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What the Research Says

November 2, 2009

In my last column, we discussed the issue of developing a regular writing routine and I debunked two far too popular writing myths: (1) that writing can only happen in large blocks of time, and (2) that writing can wait until one is motivated. For this second column of my four-column series on developing a regular writing routine, we’ll look at some of the research on writing and expert performance. I could have drawn from more recent writings, like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, in which he discusses the 10,000-hour rule as the key to success. Rather, I’m going to draw on two of my favorite journal articles to address the research on expert performance and on writing.

I first read these two articles in graduate school and since then they have influenced my writing and my teaching on the writing process. The first of these two articles is titled “Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition” by K. Anders Ericsson and Neil Charness. While it is an older article (published in 1994 in the American Psychologist), its information is as timely as ever. Ericsson and Charness wrote an extensive literature review on the factors that influence the development of expert performance. These factors include starting at an early age, having highly accomplished teachers or coaches, and often having at least one parent sacrifice his or her career for the child’s development. The factor that interests me the most, and the one most relevant to academic writers, is what they termed deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is sustained engagement that takes full concentration. This sustained engagement occurs regularly — daily — and for several hours every day. A result of deliberate practice is not a linear increase in knowledge; something happens along the way and psychological and cognitive adaptations occur that catapult one into a higher plane of performance.

So what is deliberate practice? It is not inherently fun nor is it intrinsically rewarding. It is work. Deliberate practice is effortful practice with full concentration and includes a mechanism by which the results of the practice can be evaluated and improved upon in future sessions. Often a coach or master teacher oversees the deliberate practice, chooses individualized training tasks, and evaluates the results of the training. Experts more often engage in deliberate practice during the morning; research has supported that we have the greatest capacity for sustained, engaged and demanding cognitive activity during the morning. Research has also supported the many anecdotal accounts that four hours is the length of time that deliberate practice can be sustained. Mind you, these experts did not start by engaging in deliberate practice for four hours a day, they worked up to it. Also, I want to emphasize that research on expert performance underscores the importance of sleep and that experts tended to spend more time sleeping than a comparable reference group; they maintained that being well rested was crucial for engaging in deliberate practice.

One of the results of engagement in deliberate practice is enhanced pattern recognition. Ericsson and Charness present research showing that pattern recognition differentiates expert from novice chess players. In one study they cite, a chess game was set up mid-game and expert and novice players were given a moment to study the board. Then, both groups were asked to remember the location of the pieces. The experts exhibited enhanced recall of the location of the pieces compared with the recall of the novice players. But, and this is an important but, this superior performance in recall only occurred when the chess pieces were in a meaningful pattern on the board. When the pieces were randomly placed on the board, the recall was about equal.

This result tells us that experts look at the configuration of pieces as a whole and examine it from a broader perspective. They recognize meaningful patterns and by focusing on the patterns, they are able to remember better the location of the individual pieces. Novice players view the configuration of pieces as individual items and examine it from a narrower perspective. Although when the pieces were randomly placed on the board and no meaningful patterns existed, the experts’ previous advantage was stripped away and both groups were relying on straight recall. So, what differentiates the expert chess players is their ability to examine a board from a broader perspective and their ability to recognize meaningful patterns on the chessboard.

John R. Hayes and Linda S. Flower identified a similar phenomenon, albeit with writers. In “Writing Research and the Writer,” a 1986 review article in American Psychologist, Hayes and Flower present the research on three aspects of the writing process: planning, sentence generating, and revising. One of their findings for revision was that, while revising, experts focus on global problems while novices focus on local problems. Novice writers spend the bulk of their time assessing whether they were using the correct word or phrase or evaluating the structure of a sentence. In contrast, expert writers evaluate the “form or shape of their argument.” Expert writers focus on making sure their meaning is communicated through the words and sentences. The meaning is primary and every work, sentence, and paragraph supports the meaning. Novice writers focus on making sure they have the correct word or proper sentence. As a result, the global meaning of their writing is less crystallized.

What does this mean for dissertation writers? Or any writer for that matter? Novice writers tend to focus on the word or the sentence as the unit of creation or as the unit of analysis. Expert writers focus on the whole and on the paragraph as the smallest unit of creation or analysis. I can completely understand this concept because I have experienced it. When I used to sit down to write, I would spend a lot of cognitive energy on word retrieval and word order. Now, since I focus on the overall meaning, I no longer worry if I have the perfect word or introductory sentence. I can now focus more on meaning and intent. A wonderful unexpected benefit of this transformation is that it prevents my perfectionism from kicking in. Since I am focusing on the meaning, I feel free to type in "blank" when I can’t think of the right word while writing an early draft. Then when I have the meaning set, I replace "blank" with an appropriate word. Notice I used the word "appropriate" -- I no longer think there is always the "perfect" word.

Now all you perfectionists listen up! This is important. As you are writing your dissertation, or thesis, or book, article or grant, whenever you get to the point where you are struggling over the perfect word or the "correct" wording for that introductory paragraph, I want you to stop. Just stop. Pick up a pen and a piece of paper. Ask yourself "What am I trying to say here?" and then write out your answer. Focus on the meaning and what you want to communicate to your readers. Then, type the answer in your document. Please make sure that you type the answer in your own words, your own voice. In your own words you can communicate quite well, so leverage your strengths. Later on, you can revise and mess around with the wording to make it sound more "academic" if you need to (I suggest you don’t, but I am not one of your gatekeepers). While writing, and especially while writing the first and early drafts, do not get yourself stuck by focusing too narrowly on the word. Remember your dissertation will be full of tens of thousands of words, but it should communicate one clear and compelling main point.

So as you are embarking on a regular writing routine or revising your own habits, please consider these points carefully. Don’t fool yourself and think you will be the exception who can succeed by working in long writing binges or waiting for the dissertation muse to flutter down from the heavens. Begin engaging in a regular writing routine by writing in the smallest units possible. If you are really struggling with this, please start with 20 minutes per day. I know, I know, you will not get a lot done but it takes time to replace unhelpful habits with helpful ones. Then set up at least four sessions a week if you are in a doctoral program while working. Although the weekend may be your time to write, make sure you also spend time writing on Tuesdays and Thursdays to keep your momentum going. If you are a full time graduate student, work on writing at least five and preferably six days a week. Focus on the process for now, not the product. If you can, write in the morning. Slowly build up your writing time and stop after four hours, if you happen to have the luxury of being able to write for four hours a day.

Build habits so that through the act of regularly engaging in deliberate practice, you too will develop a focus that is a bit broader. Somehow you will finish your writing and realize that you did not struggle over sentence structure in your first draft. Rather, you will conclude that what you wrote was great (that is, the meaning was great) and how you wrote it was okay (that is, the construction was okay). When you are revising, you can improve on the "how" of how you wrote it and elevate it from okay to good and then to great.

I don’t know how it happens and I can’t tell you when it will happen, but I can promise you that it will. If you engage in a regular writing routine, you will find yourself writing fluently, perhaps for the first time ever. Or you will find yourself writing more fluently and productively than ever before. If you are serious about developing a regular writing routing and willing to try out new modes of working (such as working with writing partners, graphing writing times, and engaging in adequate prewriting), I promise you that you will write more fluently and enjoyably than you ever imagined.

My next column will address what a Regular Writing Routine Looks like in Real-Time. The fourth and final column in this series will introduce my new book Demystifying Dissertation Writing. As always, if you have questions or comments on this articles or suggestions for future articles, please contact me.

 

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