; Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000).

Improving How You Use Working Memory

I’ve discussed only a few of the things working memory does for you as you write. Take a look at this more comprehensive list:

Working Memory Functions During Writing
Storing and Retrieving Data
  • Storing new knowledge for the writing project that’s not yet in long-term memory
  • Retrieving relevant information from long-term memory
  • Choosing words
  • Thinking about your goals for the writing session
  • Thinking about the next sentence or paragraph
  • Thinking about how the sentence you’re writing works with the paragraph
  • Thinking about grammar
  • Comprehending new information for your project and putting it in relevant categories
  • Thinking about how your project engages with the relevant literature in your field
  • Thinking about what level to write at for your reading audiences
  • Coordinating multiple simultaneous processes (e.g., writing a sentence and thinking about level of writing for your audience)
Managing Cognitive Resources
  • Focusing attention
  • Inhibiting response to distractions
Compiled from Kellogg 1987, 2008, 2001a; Olive 2004; Olive, Kellogg, and Piolat, 2008; McCutcheon 1996.

That’s a lot for working memory to do. And remember that working memory is a finite resource. It doesn’t expand to fit the number of tasks you’re doing. Instead, multiple tasks compete for finite resources. So if your working memory needs to devote considerable resources to paying attention to grammar or sentence structure, that leaves much less space for planning and strategy.

The big breakthrough in writing research came in the 1990s, when psychologists Deborah McCutchen and Ronald Kellogg began publishing articles that built on the idea of what McCutchen calls capacity theory–the idea that because working memory is a limited resource, writers can use strategies to decrease the cognitive expense of certain working memory functions. The rest of this essay is about things you can do to use your working memory more efficiently.

Increase Verbal Ability

This is the big kahuna for writers. Most people in the United States today are working with a significant deficit in verbal ability. It’s not their fault. It’s attributable to a major shift in how writing was taught that began in the 1970s. (See “It’s Not You, It’s the System That Educated You.”) The good news is that you can fix this problem. Whether your deficit is a low vocabulary, poor knowledge of grammar, low inventory of sentence structures, low knowledge of typical word order in English, or simply low levels of experience with writing sentences, you can take steps to plug gaps in your verbal skills.

High verbal ability is strongly correlated with higher-quality writing (Kellogg 1994, 2006). When a verbal skill becomes automatic, your working memory can allocate more resources to the higher-order tasks of paying attention to the content of what you’re writing as it pertains to your paragraph, to the next paragraph you’ll write, to how what you’re saying fits with the literature of your field, to how best to present information for your readers, and so forth. Generating sentences can become a process that you hardly even need to think about. (That doesn’t mean that every sentence you write will be a good sentence for your project. It just means that it will be easier for you to try out a variety of ideas and a variety of ways of expressing them.) All it takes is focused practice to increase your verbal ability. (At the end of this essay, you’ll find a list of resources for increasing verbal skills.)

Think of when you were a little cherub in first grade just learning how to write. The effort it took to produce letters, then string letters together to make a word was very high because you were learning the skill of forming the letters of the alphabet. You chewed on the end of your pencil and thought very very hard about how to make a capital “B” or a lowercase “q.” So much of your working memory was devoted to that task that hardly any resources were left to think about including all the words in the sentence you were writing. Writing a whole sentence was a huge big deal in those days because you were working hard to master the skill of transmitting information from your brain to your hand so you could use a pencil to make letters.

The same principle is at work now that you’re doing academic writing. If you didn’t get any formal training in grammar, you’re working with a skill deficit. Writing makes you feel like you want to throw up because you need significant mental resources to do the work of forming grammatically correct sentences and sentences that vary in structure. Not to mention the lack of confidence you feel about your writing skills. Not to mention the very high bar that publishers set for academic writing. You’re expected to perform at a very high level without the training you need and when most of you are at the beginning of a years’-long journey toward writing expertise. All of these are reasons you feel such anxiety and frustration when you sit down to write.


Any amount of grammar you learn will make  more room in working memory for focusing on planning and analysis. Source: Elizabeth O’Brien, “Are You Ready to Learn About Sentence Structure?” Grammar Revolution, Used by permission.

