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Writing

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Sergey Nivens - Fotolia

71a83a70-33b2-4e9c-89be-b9a98cf8220e

Sergey Nivens - Fotolia

Sergey Nivens - Fotolia

71a83a70-33b2-4e9c-89be-b9a98cf8220e

Nadia Memari, Editor/Journalist

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Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve written quite a few essays, articles, or stories – Maybe you’re even a fellow journalist from Bowditch. No matter what profession you have, writing has surely been a big part of your life – and you probably understand how frustrating it can sometimes be. Because writing is such a crucial part of our lives, much research has been done on the topic, providing scientific answers for our burning questions, such as “why is writing so difficult?” and “why is my friend so much better than me?” Researchers have attempted to identify the main processes involved in writing, showing to us that it is much more complex a task than it may seem.

 

The Main Processes

 

Writing involves complex thought processes and the retrieval and organization of information from the long-term memory (specifically, knowledge of the topic being written about, knowledge of the audience, and the stored writing plans). This has led several theorists to argue that writing is a form of thinking. According to Ronald Kellogg, “I regard thinking and writing as twins of mental life. The study of the more expressive twin, writing, offers insights into the psychology of thinking, the more reserved member of the pair.” So, writing is an important topic in its own right, but it isn’t really separate from other cognitive activities.

 

As our ability to read and write is improved, so are our thinking abilities. A study was conducted in the 1930s involving two different groups of individuals – one group that received brief training in literacy, and one that was illiterate. Both groups were asked questions such as “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North. What color are the bears there?” A mere 27% of individuals who were unable to read or write answered correctly, compared to 100% of those who had just partial literacy.

 

John Hayes and Linda Flower claimed there are three main processes involved in writing: the planning process, which involves generating ideas and organizing them into a writing plan to satisfy the writer’s goal, the sentence generation process, which involves turning those ideas into actual sentences, and the revision process, which involves checking over what has been written (its focus ranging from single words to the overall coherence of the writing). The order of the three processes is normally planning (which is the hardest writing process), sentence generation, then revision – but writers often don’t follow this order, if, for example, they notice a problem with their writing before they finish a full draft.

The problem with Hayes’ and Flower’s research is that they mostly ignore the social part of writing. Writers need to pay attention to their intended readers. This is one of the most difficult tasks faced by writers, especially when the readers are likely people who possess very different levels of relevant knowledge.

 

Researchers look further into the topic of writing by using a method of studying called directed retrospection, in which writers are stopped at various times while writing and asked to categorize what they were just doing (planning, sentence generation, revision). With directed retrospection, Kellogg was able to discover that on average, writers spent 30% of their time planning, 50% of their time generating sentences, and 20% of their time revising. Michael Levy and Sarah Ransdell analyzed writing processes systematically. Not only did they ask participants to verbally express what they were doing, but they also recorded videos as the writers wrote their essays. Surprisingly, the length of time spent on each process before switching to the next was usually short. The median time spent planning, reviewing, and revising was 2.5 seconds, with 7.5 seconds spent on sentence generation. These results indicate that writing processes really aren’t as separate from each other and are more interdependent than we think. Levy and Ransdell also discovered that writers were only partially aware of how much time they spent on each process. They often underestimated the amount of time spent on text generation and overestimated the amount of time spent on other processes; they assumed that they spent over 30% of their time reviewing and revising when, in reality, it was merely 5%.

 

Revision is a crucial, and often underestimated, writing process. Expert writers tend to spend more time revising than non-experts. They also focus more on the coherence and structure of their written arguments. 34% of revisions made by experienced adult writers involved a change of meaning compared to only 12% of the revisions by inexperienced college writers.

 

Writing greatly depends on the writer’s knowledge – and according to Patricia Alexander, Diane Schallert, and Victoria Hare, there are three types of relevant knowledge: conceptual knowledge, which is information about concepts and ideas stored in the long-term memory, socio-cultural knowledge, which is information about the social background or context, and metacognitive knowledge, which is knowledge about what you know. Others have also added another type of knowledge to the list: strategic knowledge. This type of knowledge involves ways of organizing your writing goals to create a good writing plan. Skilled writers use strategic knowledge flexibly so they can change the structure of their writing plans when faced with problems.

 

Researchers have also found that essays were always at least eight times longer than outlines or writing plans. The technique of asking writers to think out loud gave David Kaufer et al. the opportunity to study the process of sentence generation. Expert and average writers accepted about 75% of the sentence parts they said out loud. The average length of the sentences they produced were 11.2 words for the expert writers and 7.3 words for the average writers, telling us that good writers use larger units or “building blocks.”

 

Writing Expertise

 

Yes, there are reasons why your friend is so much better than you are. Enhancing your writing skill, or even developing writing expertise, requires extensive practice over a long period of time – but in order to develop expertise in any subject, any old form of practice just won’t suffice. What you need is a specific type of practice: what Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a much more systematic and purposeful kind of practice, with four requirements:

1) the task is at an appropriate level of difficulty (neither too difficult or too easy)

2) the learner is given informative feedback about his performance

3) the learner has enough chances to repeat the task

4) the learner has an opportunity to correct his errors

 

Of course, it isn’t merely practice that leads to perfection. Natural ability probably plays a part, too – saying that expertise only depends on practice is like saying anyone can become Einstein if they put the time into it. It seems implausible. Nonetheless, deliberate practice still remains a crucial factor in the development of expertise. Intelligence is also relatively important in the development of expertise, but only in very broad areas; even the intellectually impaired can develop expertise in certain areas, so long as it’s narrow.

