We’re all different. But there’s a good chance that, as a writer, one of the following options applies to you:
If you fall into any of these categories, this article is for you.
Whether you’ve completed a bachelor’s degree in literature or you’ve just used your natural talent to build a solid portfolio, there is enormous value in constantly learning how to be better at writing. Moreover, there are countless ways to do this.
From online courses to finding mentors and even signing up for “real world” classes, we’re lucky to have various opportunities to gain priceless knowledge.
Let’s take a look at certain techniques that you can apply to be more effective at learning—techniques backed by scientific research and the insights of professionals in the field of education.
Dr. Barbara Oakley, professor of Engineering at Oakland University, is one of the world’s leading minds when it comes to the science of learning.
Along with Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, she has produced one of the most authoritative online courses, Learning How to Learn.
The 15-hour course is available on Coursera, and it’s packed with a wealth of information on how to better prepare for and apply your mind to the learning process.
Topics covered in the course include:
The course has proven to be astonishingly successful, so much so that the New York Times wrote a piece about it.
But don’t just take our (and the New York Times’s) word for it. The course has over 60,000 reviews from satisfied students and currently sits with an average rating of 4.8 out of 5.
If you’re familiar with massive online open courses (MOOC) and the general response from course participants, you’ll agree right away that this is a spectacular rating over such an enormous sample.
Currently, the course is available for free—unless you want accreditation for completing it, in which case you’ll need to part with a very reasonable sum of $49.
If you’re serious about learning, the importance of understanding the theory behind how to do it successfully can’t be overstated. When it comes to online material to help you build this understanding, Learning How to Learn simply has no equal.
There are two primary ways in which our brains absorb new information or skill sets:
When teaching yourself a new skill, or mastering a completely new subject for a writing assignment, it’s vital to acknowledge that both of these cognitive processes play an equally important role.
Focused thinking is critical in the initial stages when most (if not all) of the information is new to you. During this phase, being laser-focused on comprehension is paramount. When distractions happen, whether they be internal or external, acknowledge them, but refocus your attention to what’s important at the time.
Once you’ve reached a certain threshold of successful info-absorption, it’s time to shift into diffuse thinking and let your mind wander a bit.
We’re not talking about taking a break from the material entirely (more on that later). When practicing diffuse thinking, we’re aware that we’re processing information on the topic that we’re studying. Critically, though, we allow our minds to jump from one concept to another.
We’re essentially canceling out the dedicated “channels” of thought that helped us during the process of learning by actively consuming new information.
Diffuse thinking allows us to draw conclusions. It allows us to create mental relationships between different concepts within what we learned. It allows us to think about how the theory of what we learned applies to our work.
The best way of doing this is to not force it. For instance, let’s say you are writing an article about the internet of things, which you previously had no zero knowledge of. You spend several hours hammering away at countless articles about the new topic and have a vague sense of what your thesis might be. In the late afternoon, you take a walk and ponder what you learned, allowing your brain to make associations without expectations. And then eureka—you think of a creative thesis.
Certain personality types will find they lean more comfortably to one of these approaches over another. The challenge that learners face is in embracing the relationship between these two modes of thinking.
Absorbing data without allowing your brain to organically paint a “bigger picture” means that information exists purely for the sake of it.
Conversely, if you don’t allow your brain sufficient time to fully grasp the material, it won’t be possible to apply what you’ve learned and write something engaging about it (that ties into what the reader cares about).
Don’t confuse this concept with diffuse thinking. We’ve discussed the importance of stepping back from focusing on the material to think about what you’ve learned, but this isn’t the same thing as being comfortable with a short diversion.
For decades, scientists believed that vigilance decrement, or the natural decay in your ability to pay attention to the task at hand, occurred because the human brain has a finite attention resource, and that the longer you spend learning, the more you’re depleting this resource.
However, more recent research has proven this is simply not the case.
A 2011 study conducted by the University of Illinois found that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically increase your ability to focus on it for a prolonged period of time.
“Attention is not the problem,” says the study’s leading researcher, professor Alejandro Lleras. His findings indicated that attention doesn’t wane, but rather gets naturally redirected.
One group of subjects was asked to perform a 50-minute task that was punctuated by two short diversions unrelated to the task. This group was told that the diversions were going to happen. They had it in the back of their minds and were expecting them.
Three other groups were given the same task and showed a decline in attention and performance far more significant than the first group.
Lleras and his study suggest that our brains evolved to respond to change. To expect it. And that spending too much time focused on a single task can hinder our ability to pay attention to it.
I’ll let the professor sum this up for us: “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.”
What does this mean in practice for writers who are serious about improving their craft and being able to expand their repertoire of subjects they can competently write about?
