- 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).
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.
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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: 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.
Grammarly Blog: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/category/handbook/
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. https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/writing_2011/g12_national.aspx?tab_id=tab2&subtab_id=Tab_1#chart.
Goldstein, Susan. 2017. “Why Kids Can’t Write.” New York Times, August 2. Accessed March 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/education/edlife/writing-education-grammar-students-children.html.
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. https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/writing/achieve.aspx.
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, https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/writing_2011/
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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