Maybe It’s Mechanical

Main Ideas

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


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

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

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

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

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


Strategy 1: Practice Writing Sentences by Imitating Excellent Texts

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

–Camille Paglia 2016

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

–William Faulkner in Inge 1999, 80

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Working Memory: The Writer’s Best Friend

Main Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working Memory and the Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving How You Use Working Memory

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

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

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

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

Increase Verbal Ability

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Increase Your Ability to Focus Attention

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

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

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

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

Resources for Improving Your Use of Working Memory

Increasing Attention

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

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

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

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

Zylowska, Lidia, and Daniel Siegel. 2012. The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD: An 8-Step Program for Strengthening Attention, Managing Emotions, and Achieving Your Goals. New York: Random House.

Even though this book is marketed to adults with ADHD, it’s an excellent resource for anyone who is looking to increase their ability to focus. The chapters take you through a guided program of gradually increasing the cognitive skills that will lead to stronger focus.

BrainHQ Program.

In contrast to other brain-training programs, this one was designed in consultation with neuroscientist Michael Merzenich. It’s based on the key neuroscientific principles of repetition, incremental improvement, feedback and suggestions for improvement, and rewards for success. BrainHQ provides a lot of information about the neuroscience behind its design. One of the key areas of focus is attention. It’s a paid program of training, but the cost is quite reasonable.

Increasing Verbal Ability


Casagrande, June. It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2010.

This tiny paperback punches well above its weight. It’s a seminar on sentence writing, including all the things that can go wrong and how to fix them. If you have just ten minutes a day to work on your verbal skills, dip into this one.

Longknife, Ann, and K. D. Sullivan. The Art of Styling Sentences. Hauppage, N.Y.: Barron’s, 2012.

The strength of this slim paperback is its description of twenty basic types of sentence structure. If you need to expand your repertoire of sentence types, this is the book for you.

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

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

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

Get your hands on this from a used bookseller if you can. It’s a gem. It has a detailed index inside the front cover so you can quickly find exactly what you’re looking for. The chapter topics are excellent. This is a superb place to start when you’re looking to increase your verbal ability. Sections include “Understanding Grammar,” “Writing Correct Sentences,” “Writing Effective Sentences,” “Using Effective Words,” and “Using Punctuation.”

Stilman, Ann. Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation. Revised and updated. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.

The strength of this guide are sections 3, “Structure and Syntax,” and 4, “Style.” Stilman covers areas of writing skill that newer academic writers often struggle with and that aren’t often covered in writing manuals. At the end of the book is a useful, albeit brief, section called “Suggestions for Self-Improvement.”

Williams, Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 11th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

If you get just one book to help you with writing skills, get this one. It’s gone through many editions and all are good. Written by a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Chicago, this book explains basic principles and provides exercises so you can practice your new skill. Although Williams doesn’t label his topic as such, this book focuses on the metacognitive aspects of writing: asking questions about what you write, solving problems with your sentences and paragraphs, and thinking about the needs of your readers.

Williams, Phil. Word Order in English Sentences. 2nd ed. Brighton: Phil Williams.

This is a topic that style manuals rarely discuss. There’s a secret body of knowledge about order of words in fluent English sentences. Phil Williams shares the decoder ring.

Learning Grammar

Grammar Revolution:

Site owner Elizabeth O’Brien offers numerous resources that include a PDF titled “The Beginner’s Guide to Grammar,” video grammar lessons, and a guided multimedia course in grammar called The Get Smart Grammar Program. O’Brien’s resources work well for adult learners.


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Foroughi, Cyrus K., Nicole E. Werner, Erik T. Nelson, and Deborah A. Boehm-Davis. 2014. “Do Interruptions Affect Quality of Work?” Human Factors 56, no. 7: 1262–1271.

Fougnie, Daryl. 2008. “The Relationship between Attention and Working Memory.” In New Research on Short-Term Memory, ed. Noah B. Johansen, 1–45. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kellogg, Ronald T., Alison P. Whiteford, Casey E. Turner, Michael Cahill, and Andrew Mertens. 2013. “Working Memory in Written Composition: An Evaluation of the 1996 Model.” Journal of Writing Research 5, no. 2: 159–190.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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