Writing strategies

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When doing writing assignments, university students may use strategies and methods that are more or less successful, depending on how deeply they engage with the contents and ideas of their writing. How they do this can in turn be affected by their motivation toward the assignment or course.

Those who are less motivated tend to engage in more superficial strategies. These are students with a strong extrinsic motivation, or who are demotivated altogether. Their primary goal or method in writing is to meet the basic, superficial task demands, such as simply turning in an essay of a required length on the assigned topic, with grammatically correct sentences. Their learning involves a low level of cognitive involvement, in gathering information, generating ideas, and crafting the paper. For gathering information, their learning is often based on rote learning, such as memorization and repetition, and dealing more with factual information than the more important concepts. For developing and organizing ideas into a paper, they focus on a more superficial process, such as listing and organizing information, and meeting the minimum demands of the assignment -- word length, assignment topic, some academic vocabulary, and grammatical sentences that give a superficial impression of understanding the topic.

More successful students have a more intrinsic motivation, and thus engage in more effective strategies. They focus on deeper learning of concepts, not just information, and so they deal with the topic at a deeper conceptual level. They are more likely to deal with the conceptual contents throughout the entire writing process -- information gathering, organizing ideas, and revision -- so that they can generate more unique, original ideas for their writing. They are less focused on superficial features like grammar and vocabulary, or simply repeating factual information.

The writing strategies inventory (Lavelle, 2007; Lavelle & Zuercher, 2001) describes different aspects of deeper and superficial learning in the writing process, and the following descriptions are from their work, though others have developed other classifications that are essentially similar. The Elaborative and Reflective-Revision scales represent deeper learning approaches, while the Low Efficacy, Spontaneous-Impulsive and Procedural approaches reflect more superficial study and learning strategies.

1 Deeper learning approaches


The Elaborative voice / type indicates writing for one’s own learning, as well as developing and elaborating on one’s own ideas or views about the topic or thesis. Specific strategies include self-investment of one’s own time and effort in the creative process; trying to inform or persuade the potential readers; reflecting on or visualizing one’s ideas; paying attention to voice, tone and their persuasiveness; and going beyond the bounds or expectations of the assignment. High scores on this scale correlate with the degree of the writer’s personal involvement in writing. They want to develop and express their own unique ideas, and are generally aware of when they have or have not done so effectively.


The scale for Reflective, or Reflective-Revision, describes a deeper writing process in the revision process, which can be a successful strategy, as long as the writer is focused more on the overall meaning, contents, and persuasiveness of the paper, rather than superficial revision. This strategy involves reflective, thoughtful and creative revision in order to improve one’s expression of ideas in writing, to make the writing clearer for the audience, or to make one’s ideas more persuasive to the readers. At first, the writer focuses on getting the basics into the paper for the first draft. The reflective writer then ideally focuses on global aspects of the paper, such as the argumentation, logic, ideas and flow of ideas. Such writers may also tend to focus more on synthesizing information and ideas.

2 Surface learning approaches

Low self-efficacy

Low self-efficacy refers to a low sense of one’s ability to successfully learn or master a specific academic skill, or toward learning and achieving successful learning in a course. It correlates with anxiety or doubts about one’s ability, low confidence or self-esteem, a lack of intrinsic motivation toward the course or contents, or even learned helplessness. These writers view writing as an unpleasant task, and they tend to engage in superficial rote learning, focusing on factual information rather than concepts beyond a superficial level, and the easier and more mechanical and surface level aspects of writing, such as grammar, punctuation, spelling, and vocabulary. A low score for the category of low efficacy is good.


The Spontaneous-Impulsive scale describes an impulsive approach, or one without thoughtful planning, in contrast to the Elaborative voice. The writer may overestimate his/her writing abilities for the assignment, or may do so out of anxiety, fear or doubt about the task, or about his/her limitations. The writing may be colloquial, or lacking coherence or depth. However, for some writers, this may be an effective way of getting started and simply getting a first draft out, before moving on to deeper reflective revision and elaborative strategies to significantly rework the first draft.


The Procedural strategies are based on following mechanical rules for studying and writing, with limited or superficial cognitive involvement or self-investment; this also stands in contrast to the Elaborative voice. Writers may simply attempt to reorganize and rearrange information or other’s ideas that they have paraphrased. This is a mechanical, procedural approach that is based on following perceived rules of writing, and relatively minimal effort or cognitive engagement with the contents, instead of deeper learning.

3 Comparison of strategies

These strategies in turn related to better, deeper learning and writing habits, or more superficial habits. Below is a comparison of superficial and deeper learning habits in writing (from Lavelle & Zuercher, 2001).

Deep writing Surface writing
Metacognitive, reflective

High or alternating level of focus
Hierarchical organization
Engagement, self-referencing
Actively making meaning (as an agent)
Audience concern
Thinks about essay as an integrated whole
Transforming, going beyond assignment
Feelings of satisfaction, coherence and connectedness

Redundant, reproductive

Focus at the local level
Linear, sequential structure
Passive ordering of data
Less audience concern
Sees essay as an organized display
Telling within the given context
Teacher dependent

4 See also

Lavelle, E. (2007). Approaches to writing. Studies in Writing. Torrance, M., van Waes, L., & Galbraith, D. (Eds.), Writing and Cognition, pp. 219-230.

Lavelle, E., & Zuercher, N. (2001). The writing approaches of university students. Higher Education, 42(3), 373-391.