You will be comforted to know that a high proportion of the academic writers in your generation are enduring the same struggles. Everyone is suffering in silence and living in terror that their secret will be discovered. The truth is that generations of writers are struggling harder than they need to because writing education in the United States abandoned formal training in grammar in the mid-1980s.

But! Because your brain is neuroplastic, you can fill in the gaps in your knowledge and put it in long-term memory. You may be thinking “Oh, please! I don’t need this! I’ve gotten along just fine without it so far.” Take a moment and think about what your last writing session was like. How hard you worked and how little you had to show for it when you were done. You do need grammar. Putting grammar in your long-term memory will free up your working memory to do the more difficult thinking writing expertise requires.

Increase Your Ability to Focus Attention

Study after study has shown that people with a higher working memory capacity are also the folks that have a greater ability to focus their attention on a specific topic or task. The two things are highly correlated, particularly when working memory is doing the task of manipulating information, as it does when you write (Engle 2018; Fougnie 2008). So improving your working memory capacity means improving your ability to focus on your work and ignore other stimuli.

There are several ways to do this. One way is to engage in an activity that puts you in a meditative state. This could be actual meditation or it could be something that puts you in that blissful state where you’re lost to the world, where you’re not aware of your surroundings or the passage of time. Entering this state for as little as 20 minutes a day will strengthen the part of your brain allocated to focusing attention. It makes sense: when you enter a meditative state, other stimuli continue to come, but you’re blocking them out and focusing on just one thing.

When you’re writing, you can also learn to eliminate the things that tend to niggle at you as you’re generating text. When I’m editing a text for an author, the first thing I do is get rid of all the distracting things on the pages I’m looking at. I change the font to the one I know best: Times New Roman. I change the margins to 1 inch on left and right. I change paragraph divisions from a double hard return and no indentation to a single hard return and tab indent. If the author is using in-text citations, I change the punctuation style to what the press prefers. Then I survey for any other visual stimuli that might distract me. I often run a spellcheck before I start, for example. Removing all these visual distractions helps me focus on grammar and content. When I don’t do these things first, there’s an extremely annoying voice in my head that won’t shut up: “Look at the inconsistent punctuation in those citations. Hope I don’t forget to fix that. Oh, this author sometimes uses tab indents and sometimes doesn’t. I need to fix that. I really can’t deal with this sans serif font; it’s really annoying me. I’d have a better sense of where I was in this file if the margins were 1 inch because that’s what I’m used to.” That extremely annoying voice is constant and is always pulling at my attention. That’s when I make errors–I miss an incorrect verb tense or a comma splice. Removing visual distractions that activate that voice before I start working goes a long way to improving my ability to focus on editing and nothing else.

Those are my particular issues as a copyeditor. Figure out what the distractors are in your work environment and systematically exclude them. Moving objects are high contenders; put your Derek Jeter bobble-head figure under your desk while you’re working. Wear something to block out sound if you need to. If you need to arrange the objects on your desk just so, do it. No need to apologize; there’s science behind you! And I highly recommend turning off your phone and shutting down your e-mail program. You may think that you deserve a little break from writing work and can check your e-mail without any consequences, but you’re delusional. Don’t ask me how I know that. A friend told me. Yeah, that’s it.

Resources for Improving Your Use of Working Memory

Increasing Attention

Gazzaley, Adam, and Larry D. Rosen. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016.

This book by a neuroscientist and a psychologist explains why we struggle to focus our minds on specific tasks and write about how we can improve our attention. Three sections: “Cognition and the Essence of Control,” “Behavior in a High-Tech World,” and “Taking Control.” Written in an easy-to-digest, reader-friendly style.

Jast, Joanna. Laser-Sharp Focus: A No-Fluff Guide to Improved Concentration, Maximised Productivity and Fast-Track to Success. [Auckland]: [Joanna Jast], 2016.

The first sentence in this book informs us that even brief interruptions can decrease productivity by up to 40 percent. (Yikes!) This is much more than a list of things to try; Jast guides you through diagnosing the specific types of focus that give you difficulty and provides a goal-directed system for making improvements with specific tasks. Highly recommended.

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 neuroscientist 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.

Increasing Verbal Ability


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.

Provost, Gary. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. New York: Signet, 2014.

This book has gone through several editions. Any of them will be good. I got the first edition (1972) free for my Amazon Kindle and found it chock full of useful suggestions. It’s not a systematic overview of grammar or sentence styles, but it’s full of wise knowledge about writing that you can absorb in quick little dips.

