Monday, November 2, 2009
Here is the second installmentin an occasional column Inside Higher Ed is running on how to become a competent academic writer. We blogged about the first installment here which pertained to the myths about the process of scholarly writing and the habits of effective authors. And although these columns are directed at PhD candidates working on their dissertations, the advice applies equally well to all serious writers including our students.
This month's column focuses on what the research tells us about developing expertise as a writer:
[Here are] 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.
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.
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.
You can read the rest of the column here.
I am the scholarship dude.