|[Note: This article is a draft, a work-in-progress. Please check back for updates]|
Welcome to Writing Commons. We are so happy you found us.
Our primary mission is to help you communicate more effectively in school and work contexts (see About).
We offer approximately 800 articles organized by topics of concern for writers in workplace and academic settings, especially:
Writing Well Matters: Your success in the workplace or school setting is largely determined by your ability to communicate, which is shaped by your cognitive, interpersonal, and interpersonal competencies. Being literate further develops the competencies you need to have agency in the world–to create the changes you want and to better understand why things are the way they are.
Acts of Composing–e.g., Invention, Writing with Sources, Collaboration, Design, Organization, Revision, Editing–can be exhausting and intellectually challenging. Dealing with critique can tax your work ethic and professionalism. But you should not despair nor be too hard on yourself. Rather, you should take some solace in knowing that others have forged the path before you: you can benefit from learning about how accomplished professional writers compose.
Becoming an effective writer is not a simple task. Yet, with effort and patience, you can improve your ability to write well.
To maximize your potential, we encourage you to
- Take responsibility for your writing and learning
- Adopt a growth mindset
- Understand the rules of the game
- Do the training
- Trust the process
- Find focus
- Leverage your network, systems & tools
- Recognize your weakness(es)
- Keep your eyes on the prize
Take responsibility for your learning, writing
We meet people all the time who ask us if there’s an Easy Button when it comes to improving their reasoning and communication skills. Understandably, people are in a hurry. They want to get the research and writing done quickly, and they don’t want to be misunderstood.
Doctors, lawyers, and engineers, as well as students, are hopeful there’s some sort of simple way to overcome many of the unpleasantries associated with thinking, researching, and writing. After all, as you probably know, it can be unpleasant to spend countless hours researching a topic only to find out your thesis is banal and insignificant. It can be frustrating to pour your heart into a project only to discover people aren’t interested in your topic or don’t even understand what you are saying.
As you might surmise, given the encyclopedic scope of Writing Commons, there is no no Easy Button. At least, if there is, we haven’t found it (and we’ve looked!).
Life is complicated. Effective communication can be challenging. Some situations require extensive research, deep thinking, and innumerable iterations–or, what writers call revision.
So, here’s the harsh truth: improving your ability to think and be creative and your ability to communicate is not an easy task. In fact, really experienced writers, you know, people on the bestseller list, people who died eons ago and yet are read every day now, have often said that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship! (for more on this see Composing Processes).
Now, we’re not saying you need to plug yourself into a computer and work incessantly. You don’t have to forego food and go on a juice only diet. You don’t need to wake yourself up every night at two-hour intervals to record your dreams or meditate. You don’t even need to get a pair of long white socks to go with new-agey sandals. Really, there’s nothing all that quirky or obsessive you have to do. In other words, writing really doesn’t need to be aversive.
Instead, there are healthy, practical ways to improve your ability to think through complex problems and articulate solutions. One of the first steps is to realize that thinking and communicating are really complex activities: Communication and learning are not static properties. Being able to communicate or think is not the equivalent of an app that you have or don’t have. Being a successful communicator or problem solver isn’t determined by your zip code or DNA.
Rather, your ability to communicate (writing, public speaking, or even self-reflect) and learn are outcomes of complex, organic, recursive, psychosocial processes (see What is Communication? for more on this.)
Hopefully, being aware of how complex thinking and communicating are will give you some solace when your efforts go awry.
Next, and perhaps most importantly, you need to decide whether you are willing to put the work in, invest in yourself, and believe in yourself. Yes, other people can help. It’s invaluable, for instance, to get really critical feedback–even if that feedback is emotionally exhausting. That’s why the world’s greatest athletes have coaches: we have blind spots, and we need others from time to time to give us a push in the right direction.
