Writing Tips for the Gifted Student

Updated: Jan 12, 2019

By Will Fitzhugh.

First published in Education News (educationviews.org). Reprinted with permission.


Perhaps the first caution to note on this subject is that when giving advice to the gifted, it is wise to remember that they are gifted, and should not be loaded up with unnecessary advice. In fact, my own first preference in encouraging gifted students to do academic expository writing (e.g. history research papers) is to give them the papers of other gifted students to read. This way the goal becomes clear in a way that it often does not when one starts with buckets and bags of technical advice on “How To Write a Paper.”


One problem is that by the time one has gone through all the advice about footnotes, endnotes, bibliography, plagiarism, etc., any motivation to write a paper will very sensibly have evaporated, in all likelihood.


Like other people, gifted students like to see if there is any point in doing something, in this case, writing a long serious academic research paper. I believe that the point is best illustrated by showing them what the finished product looks like, and, by having them read some exemplary papers by their peers, showing them how very interesting serious history can be, even to people their age.


To follow my own advice, and to do unto you as I would have you do unto gifted students, allow me to place a sample of such writing here (from a 6,904-word paper written by a New York ninth-grader who later graduated from Harvard):


Within this nineteenth-century intellectual context, Cesare Lombroso’s work greatly influenced how Europe’s criminologists and jurists perceived criminals. L’Uomo Delinquente (“The Criminal Man”), published in 1876, was the most influential of his many publications. It was so popular and well regarded that it grew from two hundred pages in its first edition to over three thousand in its fifth. A later work, Le Crime, Causes et Rémédies, ‘Crime, Its Causes and Remedies,’ published in 1899, was also highly influential. By the 1880s he had gained world renown through his studies and theories in the field of characterology, the relation between mental and physical characteristics, criminal psychopathy, the innate tendency of individuals toward sociopathy and criminal behavior. Lombroso’s conclusions stimulated debate among academics, lawyers, judges, prison directors, all those interested in public policy, as well as the general public. In fact, criminal anthropology, the field Lombroso created, received such attention that it was the focus of an international conference every four years for over three decades before World War I.


Extraordinary amounts of documentation in the form of pages of statistics and illustrations strongly influenced readers to believe “that many of the characteristics found in savages and among the coloured races are also to be found in habitual delinquents.” Lombroso used statistics so well that many scientists accepted his conclusion that criminality is biological. Although Lombroso’s theories have now been discredited, they had mass appeal at the turn of the century.


While his ideas were widely popular, Lombroso’s many credentials helped to establish his influence with professional colleagues. Cesare Lombroso, born on November 6, 1835, in Verona, Italy, studied at the universities of Padua, Vienna, and Paris (1862-1876). In 1876 he became a professor of psychiatry, forensic medicine, and hygiene at the University of Pavia. Moving to the University of Turin, he held professorships in psychiatry from 1896 and in criminal anthropology from 1906. He also directed a mental asylum in Pesaro, Italy. Lombroso died on October 19, 1909, in Turin, Italy.


Originally, Lombroso became involved with the classification of criminals after being assigned to do a post-mortem on a criminal named Vilella, who had died in the insane asylum in Pavia. While examining Vilella’s skull, Lombroso discovered an abnormality common to lower apes, rodents, and birds. Lombroso named this abnormality the “median occipital fossa.” Later, Lombroso recognized the importance of his discovery…

And for those of you who got interested in the story, as I did when I was publishing this paper, here is the conclusion:


Lombroso may have been refuted by science, but his influence on popular culture remains.


Why does this pseudo-science from the nineteenth century remain so powerful at the end of the twentieth century? Lombroso gave society a visual key for identifying people it feared. It is likely that Lombroso’s descriptions caused “nice people” to avoid tattoos, gentlemen to be either clean-shaven or to have well-kept beards, and good citizens to avoid obviously excessive drinking. Perhaps part of the 1960s antagonism to the hippie movement came from Lombrosian antagonism to unkempt hair and tattoos, especially on women. These were also easy visual signals to identify “bad” people. Even today, people want easy visual keys to identify villains. For instance, after Littleton, many school districts have banned the wearing of black trenchcoats, as if trenchcoats have anything to do with murder. Lombroso’s influence remains because people look for easy answers to complex problems.


Darwin’s The Origin of Species had an extraordinary effect on nineteenth-century attitudes toward man, society, and science. His empirical model required observations over many examples to test hypotheses and to come to validated conclusions that support overall theoretical claims. While Darwin’s work has become influential for many modern sciences from biology to geology to physics, Lombroso’s is no longer considered valid. On the other hand, the questions Lombroso sought to answer—and those which arose from his studies—remain very modern concerns. As Tolstoy wrote in Resurrection in 1899:


‘He also