Saturday, November 21, 2009

What makes a good writer?

At the Cognitive Daily blog, there have been two posts about a survey that claimed to be able to judge your writing ability.

These two posts, one introducing a survey and the next, a week later, analyzing the results are interesting to this blog more in what was actually tested and the creativity of cognitive tests.

Psychological (which I use interchangeably with cognitive, at least for this example) tests need to be a little sneaky.  One cannot ask, "Do you harbour irrational beliefs?" and accept an honest answer, even by people who try to be honest.  This is why, I feel, many tests measuring motivation and the like ask a lot of comparison questions and questions apparently unrelated to the issue at hand.  Similar trickery is needed to separate and measure the differences between thoughts and actions.  A person says they are not at all racist, but how does s/he react to a racist comment outside the presumed test area?  Rad through to see what they were actually testing -and note they did indeed give some measured response to the question "Who  is a good writer?"
From the November 11 post:

Some people just seem to be natural writers -- they can write perfect, elegant sentences with a minimum of effort. Some popular fiction novelists crank out 6 or more novels per year. Some bloggers write 10 or more posts per day. Others labor over every word, or simply choose careers that don't require a lot of writing. But are there universal characteristics that separate good writers from bad writers, and quick writers from slow writers?
I think I may have come up with a quick study that can answer those questions -- and like all Casual Fridays studies, it can be completed in just a few minutes.

And a link to the survey - sorry, the survey was closed on Nov 19.

Alright, the commentary in the follow-up post:
 I wasn't actually very confident that a brief survey could actually identify the factors that make a good writer. But I did have a hunch that there were certain traits that were more likely to be associated with good writing.
But we did want to know about your writing as well, so let's start with that. The study asked a few questions about writing ability: how much writing you do for work/study, how easy writing comes to you, whether you've been published, and so on. Then there was a surprise writing test: 3 minutes to write as much as you can on any topic, to be judged for coherence but not content. Finally, a few more questions.
...I wanted to get a rough sense of the quality of the essays, so I assigned each a "grade." To get an A, you had to be coherent for the entire essay, and not switch topics. Just writing complete sentences and only switching topics once or twice earned a B. A semi-random string of sentences earned a C. Incoherent drivel got a D, or in rare cases, an F. [charts and graphs on original site]
Some results (and the first paragraph tries to answer the question about being a good writer - briefly writing a lot makes you a good writer):
If English wasn't your native language, or if you don't keep a blog, or if you weren't participating in NaNoWriMo, you were likely to write less and get a lower grade on your writing. People who had read a novel more recently tended to write more (although there was no correlation between reading recently and the grade received). If you type faster, you were likely to write longer and get a better grade.
there was one additional twist to this study--a genuine experiment. It was motivated by the fact that my family participated in the Arbitron Radio ratings this past week. It's quite a bit of work to do--every member of the family has to record every single radio station they listen to for an entire week. So how does Arbitron get people to do it? They use several tricks. They send a couple dollars with each family member's diary. They call several times to make sure you received their materials. But one thing I noticed is that at the end of every call, the interviewer was always sure to ask "can I count on you to return your surveys?" I wondered if that language could be used to motivate people to write. 

Respondents were broken into three groups.  One group was asked, "Can I count on you....", One, "Will you do it?" and one given no prompt. The "Can I count..." group averaged longer essays and more completions of the essay - I think this means some people left the essay blank.  There was no difference in writing quality.  Again, graphs and charts are at the original site (follow-up post).

Even a weak writer will write more if encouraged and strong writers will write less if not encouraged, although their quality seems unaffected.

In some previous post I quoted Ken Robinson, who said something like "creative people aren't afraid of mistakes".  In getting people to write more, and thus be more likely to make mistakes, encouragement increases creativity.  Hardly Earth-shattering, but interesting none-the-less.

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