But at the end of the day, you are the captain of your ship. Only you can commit to putting the work in, investing in yourself, and believing in yourself. To improve your thinking and communication skills, you must affirm in your heart that your ability to reason, problem solve, and innovate will evolve with practice. In other words, you need to adopt a Growth Mindset (see Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset; Intellectual Openness; Metacognition; Professionalism & Work Ethic; Research on Mindset & Intrapersonal Competencies; Resilience; Self-Regulation).
In the movies, this moment is
immortalized in the Matrix. When Morpheus asks Neal if he wants to take
the blue pill or the red pill, he explains you can’t tell somebody about the
Matrix, you have to experience it.
This metaphor works equally well for writing: you cannot know really know about the transformative power of writing until you practice your craft. Success is all about putting the end game aside and focusing on the process.
Ultimately, it’s on you if you want to take the blue pill. Here, we are not judging you. It can be comfortable to be a house cat. You know, not push yourselves out of your comfort zone. We live in remarkable times. Taking the blue pill can turn out ok for you. Or, well, it may not. You are rolling the dice. And even if you’re a trust fund kid, heck, there’s more to life than hanging around the house.
Frankly, we are hopeful you’ll take the red pill. Humans have remarkable obstacles ahead. Getting off the sidelines and choosing the red pill is all about thinking for yourself, creating opportunities for other people, and making the world a better place.
2. Adopt a Growth Mindset
Unfortunately, many people have aversive feelings about their communicative capabilities and potential. By aversive, we mean they find writing to be incredibly painful! As a result, it’s very common for people to procrastinate when assigned writing tasks. Loads of people allow their internal critics to silence them from expressing themselves–and subsequently from realizing their potential. These negative feelings combined with a fixed mindset (the notion that the ability to write is static, something you’re born with or not) can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like any other anxiety, the more you worry about it the worse it gets.
It’s quite understandable, frankly, that people find communication to be aversive. As we mention at What is Communication?, so much can go wrong in a communicative situation that it’s almost amazing when things go flawlessly–especially in non-routine situations.
Here’s the bottom line:
You need to be easy on yourself because communication and deeper learning are the outcomes of complex, organic, recursive, rhetorical, psychosocial processes.
Given the complexities of communicative acts between people (or even people and machines), it’s not surprising that sometimes things go awry. We bring this up first because we recognize communicative acts are bounded by critique and frustration.
|Here, we say critique because it’s way easier to critique than invent. People can be quick to find loads of fault with texts, even ones that win Pulitzers or Nobel prizes|
we are chiefly taught in schools to critique rather than innovate.
|And we say frustration because conducting research, collaborating, revising, and editing can be incredibly time consuming.|
time invested in a project doesn’t always correlate with success.
Interpretation is invariably subjective.
A powerful alternative to getting sucked into negativity is to recognize that failure is a productive, ongoing part of your ongoing development as a communicator. Plus, it helps to keep in mind that, you cannot base your potential on any one individual communicative act.
- Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset
- Intellectual Openness
- Metacognition & Self-Regulation
- Professionalism & Work Ethic
Computational Linguists and the corporations that employ them (e.g., Educational Testing Services and Pearson Education) share a common theorem:
all roads lead to vocabulary.
When it comes to assessing texts, vocabulary matters: A sophisticated rather than a simplistic vocabulary predicts success and retention a in school settings. Next after vocabulary comes sentence length and maturity (instances of subordination, diction, etc.). Computational linguists draw chiefly on these characteristics to develop algorithms that machine-score texts like humans. And it turns out these algorithms are incredibly accurate at predicting how humans score papers (even if the humans are using different scoring criteria).
The key takeaway is that by reading a lot you enhance your vocabulary. Educators call this sort of learning tacit learning or tacit knowledge. When reading, your amazing brain is paying attention to syntax, imagery, and organizational schemes. As a result of your reading, you develop mental schemas about how to organize texts; refute claims; and appeal to ethos, pathos, logos. Most of this learning is procedural/tacit but at times serious accolades take out a pen or highlighter and markup a text, trying to see how rhetorical or stylistic moves work.
