Avoiding Cognitive Overload, Part 2: The Writing Process

Prospectus/Concept Paper

In Part 1 of “Avoiding Cognitive Overload,” we talked about avoiding cognitive overload during the dissertation process by separating logistical and cognitive tasks. Cognitive overload refers to being burdened with too many tasks at one time, which overtaxes our ability to concentrate on what needs to be done. We may experience cognitive overload when we sit down to write if we collapse all the steps of the writing process into a single step. In this blog, we will discuss the importance of approaching writing as a process to avoid cognitive overload when writing.

We often think of writing as simply sitting down and drafting text. Such an approach may work for small writing tasks. However, for a project as large as a dissertation, such an approach is inadequate and can lead to false starts and unfocused documents. Therefore, it is important to view writing as process that involves three steps: prewriting, drafting, and revision. Let’s take each step individually.

Prewriting involves thinking about what you want to say and planning how you want to say it. Prewriting involves making notes, reviewing research, organizing your thoughts, developing a rough outline. A step people sometimes skip over, prewriting is crucial to the writing process. What happens when we do not prewrite is that we begin drafting with little idea of where we want to go and how we are going to get there. It is like taking a trip in your car with a destination but no navigation. Think about what you want to say, make notes, devise a plan—so when you sit down to draft you have material and a map.

Drafting refers to sitting down and producing text. Drafting is the step that most people associate with the writing process. As we know, documents do not write themselves, and drafting can be daunting. Drafting requires concentration and can be slow going. That is why prewriting is so important. If we have done our prewriting, we should already have material to work from and a sense of where our writing should be heading. If we try to plan and organize as we draft, we collapse two thought-intensive steps into one, often resulting in false starts and documents with no clear aim. Also, it is important to realize that what we put down while drafting will not be complete, that it will need to be revised.

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Finally, revision involves looking over your writing after you have drafted it to see what can be strengthened, clarified, moved, or deleted. Do not confuse revision with editing. Editing is a final line-by-line scrubbing of the document for minor errors. Revision is part of the writing process because it involves looking over your writing to see what can be done to make it better. As you draft, you should realize that what you are putting down is not complete. However, once you have the material down, you can see what you have and what still needs to be done. During revision, you can make any changes to the document you feel it needs. Like prewriting, revision is crucial.

You may think you are saving time by collapsing all three steps into the drafting process. However, collapsing all the steps of the writing process into the drafting stage can be counterproductive. It often leads to cognitive overload, unfocused drafts, and poor quality writing, all of which will take additional time address and rectify.

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