Patricia Westfall, a writing professor at Ohio University, doesn't like to think about the writing process, even though she puts pen to paper up to 16 hours a week. In fact, Westfall devoted just two pages of her book "Beyond Intuition: A Guide to Writing and Editing Magazine Nonfiction" (Allyn & Bacon, 1993), to the topic of how to pull one's tangle of ideas into a coherent story. And she wrote that much only because the book's publishers insisted on it.
"I am so busy writing I don't stop to think about how I am doing it," she says.
But although the writing process may be opaque to many authors, cognitive scientists are attempting to understand the thinking that goes into writing. And they are finding that writing seems to require people to juggle multiple, often conflicting processes simultaneously. In fact, some studies suggest that the messier the thought process, the clearer the prose, says psychologist Sarah Ransdell, PhD, a writing-cognition researcher and professor at Nova Southeastern University.
Rather than following a series of steps-first planning, then writing, then revising-good writers do all three nearly simultaneously, according to Ransdell's research.
"The best writers move around a lot, and at any given moment there is a high probability of them doing any of these things," Ransdell says.
For instance, a skilled writer may type a sentence and then realize that it belongs elsewhere in the composition-a quick jump from composing to revising. Or another may write something she wasn't aware she thought and then pursue it, even if it doesn't fit into her original outline, notes Ronald Kellogg, PhD, a writing researcher and head of the psychology department at Saint Louis University.
"Writing is not just dumping what you know onto a page," he says. "You write to transform your abstract thoughts into concrete ones."
Perhaps because of the inherent disorder behind good writing, traditional writing instruction-teaching students to separate planning from writing, and writing from revising-can be counterproductive, argues Ransdell. In fact, research by Ransdell, published in the book "Studies in Writing" (Kluwer, 2002), shows that asking students to engage in a stepwise process results in lower-quality writing. However, in-press work by a team of researchers in England suggests that a particular subset of students may benefit from outlining, while others may do best with a strategy of revising as they compose.
"There is no one-size-fits-all solution to teaching a skill as complex as writing," Ransdell notes.
Order from chaos
There is little consensus among teachers or researchers about how to tailor writing instruction, says Kellogg, and as a result, many people never learn to write well. A case in point: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress-which includes an essay test given to randomly selected students every four years-only about 2 percent of high school students graduated with advanced writing skills in 2002.
"If we are going to make improvements, we will need to understand more about the basic science of writing," Kellogg says.
One potential area for improvement, says Kellogg, is helping people handle multiple writing tasks at the same time (see "Writing exercises all aspects of working memory"). Creating a grammatical sentence is difficult enough. Creating one that furthers an argument while fitting logically into a paragraph-or an even longer structure-is almost too much to ask fledgling writers to do all at once, he notes.
Some approach this challenge by separating out writing tasks. One common strategy is to plot one's thoughts in outline form before starting to write. However, Ransdell's research suggests that encouraging students to embrace the chaos inherent to the writing process can result in better papers.
Ransdell and her collaborators asked 125 students to write three essays on given topics, such as what makes for a good college professor. For the first essay, the students planned and wrote as they normally would. Then, the teachers used five minutes of verbal instruction and a short video to explain two possible writing strategies.
In the "step-by-step" strategy, the students learned to dedicate some initial time to outlining, spend most of their time writing and use the final few minutes to revise. Students were instructed not to comingle the different steps.
The "all-at-once" strategy showed students how to plan and revise at the same time they generated text. For instance, after writing a sentence, they might reflect on it, saying: "This gives me a new idea." The students then wrote their two remaining essays, trying out each of the strategies once. Trained raters scored their work on a 100-point scale.
The all-at-once essays earned scores about five points higher than those written in a step-by-step fashion-and this was true for both advanced students writing in their first language and for students writing in a language they were just beginning to learn. The all-at-once strategy may have worked by encouraging students to interact with their own text, Ransdell theorizes.
"The child or the adult who is writing, and changing what they write as they go, is doing something called knowledge transformation," says Ransdell. "That is the best you can hope for in writing-allowing it to change how you think."
Since conducting the study, Ransdell has applied the finding to her own writing instruction. She models the all-at-once approach for her research methods class by showing students screen shots from her computer. The slides illustrate how her text changes over time, showing how she edits as she writes, and how those edits sometimes radically change the direction of her compositions.
While continuous revising works in lieu of planning strategy for many writers, outlines can help others, says David Galbraith, PhD, a psychology professor and writing researcher at England's Staffordshire University. Galbraith has found that outlines can help some writers see how different ideas hang together or when a theory has no supporting evidence.
"A good outline can serve as an economical representation of your thoughts as they exist in working memory," he says.
Which tactic works best-outlining or revising multiple drafts-may depend on the personality of the writer, according to a study in press at the British Journal of Educational Psychology by Galbraith, Marleen Kieft-a student at the Amsterdam University Graduate School of Education-and others. Study participants-121 10th graders-received instruction in one of the two strategies for five weeks. Prior to instruction, students completed a questionnaire that assessed their tendency to self-monitor. Students high in self-monitoring, for example, frequently evaluate their own text, perhaps taking the perspective of a potential reader. Students lower in self-monitoring are happy to explore their own ideas at length without evaluating what they have written.
At the beginning and the end of the instruction period, the researchers tested the students on their writing ability by having them pen a short, persuasive essay about a work of literature. Multiple raters then graded the essays on their overall quality.
High self-monitoring students taught to revise through multiple drafts improved their writing over the course of the five weeks. In contrast, the writing of high self-monitors taught to outline deteriorated. Conversely, the students low in self-monitoring improved if they learned to outline. However, they produced poorer essays if they learned to revise through multiple drafts.
"High self-monitors are people who readily adapt themselves to their audience," says Galbraith. "When they outline...they focus too much on what they want to do and not enough on what they actually think." Low-self monitors, on the other hand, need help reining in their ideas-a process that can be aided with an outline, he says.
For his part, Galbraith sees himself as a self-monitoring writer. That means he sometimes wants to prune his own thoughts before they have had the chance to bloom, he says.
"I try to relax and let my text get messy sometimes," he says.