Recently, there has been a great deal of doom and gloom published about the death of reading. At Writing Commons, we disagree with the argument that Twitter, email, Snapchat and such tools are destroying students’ language capacities. In fact, that view is wrong, wrong, wrong. Ignore the importance of brevity at your peril!
But what we are saying is that long-form journalism; thoughtful, full-length articles, and books are fertilizer for your brain.
To write well, read extensively.
Frankly, at its present level of development, Writing Commons doesn’t do enough with reading. Our apologies! There’s an old joke that might explain this oversight: some people are writers and others are readers. More seriously, it could be argued that Writing Studies has turned a blind eye on Reading Studies (or linguistics, for that matter). But again, we digress…
Still, don’t click away just yet: we do have a few pages that can help you get launched as a reader, particularly a reader assigned research projects in school settings
- Digital Literacy
- Information Literacy and the Writing Process
- Information Literacy Tools
- Information Theory and Practice
- Authority is Constructed and Contextual
- Information Creation as a Process
- Information Has Value
- Research as Inquiry
- Scholarship as a Conversation
- Searching as a Strategic Exploration
- Visual Literacy
- Quantification Literacy
- Writing with Sources
4. Understand the Rules of the Game
For athletes, training requires both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. If you don’t learn how to go long and slow as well as hard and fast, you probably won’t have the endurance and quickness needed to win.
For communicators, training requires
- Knowing What: Plumb the depths of Writing Studies. Develop your Declarative/Conceptual Knowledge
- Knowing How: Get in the Game! Develop your Procedural/Tacit Knowledge by writing regularly to multiple audiences in multiple genres and media.
Declarative/Conceptual Knowledge & Procedural/Tacit Knowledge are the two fundamental ingredients you need to nurture to improve as a writer. These are the building blocks, the foundation, of your life-long apprenticeship as a writer. Thus, it helps to be conscious of ways to develop you develop these different modes of learning.
|Declarative/Conceptual Knowledge||Procedural/Tacit Knowledge|
|Declarative/Conceptual Knowledge refers to explicit, formal knowledge about a topic.|
Your success as a writer is chiefly determined extensively by your conceptual knowledge about the attitudes, dispositions, beliefs, behaviors, habits, strategies, and actions of effective communicators (writers, speakers, artists) as they work toward completing a text–whether that text is written, oral, or multimodal.
Writing Commons aspires to be the last word regarding Declarative/Conceptual Knowledge in Writing Studies.
We provide robust resources on Collaboration, Genre, Information Literacy, Invention and Revision, Mindset, Organization, Research, Rhetoric, and Style and Editing.
Intended primarily for teachers, the Writing Studies section provides the research & theory behind these pedagogical practices.
To better understand the role of Declarative/Conceptual Knowledge and Procedural (Tacit) Knowledge in your development as a writer, we strongly recommend you review Writing Studies.
|Procedural/Tacit Knowledge pertains to knowing how to do something, even if you cannot exactly explain how you do it. |
Procedural (Tacit) Knowledge is chiefly developed by practice.
Sometimes you just know how to do something. Maybe it’s riding a bike, playing a musical instrument, driving a car, or speaking your native language. At some point, someone may have told you how to ride that bike, but you don’t remember what you were told. That muscle memory just comes with practice and its more nonverbal than verbal, more intuition or feeling than articulated thought. If asked by a bystander to explain how you do it, you’d have difficulty explaining how you do it. You’d probably say, “Hey, just get on the bike and give it a shot. It’s easier than it looks!”
A better example than bike riding might be your ability to speak your native language. If you grew up speaking English, you may not know the rules of grammar, but you can nonetheless speak English correctly.
So, the takeaway here is that nothing substitutes for practice–for trial and error.
