Why is Writing so Difficult?

Because thinking is difficult

In my Teacher Workshop (hmm, what’s a Teacher Workshop?), I explored the question of why writing is so difficult. As the basis of my answer, I explored cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham’s claim that “People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, people will avoid thinking.”

Willingham bases his claims on his model of the mind:

In this model, the “environment” provides an external stimulus, and the “working memory” (or consciousness) draws upon “long-term memory” for knowledge about how to respond to the stimulus. In Willingham’s example, when asked to multiply two numbers, a person can draw upon factual knowledge of individual numbers and procedural knowledge of how to multiply.

I gained three insights from Willingham’s model, each of which I think are important to understanding students’ difficulty in writing.

But, first, a problem that’s likely to give most English teachers pause: what’s 14 x 3?

Much of what we call “thinking” is actually the recall of long-term memory

In the multiplication problem, a person does not have to deeply “think” about the individual numbers or the operation; instead, recalling knowledge from working memory enables the person to easily solve, for example, a problem such as “4 x 3.” Where working memory might be needed is to solve the problem above, in which the person has to activate additional knowledge that “14 = 3 + 10” and then rely upon working memory to remember the answer to “4 x 3” while solving “4 x 10.”

For the writer, this means that considerable factual and procedural knowledge goes into writing a single sentence. The writer must have a deep, well-practiced knowledge of such facts as the meaning of every word, the syntactical structure of sentences, the idiomatic meaning of various phrases, and so on. Add in the procedure of writing, whether by hand or keyboard, and it becomes clear why children take years before they can regularly and routinely write coherent sentences.

For the writing teacher, this means breaking down writing into various content and strategies, then focusing students on practicing each individual aspect until the child has embedded the content into factual knowledge and the strategies into procedural knowledge.

Thinking is constrained by limited working memory

In the more challenging multiplication example (14 x 3), each mini-answer must be kept in working memory to solve the problem (12 + 40), but there is a limit to how many of these individual numbers the human brain can juggle. Seven is frequently cited as the maximum number of items a human can store in working memory (though this number is debatable and the process of chunking extends the capacity of our working memory:). Nevertheless, our finite working memory limits the amount of our thought.

For the writer, this means writing a single sentence may require thought about the event being described, about the words being selected, about the structure being formed, about the figure of speech that compares one aspect of the event to another unrelated object, and so on. This limited working memory offers a simple explanation of why I have witnessed even the most capable students make elementary mistakes in their writing: likely their working memory was at full capacity and so a sophisticatedly formed sentence contains an elementary spelling mistake.

For the writing teacher, this means, again, breaking a writing task into its smaller parts and articulating how many different skills is the writer having to juggle in working memory to complete a given task.

Humans are curious and enjoy solving solvable problems

The multiplication problem was relatively simple: most people have the required skills to embedded in long-term memory and the working memory capacity to solve the problem. With these factors present, most humans enjoy solving such puzzles. Yet, make the problem either too easy or too difficult and solving the puzzle is less enjoyable. The key is to make sure that the problem presented is in their sweet spot.

For the writer, this means taking on the appropriate challenge, whether it be looking for the perfect word, balancing a parallel sentence, extending a metaphor throughout a paragraph, or organizing an entire essay. Solving an enjoyable puzzle may explain why some students immediately start editing, some organizing, and some revising sentences: likely all are drawn to their area of interest and strength when asked to look at someone else’s writing.

For the writing teacher, this means presenting students with appropriate challenges. In the writing classroom, I suspect that this means identifying the appropriate balance between thinking about the writing or thinking about a writing skill. For instance, I have a colleague who asks students to write about a very familiar topic when he first introduces a writing strategy, then asks students to think about increasingly challenging topics as they become more proficient with the strategy, or in Willingham’s terms, as they draw upon the strategy from long-term memory.


Willingham’s model has many implications for the writing classroom, though two dominate my thoughts for the year ahead:

Students need to practice specific skills: rather than simply being asked to “write,” students need my guidance to practice specific writing skills. At times, these will be prescribed by me; at other times, students should identify the specific skill they want to develop. Either way, having students practice a specific skill, one focused target at a time, seems to the way to develop as a writer.

Students need more practice: rather than practicing a few times and both teacher and student confusing the student’s recognition for recollection, I need to push the students to continue to practice until they embed each skill into long-term memory and gain valuable cognitive space for actual thinking as they write.