Don’t beat yourself up about finishing that chapter, page, paragraph, or sentence. Take a short break to sharpen your pencil. Take that in the literal sense if you write with pencils. Or if not, metaphorically: Drink some water. Do a little dance. And when you sit back down to write, your mind will be sharper and ready again to write on.
Overlearning, or continuing to study information that you’ve already mastered, is a habit that many students find difficult to avoid.
Managed a perfect score on your vocabulary test? Surely, going through it and testing yourself another half-dozen times will make you retain this info even more effectively.
But science suggests otherwise.
A joint study conducted by researchers from the University of South Florida and the University of California found that long-term information retention was not compromised by a shorter period of focused study.
In fact, test subjects who spent 50% less time studying than their counterparts retained the information at least as effectively as those who spent double the time studying.
Bear in mind, though, that findings indicated the opposite when testing short-term retention.
What does this mean in practice?
Simple, really. If you’re cramming for a looming exam, overlearning is clearly an effective method of optimizing retention. If your goal is to pass a test that’s mainly dependent on you memorizing information, feel free to use some extra time to keep hammering that information into your mind.
However, if you’re a writer looking to expand your vocabulary or understand abstract narrative theories, there’s no need to go over the material again after you’ve mastered it the first time. Committing more time to information you already understand is unlikely to make a difference in your long-term retention of it. Taking less notes and keeping your outlines shorter might actually help you write about that novel topic better.
Use this time to rest, practice diffuse thinking, or even to put what you’ve learned into practice.
If you believe you do your best work late at night and often end up sleep-deprived as a result, this one’s for you.
The science behind sleeping and productivity is well-established. And it’s a worrying notion that many people (between 47% and 53% of workers) are comfortable saying that sacrificing sleep is necessary for succeeding in their careers.
Whether you’re attempting to be more productive, write better quality content, or educate yourself to become more successful, sleep plays an incredibly important role.
When we sleep before a focused period of study, we prepare our brains for acquiring new memories. A good night’s rest after a period of study allows us to entrench these memories.
Essentially, sleep plays a very important role in the three functions our brain performs when learning: acquisition, consolidation, and recall.
Another, slightly more obvious, way that sleep helps us learn more effectively is that it prevents the mental fatigue associated with sleep deprivation.
In a 2016 press release, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that a staggering 33% of American adults don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis.
If you’re intent on continuing to be productive as a writer, as well as to acquire new skills that will make you an even better one, you’ll have to do your best to get a proper rest every night.
Procrastination: the bane of every adult with a daunting task ahead of them. We writers call it writer’s block.
Whether you’re faced with writing a complex article or preparing yourself for a study session, the negative feelings you may have toward the task are one of the biggest obstacles to getting started.
One of the most efficient ways to overcome this enemy of productivity is to shift our perception of the task at hand. Try to think about the task not from the perspective of output, but rather the activity itself.
This technique is commonly referred to as “process over product,” and Dr. Barbara Oakley discusses it in great detail in the Learning How to Learn course.
Her advice can be summed up like this: Rather than focusing on what you need to achieve (like completing a creative writing course), focus your mind on the habits and processes that will get you there.
Thinking about the product, or the end goal, is the trigger for the negative emotions we feel that prevent us from getting started.
Consumed with anxiety about a 10,000-word assignment that you can’t seem to start on? Just start. Sit down and write for five minutes and see what happens. Focus on the process of putting pen to paper and writing words that come to your head. Sounds silly? But it just might work.
One of the best methods you can use to bring your mind into a safe space—where you’re not overwhelmed by the challenge of achieving the end goal—is to use the Pomodoro Technique.
This is essentially a method of being productive and focused by breaking your effort up into short, timed “sprints” of focus. After each (typically 25-minute) sprint, you take a short break and then get back to it.
The Pomodoro Technique protects our brains from being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the “final goal.” It allows us to remain only aware of the fact that we’ve committed to being productive for a sprint, and not fixate on the difficulty of the overall task we’re working on.
It’s a marvelous and confusing thing to be an adult. We have so much autonomy that we sometimes forget that with a reasonable amount of effort, we can create better lives for ourselves.
As writers, there’s also the temptation to simply hinge our job security on a solid portfolio or a great professional relationship.
But by allocating time to finding educational materials and immersing ourselves in them, we’re not just going to create better content. We’ll also build a deeper sense of security and take steps toward self-actualization.
Travis is an investor, search engine super nerd and proud pug-parent. He founded Smash.VC to provide bootstrapped entrepreneurs the type of investment partner he wish he had early on in his career. And he writes about the lessons learned from a decade of growing online businesses.