5. Do the Training
To use a sports metaphor, we can tell you how to shoot a basketball, how to keep score, when to adopt a zone defense or when to adopt a man-to-man defense. We can show you videos of basketball greats like Michael Jordan, Lebron James, or Zion Williamson. But at the end of the day, reading about how to dribble the ball down court and somehow, miraculously, score the three pointer won’t win the championship. Instead, you need to spend time on the court, shooting shot after shot, developing muscle memory.
The idea that you have to practice writing a fair amount may initially seem a bit lame. And a bit boring. After all, everyone knows that practice is crucial to learning complex tasks. But the reason procedural knowledge matters so much to writers may be a bit surprising:
the process of writing involves a bit of mystery–or, if you prefer–art.
For an example of the importance of procedural/tacit knowing, consider how writers work with Inner Speech and Felt Sense:
- Inner Speech refers to the interior dialog we have within our minds, the voice within us.
When they report on their writing processes, writers often say they engage in an internal dialog with an inner voice. Back in the 1930s, Lev Vygotsky theorized that inner speech represents the intersection of thought and language. Noting how children talk to themselves when asked to solve problems, Vygotsky theorized that language becomes abbreviated as it goes underground and becomes intertwined with thought.
- Felt Sense refers to pre-linguistic feelings deep within our bodies.
Experienced writers report focusing on feeling as a source of inspiration. People say they have a sense of what they want to say even before they have articulated it in words. Writers are constantly re-reading their drafts to see if they’ve captured that felt sense.
Concepts like Inner Speech and Felt Sense may sound a big loosey goosey–or even mystical. Admittedly, they are concepts, just as the short-term and long-term memory or the id, ego, and superego are concepts. Ultimately, the mind is a black box. We often have to rely on theory and conjecture when it comes to understanding how the brain processes language.
Still, so many writers speak about learning to dialog with an internal voice and feelings deep within the body that we believe there’s merit to these concepts. We view Inner Speech and Felt Sense to be important behaviors for writers, as tools writers can use to think with, to transform images or words saturated with personal meaning into more fully elaborated texts. Ultimately, we mention Inner Speech and Felt Sense here as an example of procedural/tacit knowledge–as behaviors and dispositions that can only be experienced.
(See Inner Speech and Felt Sense for a more detailed discussion of these concepts).
6. Trust the Process
In the U.S., the phrase trust the process is a bit of a cultural cliche, as suggested by Google’s Ngram tool:
Unfortunately, the phrase Trust the Process is so overused it’s a bit like saying Have a nice day or How you feeling? People ignore all that. Plus, there’s all that spam spewing self-help cliches for a price.
Writing teachers, colleagues, and friends can tell you to trust the process ad nauseum. But unless you get in the game and develop this procedural/tacit knowledge, this advice will just sound like a platitude.
For writers, trusting the process is incredibly transformative and powerful. Based on anecdotal accounts and case studies of writers at work, scholars and writing teachers like Peter Elbow, Ann Berthoff, Sondra Perl, Donald Murray and others have advised writers to Play the Believing Game. This involves
- setting aside doubt and freewriting
- beginning before you are ready, before you know what you want to say
- listening to your inner speech, having a dialog with yourself, invoking a sense of audience while you write
- accessing your felt sense, that inchoate, prelinguistic embodiment of what you want to say before saying it
- taking the long view on your apprenticeship as a writer.
Consider, if you will, this metaphor: according to coaches like Tony Dungy or Phil Jackson, if an athlete concentrates on winning the prize, whether it’s a symbolic championship on one tied to millions of dollars, rather than focusing on the immediate task before him or her, the athlete is more likely to fail. Instead, coaches like Dungy and Jackson are famous for helping athletes break down their sports into smaller units. By focusing on these units, or outcomes, into moment-by-moment tasks, the athlete has a much stronger chance of actually winning and progressing despite great odds.
Because Trusting the Process is so important to your development as a writer, Writing Commons provides numerous articles on the topic. As a foundation, we recommend you begin with the following pages:
Ultimately though your success depends on procedural/tacit knowledge: the more you write to diverse audiences in diverse genres, the more you’ll discover the generative nature of language.