 

Practice can give writers additional relevant knowledge, the ability to write faster, and so on. Working memory is similar to the short-term memory, and put simply, it can be described as what holds temporary information in your mind that’s used to accomplish a task. So, for example, if you asked your friend to give you his phone number, he might tell you the first few digits and then wait for you to type those digits into your phone. Until you accomplish the task of entering them into your contacts list, those few digits are being held, for a short time, in your working memory. When you take notes at school, you need to temporarily keep in mind what the teacher says so you can write it down in your own words. Working memory, like in many other tasks, plays a crucial role in writing. The reason why most people find writing so difficult and effortful is because it involves several different cognitive processes (like attention, thinking, and memory), and as Kellogg claims, “Many kinds of writing tasks impose considerable demands on working memory.” Our working memory has limited capacity (it can hold 5-9 items at a time), and it is likely that as we continue to practice writing, the demands that writing has on our memory decreases.This would leave experienced writers with spare processing capacity to improve the quality of their writing.

 

Individual differences in writing probably depend mainly on planning and revision processes. It is argued that there are two main strategies used in the planning stage: a knowledge-telling strategy and a knowledge transforming strategy. The knowledge-telling strategy involves writers simply writing down everything they know about a subject without much planning. As a twelve-year-old once described it, “I have a whole bunch of ideas and write them down until my supply of ideas is exhausted.” As adolescents begin to develop more skill in the subject, they shift from the knowledge-telling strategy to the knowledge transforming strategy. This involves the use of rhetorical problems and content problems. Rhetorical problems relate to the achievement of goals for the writing (for example, “Can I strengthen my argument?”). Content problems relate to the specific information that needs to be written down, like “The case of Smith vs. Jones strengthens my argument.”

 

Expert writers differ from non-experts in many ways – one of them includes the ability to use the revision process. Expert writers detect around 60% more problems in texts than less experienced writers, and they are able to identify the nature of those problems 74% of the time, compared to 42% of the time for non-experts. Also, the best essay writers spend 40% more of their time reviewing and revising compared to the worst, and revisions made near the end of writing sessions are especially important.

 

Kellogg argued that extremely advanced writers are able to progress from the knowledge-transforming strategy to a third and final writing strategy: knowledge-crafting. He claims, “In… knowledge crafting, the writer is able to hold in mind the author’s ideas, the words of the text itself, and the imagined reader’s interpretation of the text.” The main feature of this stage that separates it from the others is its focus on the reader’s needs.

It’s important to consider the reader because of a tendency called the knowledge effect: we assume that others know as much as we do. People who are familiar with technical and complex terms greatly overestimate the knowledge other people have of those terms (which is an error likely occurring in this article!). Giving feedback to improve the predictions of writers on others’ knowledge can help make their writing more understandable and enjoyable.

 

Explicitly telling writers to take the reader’s needs into consideration often results in better work. When young teenagers were given the instruction to “read as the reader,” their revisions were improved. However, getting feedback from readers is much more effective. In an experiment, students were asked to read an imperfect piece of writing and predict the problems other readers would have with understanding the text. Then they read another reader’s verbal description produced while the reader was trying to understand the text. It turned out that as a result of these activities, the students were better able to predict potential comprehension problems readers would have in newer pieces of writing.

 

So, to summarize, less experienced writers normally focus on creating text they find easy to understand, while more skilled writers pay better attention to what the readers would find easy to understand. Most writing problems, like the knowledge effect, can be fixed if readers give detailed feedback to the writers.

 

Word Processing

 

As years have passed, so have the times of handwritten essays. The use of word processors, like Google Docs and Microsoft Word, have substantially increased – and evidence suggests that this might be a good thing. Researchers combined the findings of multiple studies in an attempt to discover the difference between writers who used word processors and those who wrote by hand. The conclusions were that students who used computers while writing were not only more engaged in what they were doing, but also produced work with greater length and quality. A potential reason why word processing leads to better writing is because word-processed essays are usually better organized than handwritten ones. However, Kellogg et al. then compared handwritten text to word processed text, and the differences between the two, regarding writing quality and writing speed, were incredibly small. Though it was also discovered that word processing involved more effortful planning and revision (not sentence generation) than writing by hand.

 

Thus, we shouldn’t expect word processing to dramatically improve or decrease writing quality. Factors such as access to important knowledge, skill at generating sentences, and ability to revise text well are necessary for writing of high quality, but it isn’t clear whether these are significantly influenced by means of which the text is written.

 

So, whether you enjoy it or not, writing is definitely going to be a major and complex aspect of your life. But if you understand why and what you can do to become better, it might just get a little easier.

 

Sources:


Psych 101 by Paul Kleinman

Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook by Michael W. Eysenck and Mark T. Keane

https://www.cne.psychol.cam.ac.uk/math-memory/intro-to-working-memory-part-1

https://www.cognifit.com/science/cognitive-skills/working-memory

 

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