Regardless of a professional’s seniority in the writing industry, concise language is difficult to achieve. What if you could learn the art of concision in a matter of weeks?
Fluency training has long been used as a method to teach essential skills to individuals with special needs. The technique encourages rapid learning through repetitive practice and testing and falls under the umbrella of applied behavioral analysis in which behaviors are observed and then modified according to individual and social impact. If we apply this type of learning to other areas of instruction, like writing and editing, fluency training may be the answer to help improve one’s ability to recognize and edit wordy language.
In 2017, researchers Marshall L. Dermer, Shannon L. Lopez, and Paul A. Messling III published the study “Fluency Training a Writing Skill: Editing for Concision” that they conducted on undergraduate psychology majors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Twenty students enrolled in a psychology course received a training on concise language, followed by a pretest that asked the participants to label sentences as concise or not concise and to rewrite the wordy sentences. Students were then randomly assigned to attend one of two laboratory sessions: the test group beginning with fluency training, while the control group began a lab focused on simulating applied behavioral analysis. After five weeks, the groups switched curriculum.
During the fluency training, students used software to test their ability to edit for concision; they were also tested semiweekly by an instructor. After five weeks, all participants took the concision test again, and a final test was administered to the test group after they completed the applied behavioral analysis portion.
Results indicated the test group’s scores increased significantly when compared with the control group. On average, students reduced the word count by 35% in the provided sentences. After five weeks in the applied behavior analysis lab, the test group’s scores decreased insignificantly: students still reduced the word count of the provided sentences by 24%. This rate meant that, out of ten sentences, sentences were “using about 67 words instead of 89 words.” To put that difference in perspective, the researchers posed this question: “Would you prefer reading 89 pages when 67 pages would suffice?” (16).
Notably, while the students demonstrated an increased ability to edit example sentences for concision, they made no significant improvement in their ability to write concisely or to edit their own writing.
Although this study was conducted in the early 2000s and on a relatively small sample size, its results may still have importance for editors and writers, who must develop their skills over years of study and practice. The results of this study suggest that students can develop editing skills over short periods of time through fluency training techniques.
While the implications for editors appear to be promising, this study exposes a weakness for editors who are also writers: improving editing skills may not correlate with improving writing skills or with the ability to edit their own work. Editors should view the lack of the correlation as a reminder that editing proficiency should not overshadow their responsibility to develop their writing skills.
To learn more about fluency training and editing, read the full article:
Dermer, Marshall L., Shannon L. Lopez, and Paul A. Messling III. 2009. “Fluency Training a Writing Skill: Editing for Concision.” The Psychological Record 59, no. 1 (January): 3–20. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03395646.
—Emma Hill, Editing Research
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Find more research
Check out Liana Sowa’s Editing Research article to read about how learning editing skills can benefit students who aren’t editing majors: “Why Scientists and Editors Need a Symbiotic Relationship.”
Read Woods-Groves et. al’s (2017) article to learn about a study in which software was used to teach editing skills to students with intellectual and developmental disabilities: “Efficacy of an Electronic Editing Strategy with College Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.” Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities 52 (4): 422–436. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1160277.pdf.