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.
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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
Planning
  • 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
Processing
  • 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
  • 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.

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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, https://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/sentence-structure.html. 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. https://www.brainhq.com

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

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.

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: https://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/sentence-structure.html

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.

General

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.

 

References

Baddeley, Alan. 2017. “Working Memory.” Serious Science, January 19. http://serious-science.org/working-memory-7982.

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.

 

Contact me at katebabbitt@writersfriend.org.

 

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?)

References

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. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0109542.

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. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/memory-medic/201706/does-white-noise-help-you-learn-0.

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, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00187/full.

 

Contact me at katebabbitt@writersfriend.org.

Getting to Analysis in Your Writing

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Main Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steps That Support Creativity (and Academic Analysis!)

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

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

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

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

Talk about Your Ideas with Knowledgeable Colleagues or an Editing Professional

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

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

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

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

Last Thought: Be Open and Patient

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

 

Contact me at katebabbitt@writersfriend.org.