Focus is exceedingly important to your success as a communicator.
- being in the moment. Being Patient and Conscious. Being smart about where you are in the writing process; and
- being strategic about where you should be in the writing process.
By this we mean that if you’re conducting Collaboration, Genre, Information Literacy, Invention and Revision, Mindset, Organization, Research, Rhetoric, Style and Editing, you need to own that moment.
That said, you need to be strategic about your focus. For instance, you might find yourself editing an early draft. You know, getting the spelling right, tightening up the appeals, mixing in a clever metaphor. All that can be useful but maybe that’s now what you should be doing. So, consciousness of where you are in the process can help you prioritize where you should be.
By being conscious of the complexities of communication, by engaging in metacognition, you can develop the perspective needed to be kinder to yourself. For instance, if you know about how revision works, you are more likely to recognize endless revisions are common and unavoidable rather a reflection of some sort of cognitive deficiency.
In encyclopedic fashion, Writing Commons provides robust information about Collaboration, Genre, Information Literacy, Invention and Revision, Mindset, Organization, Research, Rhetoric, and Style and Editing.
Many of the pages at Writing Commons aim to help you better analyze communication situations and better navigate them. For analyzing communication situations, we especially recommend you review the following pages:
8. Embrace your Weakness(es) & Leverage Your Network
Just about everyone struggles to understand their weaknesses. This is why the phrase You don’t know what you don’t know is so poignant. Ultimately, we all have blind spots, particularly regarding our flaws.
But, being human, we surely all have flaws. In the context of communication, this flaw could be:
- not listening to when others speak and focusing instead on refuting what the other person is saying or clarifying how it relates to your experience.
- not really considering the depth of the audience’s point of view on a topic
- Not reading an article in its entirety before citing a sentence or two from its intro.
- Not planning sufficient time to research, write, and revise a document.
Whatever you flaw(s), the point is that it helps to reach out to others for strong critique of your communicative acts. And then to learn from all that.
Frankly, it’s nearly always helpful to get outside ourselves. Be open to informal collaboration such as talking with mentors in a Writing Center, an instructor, a copyeditor, a boss, or a colleague, sometimes you’ll need to coauthor documents. While collaboration presents its own form of challenges, this can be a powerful way of networking your weaknesses. After all, no matter how hard we try, we all have weaknesses.
Not easy, not pleasant, but ultimately the stuff of growth.
9. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
Above we recommend you keep your focus on the process rather than the end-game. That’s because, counterintuitively, you accomplish the end-game by paying attention to where you are in the process.
All that said, it can be inspirational to take a moment from time to time to actually consider the end goal.
While yes there are many obstacles to effective communication, the potential rewards to improving your communicative competencies are transformative. Being a writer, a symbol analyst in the knowledge economy, enhances your cognitive competencies, your ability to collaborate (interpersonal competencies), and your ability to reflect and learn from life (intrapersonal competencies).
At Writing Commons, we believe writers enter a Task Environment (that is, a rhetorical situation that requires writing) with declarative and conceptual knowledge of competencies. Over time, these competencies evolve. They are sharpened and perfected by experience.
While there are many competencies involved in communicative processes, the National Research Council has cogently argued they can be subsumed under three major competencies:
- “Cognitive competencies involve thinking, reasoning, and related skills.
- Intrapersonal competencies involve self-management and the ability to regulate one’s behavior and emotions to reach goals.
- Interpersonal competencies involve expressing information to others”
(National Research Council 2012).
Here’s the really important takeaway: developing your cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies will
- improve your writing and public speaking
- enhance your marketability in the professional workplace:
Hence, we recommend you give the following pages a quick glance. Then put those pages away. Forget about them and get back to the process.
- Why Does Writing (or Public Speaking) Matter?
- 21st Century Literacies: Cognitive, Intrapersonal, and Interpersonal Competencies
For starters, to help you get a better sense of what’s involved in learning to write well, we encourage you to visit the following articles: