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What Skilled and Unskilled Writers Do (According to Research)

Interesting bits from an old academic paper to help you reflect on your writing strategies and behaviours

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I’m studying for a Master’s degree in Language Education so these days my reading diet consists of academic papers on writing and writers’ processes.

This week I came across a fascinating study.

It’s a 153-page Master’s thesis by Ronald E. Lapp from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.

In the first thirty-six pages, Lapp examines several studies on first and second-language writers’ skills, explaining what both skilled and unskilled native and non-native English writers do.

The paper is from 1985 (accessible here for free); it’s so dated that it was written with a typewriter. But, feel free to disagree, the nature of writing and writing skills hasn’t changed much since the 80s.

In this article, I want to report the most interesting bits from that research. The aim is not to help you define whether you’re a skilled writer or not. It’s not to prescribe a good “writing method” either. The aim is to inform, share my passion for writing, and encourage you to reflect on what you already do or don’t do as a writer. 

At the end of this post, you’ll also read what I came to realise after reading this old study.

I hope you’ll enjoy this nerdy stuff as much as I did.

Skilled Writers Pre-write

Skilled writers don’t start writing immediately. They first go through a pre-writing phase, spending time thinking and planning what they’re going to say.

They do this deliberately and know several planning strategies. Here are some:

  • Notetaking
  • Diagram/sketch making
  • Listmaking
  • Talking to themselves or imaginary others about their pre-writing plan
  • Free-writing
  • Researching
  • Developing outlines
  • Thinking

“Skilled writers use prewriting time to select a topic and accumulate topic-related information and ideas, develop insights, let ideas incubate, plan, and organize. At the same time, these writers may consider such matters as purpose, audience, organization, deadlines, and other factors which can influence and/or constrain the writing of a piece.” — Ronald E. Lapp, The Process Approach to Writing, P.13

Unskilled writers, however, don’t do this. They spend little or no time organising their thoughts and know only a limited number of planning strategies.

Skilled Writers Are Fluent

Skilled writers transform thoughts into written sentences quickly and fluently. They do so without obsessing about mistakes, typos, inconsistencies, or stylistic inappropriacies — especially when drafting.

Unskilled writers, on the other hand, often get bogged down in linguistic details. They keep interrupting the composition process so often that they may even lose direction in their writing. (This is what often happened to me when I was an intermediate user of English).

“For skilled writers, transcribing can become an unconscious automatic act permitting concentrated attention upon the other components of composing. Unskilled writers, on the other hand, are still so concerned with the mechanics and conventions of writing that such acts as reviewing and planning are neglected.” — Ronald E. Lapp, The Process Approach to Writing, PP.17,18.

Skilled Writers Don’t See Writing as Linear

Unskilled writers treat writing as a linear process that looks like this:

Skilled writers see writing as a recursive process that looks like this:

What are the benefits of seeing writing as recursive?

One benefit only, but a major one: those who understand that writing is a messy process can better direct, control, and monitor the process.

This means that skilled writers:

  • are aware they can engage with multiple phases of the process at the same time. For example, they know they can plan, re-plan, draft and redraft to produce better quality writing;
  • know their pre-writing plan is flexible so they’re free to explore thoughts and ideas as they write;
  • don’t worry about minor details that can hinder the process. For example, they might show no concern for grammatical accuracy when drafting as they know they can fix the language later.

“Skilled writers’ ability to plan, review, and revise recursively is seen as a key to controlling the writing process so that the quality of the written product improves.” — Ronald E. Lapp, The Process Approach to Writing, P.41

Skilled Writers Are Good Reviewers

All writers pause to review what they wrote. Skilled writers, however, make the most of their revisions.

First, they know when to pause. They stop to review with intention and careful judgment. Second, they review entire sentences and paragraphs, not just single words or short segments of text. And third, they review to improve the quality of their message and make plans that will help them produce new text.

Also, because skilled writers generate ideas at the pre-writing stage, they can draw on these to add new insights that will move their writing forward.

Unskilled writers, however, can’t or don’t do these things. Unskilled writers review only short segments (words and phrases), pause indiscriminately, and don’t know how to use review to keep writing.

“Skilled writers make effective use of reviewing and revision to make plans which help generate new text. Unskilled writers do not.” —  Ronald E. Lapp, The Process Approach to Writing, P.13

Dealing with Unease 

When they feel something isn’t working in their writing, both skilled and unskilled writers experience a feeling of unease called ‘dissonance’.

Skilled writers deal better with this feeling for three reasons:

1. They can detect dissonance both in terms of meaning and form. For example, they may notice a gap in their argument or grammatical structures that don’t work. Unskilled writers usually experience dissonance with language form only (e.g., vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc.) 

2. They are more likely than unskilled writers to find what causes dissonance.

3. They review and make adjustments to their text to remove dissonance. Unskilled writers get confused about what to change.

“Unskilled writers are more likely to experience dissonance with vocabulary, grammar and the mechanics involved with the transcribing. Long pauses are associated with their uncertainty and confusion about what to write next. These inexperienced writers are not always likely to detect the cause of their feelings of dissonance.” — Ronald E. Lapp, The Process Approach to Writing, PP.24–25

The Most Interesting Aspect of All

On page 31 of Lapp’s paper, I read this:

“Skilled writers are willing to make positive and negative evaluative remarks about their writing [and] see themselves as good writers. Unskilled writers avoid making evaluative remarks about their writing [and] do not see themselves as having the potential to write.”

This is, in my opinion, the most interesting characteristic of all.

It tells me that becoming a skilled writer requires a degree of self-esteem and a willingness to be critical about what you can produce.

My Reflections and Realisations

Reflecting on this knowledge, I realised that:

  • I should reconsider the validity of advice that implies writing is linear. For example, some say you should write a full draft first and move on to revising it only after it’s completed. Drafting and revising can (should?) happen at the same time.
  • I must spend more time planning. I often start writing as soon as I have a topic in mind and plan as I go. This is okay (this is called ‘in-process planning’). However, making a rough plan before writing could save me time later in the process.
  • I should be more intentional about my revisions. I often pause to read what I wrote every two sentences.
  • I should reread what I published in the past with a critical eye. I know this can help me improve my future writing but I never do this as it often makes me cringe.
  • I’ll keep believing my writing will never be perfect, and see myself as a good writer in the process of becoming the best one I could possibly be.

***

Thank you, my dear nerdy friend, for reading this article. I hope it was useful. If you’d like to learn more on this subject, you could read the original paper. Or read more nerdy stuff about writing on my blog.

Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. You can find out more about him and his work by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.