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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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.


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


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