Which takes less cognitive effort when it comes to writing: research before or during the writing process?

We’ve all been there: we postpone writing our final paper until the day before it’s due, and now we have a mere 24 hours to produce a 10-page research paper that we should have been working on all semester. While we procrastinated, we told ourselves that ultimately we would spend the same amount of time working on it whether we did the research beforehand or as we wrote. And when we finally turn it in, we slump, exhausted and relieved, and promise ourselves we will never do it again. But did we overexhaust ourselves mentally by researching synchronously with our writing rather than researching beforehand?


Douglas J. Hacker, Matt C. Keener, and John C. Kircher, researchers at the University of Utah, explored the cognitive effort of different writing styles using eye-tracking technology, or TRAKTEXT, in their 2017 article “TRAKTEXT: Investigating Writing Processes Using Eye-tracking Technology.” In particular, the team wished to study whether “writing behaviors from students who undergo a knowledge change differ from the writing behaviors used by students who do not experience a knowledge change” (Hacker, Keener, and Kircher 2017, 1).

The study included a group of 15 college students enrolled in an introductory psychology course. For the study, the participants were given a “pre-problem” (2017, 6) reading and writing task that allowed the researchers to establish four baseline measures: pupil diameter while writing, writing rate, pupil diameter while reading, and reading rate. 

After completing the pre-problem, the participants were presented with a question about gravity and asked to explain their answers. After they finished writing, they were given a basic explanation of gravity and some time to go back and revise their answers as needed.

“Writing behaviors from students who undergo a knowledge change differ from the writing behaviors used by students who do not experience a knowledge change.”

Hacker et al. (2017)

Using the pre-problem measures as a reference, the researchers were able to distinguish two types of writers: knowledge tellers and knowledge transformers. The tellers included the participants who, when presented with the gravity explanation, did not change much of their answers (only 4% of their remaining time was spent rewriting)—in other words, they knew what they were writing about in the first place and didn’t need to revise their content. In contrast, the transformers used the extra gravity information to drastically revise their answers, using 26% of their time rewriting.  

Overall, while the writing process was cognitively demanding for all participants, the researchers noted that “knowledge transformers allocated more cognitive effort to reviewing than knowledge tellers” (Hacker et al. 2017). That is, when participants had to incorporate new information by essentially researching as they wrote, it took much more effort to review and revise their answers than those who were confident in their knowledge beforehand. 


So to our past student-selves, we can finally understand that while we might have spent the same amount of time writing regardless of whether we researched beforehand or synchronously, we were actually exhausting ourselves mentally much faster when we weren’t confident about what we were writing. 

To current writers, this research is a rallying cry to know what we’re writing about before we start writing.

To those looking to hire writers, it’s beneficial to consider the knowledge base of applicants in relation to the job (or, perhaps a better idea, to provide ample opportunities for writers to access new knowledge). 

But all in all, no matter who we are, writing takes effort. In order to not exhaust ourselves mentally while writing, we need to spend time with the information we are writing about first. 

To dig deeper into the value of prewriting activities according to Hacker et al.’s research, read the full article: 

Douglas, J. Hacker, C. Keener Matt, and C. Kircher John. 2017. “TRAKTEXT: Investigating Writing Processes using Eye-Tracking Technology.” Methodological Innovations 10 no. 2: https://doi.org/10.1177/2059799116689574.

—Rachel Webb, Editing Research


Find more research

Take a look at Emma Hill’s Editing Research article “What Fluency Training Could Mean for You as an Editor or Writer” to learn more about how lexical knowledge is just as important as subject knowledge before you write. 

Learn more about the psychology behind the writing process in Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia’s (1987) book: The Psychology of Written Composition. New York: Routledge.

Explore more about the implications of readers’ eye movements by reading Keith Rayner’s (1998) article: “Eye movements in reading and information processing: 20 years of research.” Psychological Bulletin, 124 no. 3: 372–422. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.124.3.372