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.

Learning Grammar

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.


Reynolds, Susan. Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Proven Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2015.

This is a comprehensive guide to caring for and working with your brain through all of the stages of a writing project. Even though it’s a little skimpy with references to the literature Reynolds draws on, I still recommend it highly. It’s full of sound advice from a highly experienced author.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 7th ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 2016.

Get this book for the first section, “Principles.” Zinsser wrote for newspapers and magazines for many decades and writes very eloquently about the struggles of producing a text in the last section of this timeless classic.



Baddeley, Alan. 2017. “Working Memory.” Serious Science, January 19.

Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking. 2000. “How Experts Differ from Novices.” Chapter 2 of How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, expanded edition, ed. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000.

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

Cowan, Nelson. 2000. “The Magical Number 4 in Short-Term Memory: A Reconsideration of Mental Storage Capacity.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24: 87–185.

Engle, Randall W. 2018. “Working Memory and Executive Attention: A Revisit.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 2: 190–193.

Foroughi, Cyrus K., Parasteh Malihi, and Deborah A. Boehm-Davis. 2016. “Working Memory Capacity and Errors Following Interruptions.” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 5: 410–414.

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.

Kellogg, Ronald T. 1987. “Effects of Topic Knowledge on the Allocation of Processing Time and Cognitive Effort to Writing Processes.” Memory & Cognition 15, no. 3: 256–266.

Kellogg, R. T. 2001a. “Competition for Working Memory among Writing Processes.” American Journal of Psychology 114: 175–192.

Kellogg, Ronald T. 2001b. “Long-Term Working Memory in Text Production.” Memory & Cognition 29, no. 1: 43–52.

Kellogg, Ronald T. 1994. The Psychology of Writing. Oxford: Oxford University 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. 2008. “Training Writing Skills : A Cognitive Developmental Perspective.” Journal of Writing Research 1, no. 1: 1–26.

Kellogg, Ronald T., and Bascom A. Raulerson III. 2007. “Improving the Writing Skills of College Students.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 14, no. 2: 237–242.

Kellogg, R. T., A. P. Whiteford, C. E. Turner, M. Cahill, and A. Mertens. 2013. “Working Memory in Written Composition: An Evaluation of the 1996 Model.” Journal of Writing Research 5: 159–190.

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, no. 2: 159–190.

McCutchen, Deborah. 1996. “A Capacity Theory of Writing: Working Memory in Composition.” In “The Development of Writing Skill,” special issue, Educational Psychology Review 8, no. 3: 299–325.

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

Olive, Thierry. 2012. “Writing and Working Memory: A Summary of Theories and Findings.” In Writing: A Mosaic of New Perspectives, ed. Elena L Grigorenko, Elisa Mambrino, and David Preiss. New York: Psychology Press.

Olive, Thierry, Ronald T. Kellogg, and Annie Piolat. 2008. “Verbal, Visual, and Spatial Working Memory Demands during Text Composition.” Applied Psycholinguistics 2: 669–687.

Pilley, John W. 2013a. “Border Collie Comprehends Sentences Containing a Prepositional Object, Verb, and Direct Object.” Learning and Motivation 44, no. 4: 229–240.

Pilley, John W., with Hilary Hinzmann. 2013b. Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Torrance, Mark, and David Galbraith. 2006. “The Processing Demands of Writing.” In Handbook of Writing Research, ed. Charles A. MacArthur, Steve Graham, and Jill Fitzgerald, 67–82. New York: Guilford Productions.


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Putting Knowledge in Long-Term Memory

Main Ideas

  • Moving the information you’re working with for a chapter or an article into long-term memory frees up your working memory to focus on other writing tasks.
  • Consciously engaging with the content of the content you select as relevant from your sources earlier rather than later has multiple benefits that lead to better thinking and better writing.
  • A brief period of wakeful rest after you’ve learned new material will help encode it in long-term memory faster.
  • Minimizing distractions when you’re learning new information will help you move it into long-term memory.
  • Recent research suggests that retrieval learning is a more effective and efficient way of moving new information into long-term memory than re-reading and studying.

Long-term memory is the permanent storage of facts and memories. Scientists have identified two types of long-term memory: episodic and semantic. Episodic memory is sometimes called autobiographical memory; it’s the set of memories you have that are attached to experiences you’ve had. This essay focuses on semantic memory–your knowledge of the facts, definitions, and concepts you’ve learned over the course of your life. Semantic memories are created when you have repeated exposure to information (Slotnik 2017).

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Long-term memory is comparable to a giant server. The methods we use to store information influence our ability to recall it.

New information gets stored in long-term memory through a process called consolidation. Scientists aren’t sure what the exact mechanisms are that store a memory in long-term memory such that it is easily retrievable. Right now there are competing theories of how this happens and the scientific method will eventually sort it out. We do know some things about how long-term memory operates, though, and this information is relevant for you as an academic writer because in your writing work you manage huge amounts of information as you construct texts. What follows is information about better ways of working that will help you store information in long-term memory and retrieve it when you need it.

Taking Notes

There are specific changes you can make when you take notes that will help you store information in long-term memory faster. Taking the time to engage intellectually with the content and then think about (and make notes about ) how that content relates to your thinking about your topic will help you move new information from short-term memory into long-term memory. Don’t underestimate the value of writing notes to yourself about your immediate thoughts about new content. You think that of course you’ll remember your brilliant insights, but you probably won’t. Your brain will be very busy doing other things. You need to write down what you’re thinking, even if it’s only words and phrases. You’ll thank yourself later when you are ready to write.

The process of taking notes has changed so much in just the last decade. Now much of what we read, certainly in the article literature, is online. We no longer photocopy articles and highlight relevant sections and write notes to ourselves in the margins. This has big implications for how much we store in long-term memory. In the pre-PDF days, we engaged with the content at a fairly deep level at first read. The action of selecting particular sentences and paragraphs for highlighting, a note in the margin, or perhaps a Post-It note meant that we were processing new information and linking it to the ideas we were building for our own writing projects at the earliest stage of a project.

Now it’s possible to select text from a PDF during a skim-read and paste whole sections in a document without seriously engaging with it. That’s a very different process from handwriting or typing notes about what we read. We’re doing only one of the many tasks we used to do when we processed an article: our mental effort is limited to the task of selecting relevant text. We can process ten or more articles in this way during a work session. That feels like we got some good work done, and it’s true that this copy-and-paste work is moving us forward. But we haven’t truly engaged with that text. Perhaps we haven’t even read all the words in the text we copied and pasted. We saw a few key ideas and identified a passage as relevant, then moved on to the next article.

A better way of working is to return to the texts you’ve copied and pasted before the end of that work session to read all the words and use boldface or highlighting for key concepts. Then make some tentative notes about your earliest thoughts about how you can use this information in your text–why it’s relevant, how it connects to the ideas of another author you’re using in your project, what the ideas of this author make you think about. As soon as you have a tentative outline, you can move your notes (with the citations) into the relevant sections of your outline. I like to process all the articles for one section of my outline before moving on to a new section. I may need several work sessions to get through all the articles for that section, but that’s actually good, because with each session, I review new knowledge from previous sessions and think about how the ideas of various authors relate to each other and how they relate to my own ideas.

This level of cognitive work–engaging with new ideas and immediately thinking about how new ideas connect to each other and to your own thinking–helps your brain move new knowledge into long-term memory. That frees up space in your working memory to do all the tasks it does when you’re writing. The important element here is the thinking work as you engage with texts that have new knowledge for your project.

There’s another advantage to doing this level of thinking at this very early stage of your project. Researcher Anke Wischgoll (2016) has found that pairing a metacognitive skill (in this case, thinking about how content relates to your project) with a cognitive skill (selecting text from your sources for relevance) improves the quality of both first drafts and revised drafts. In other words, investing effort in doing metacognitive work at the early stage of notetaking can improve the quality of your writing throughout the process.

Finally, this method of taking and working with notes will enable you to see patterns in your data sooner rather than later. This has two effects: first, you’ll be mentally organizing which source belongs in which section of your chapter or article. The huge amounts of data you’re dealing with will seem less overwhelming. Second, associating the new knowledge you’re encountering with patterns benefits your short-term memory; it makes it easier for short-term memory to manage larger volumes of data. The sooner you can see patterns in your data, the sooner you’ll be able to use it to serve your developing analysis (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000).

Wakeful Rest

You’ll be very happy to learn that it’s important to rest your brain after learning new information. I’m not talking about naps; wakeful rest refers to unplugging mentally. In one experiment that tested the value of wakeful rest, researchers asked study participants to close their eyes in a darkened room for 10 minutes after they heard a story. Then the participants were asked to recall as many details of the story as they could. When their recall of the story was tested seven days later, they remembered much more than usual. The researchers theorized that a resting brain was much better able to consolidate new data than an active brain (Dewar et al. 2012).

Two years later, the same research team did another experiment to test whether rehearsing new knowledge during wakeful rest could be an intervening variable that explained their 2012 findings about wakeful rest. This time instead of telling study participants a story, they asked them to look a lists of non-recognizable words–words that couldn’t be memorized or rehearsed during the rest period. They found the same results: after wakeful rest, participants recalled a higher percentage of words than was expected and the same was true seven days later. This time the research team theorized that the brain was able to consolidate new memories more efficiently because no new information was coming in to compete with the knowledge being encoded. So good news–after processing and sifting through new information, all you need to do is power down for a few minutes. Your brain will do the rest (Dewar et al. 2014).

Minimizing Distractions While Learning New Information

Distraction comes in many forms. It could be a bird flying outside the window, a barking dog in the yard next door, the sound of the photocopier down the hall, or a child asking over and over when you’ll be done with your work. Distractions have a clear effect on how much we remember and how confident we are about what we remember. Think of being in the grocery store while you’re striving to remember an item that got added to the list at the last moment but isn’t written down. While you’re walking up and down the aisles, you hear the sounds of snippets of conversation, Muzak, and periodic announcements over the loudspeakers. Your chances of remembering that last-minute addition are quite low in this circumstance. I always ask my partner if I can get anything for him as I go out the door, but I usually forget to get what he asks for. (Do I get any points for good intentions? I don’t think so.)

One pair of researchers has concluded that “any concurrent task that diverts resources necessary for conscious apprehension of that material prevents it from being encoded and becoming part of a memory trace, leading to very poor memory” (Fernandes and Moscovitch 2000). Auditory distractions seem to be more difficult to block out than visual ones when we’re learning new information. When I’m working, I slap on a pair of Peltor Optime 105 industrial-strength earmuffs–the best $20 I ever spent for office equipment. I just don’t have the mental focus to ignore the sound of lawnmowers and garbage trucks.

What about using white noise to block out auditory distractions? The evidence on this is complex. Studies show that introverts don’t do as well with reading comprehension and mental arithmetic in the presence of white noise. The background noise distracts them enough to impair their brain functioning. However, background noise can help children with ADHD retain information. And one study has shown that if white noise works for you while you’re taking in new information, you’ll do better at recalling that information if the same white noise is present when you’re working to recall the stored data (Klemm 2017). So your mileage may vary with white noise. I’m an introvert, so it’s the Peltor Optimes for me on the days when my work requires me to process new information or edit texts.

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My industrial-strength ear protectors. One of the best aids to productivity I’ve ever found.

And here’s a completely non-science-based observation. I find that if I’m doing lower-level cognitive tasks, such as collecting articles, typing citations, or editing endnotes in a manuscript, white noise helps pass the time. Without the white noise as I do tasks that don’t engage higher-order cognitive processes, I’m very sensitive to all kinds of whiny sensory messages from my body. “I’m hot.” “It’s too humid today.” “My feet are cold.” “My stomach is growling.” “My ear hurts.” “I need to cut my fingernails.” “A bug just bit me.” The chatter from my body is constant and becomes distracting if I don’t do something to block it out. Those are the days when Amazon Music or Pandora come to my rescue.

Retrieval Learning: The Best Way to Store Information in Long-Term Memory

When I was in fourth grade in the late 1960s, I was identified as a superior reader for my age group and was introduced to a learning method called SQ3R, which stood for “study, question, read, recite, review.” I used color-coded flash cards as I moved through a self-directed course of study. This method was intended to help students prepare for tests, and it was cutting-edge stuff at the time. So for years I’ve believed that studying and review is the best way to cram information into long-term memory.

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“I know it’s here somewhere. If I could . . . just . . . remember . . . where . . . I . . . put it.”

It turns out that this isn’t true. Cognitive psychologist Amy Smith reports that “rereading is a poor learning strategy” because the memories it creates are “relatively weak” (Smith et al. 2016). Study after study has shown that the best way to move knowledge into long-term memory isn’t reviewing information; the best way is to test yourself on new information as soon as you’ve learned it. The process of putting something into long-term memory and then immediately retrieving it embeds a memory, and the more times you retrieve the new memory, the more content you’ll remember.

Cognitive psychologist Jeff Karpicke, a pioneer in research on retrieval learning, did a study that asked college students to read from passages from nine selected texts on scientific topics. One group read the texts a second time (the study method). A second group was asked to recall as much as they could about what they had just read and then read the passages again. A third group alternated recalling and re-reading eight times (four times for recall, four times for re-reading). One week later, all three groups were tested on their ability to remember the material in the passages they had read. The participants in Group 1, who re-read the new material but did no retrieval work, were able to recall less than 20 percent. Those in Group 2, who had retrieved the new knowledge one time followed by re-reading, were able to recall almost 40 percent of the new material. Those in Group 3, who had practiced retrieving the new information four times, were able to recall over 80 percent. That’s a 400 percent in improvement over the method of simply re-reading new material. Karpicke theorizes that retrieving new learning increases the strength of the cues that aid accurate retrieval by excluding other potential candidates in long-term memory. He concludes that “active retrieval has powerful effects on long-term learning” (Karpicke 2012).

James Antony and colleagues (2017) theorize that “retrieval learning stabilizes memories via mechanisms similar to those that occur during sleep and offline consolidation periods” (i.e., wakeful rest). For decades, scientists have been telling us that the consolidation of new memories takes years and that sleep is an essential component of that process. However, retrieval learning seems to be a shortcut; it “promotes the rapid development of neocortical representations without time and sleep.”

In addition, the retrieval method of learning protects memories from the deleterious impact of stress. It has long been known that stress impairs our ability to retrieve memories. However, people who practice the retrieval method of learning encode new memories that are robust. One theory is that this method of encoding memories create multiple routes for accessing them. Encoding memories in this way “inoculates” them against the harmful impact of stress, Amy Smith writes. They are “immune” to forgetting due to stress. Put another, more scientific way, “stress may not impair memory retrieval when stronger memory representations are created during encoding” (Smith et al. 2016).

As an academic writer, particularly if you’re in a humanities discipline, you encounter vast amounts of new information during a writing project. You have a solid base of domain knowledge that you draw upon to create hypotheses and analysis. But you collect lots of information that’s new to you as you find support for your ideas. The research on retrieval learning suggests that as soon as you read and take notes on new information, you should test yourself on how much of it you can recall, then review the material. This simple intervention will encode new information in long-term memory more robustly, even if you’re working under stress. (And who among us isn’t?)


Antony, James W., Catarina S. Ferreira, Kenneth A. Normon, and Maria Wimber. 2017. “Retrieval as a Fast Route to Memory Consolidation.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 21, no. 8: 573–576

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

Dewar, Michaela, Jessica Alber, Christopher Butler, Nelson Cowan and SergioDella Sala. 2012. “Brief Wakeful Resting Boosts New Memories Over the Long Term.” Psychological Science 23, no. 9: 955–960.

Dewar, Michaela, Jessica Alber, Nelson Cowan, and Sergio Della Sala. 2014. “Boosting Long-Term Memory via Wakeful Rest: Intentional Rehearsal Is Not Necessary, Consolidation Is Sufficient.” PlosOne 9, no. 10.

Fernandes, Myra A., and Morris Moscovitch. 2000. “Divided Attention and Memory: Evidence of Substantial Interference Effects at Retrieval and Encoding.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 129, no. 2: 155–176.

Karpicke, Jeffrey B. 2012. “Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 21(3) 157–163.

Klemm, William R. 2017. “Does White Noise Help You Learn?” Psychology Today, June 13.

Slotnik, Scott D. 2017. Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Amy M., Victoria A. Floerke, and Ayanna K. Thomas. 2016. “Retrieval Practice Protects Memory against Acute Stress.” Science 354 (6315): 1046–1048.

Wischgoll, Anke. 2016. “Combined Training of One Cognitive and One Metacognitive Strategy Improves Academic Writing Skills.” Frontiers in Psychology, February 23, 2016,


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