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Writing Tips for the Gifted Student

Updated: Jan 12, 2019

By Will Fitzhugh.

First published in Education News ( 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 came across a tramp and a woman, both of whom repelled him by their half-witted insensibility and seeming cruelty, but even in them he failed to see the criminal type as described by the Italian school of criminology….’

He bought the works of Lombroso, Garofalo, Ferri, Liszt, Maudsley, and Tarde, and read them carefully. But as he read, he became more and more disappointed…He was asking a very simple thing: Why and by what right does one class of people lock up, torture, exile, flog, and kill other people when they themselves are no better than those whom they torture, flog, and kill? And for answer he got arguments as to whether human beings were possessed of free will or not. Could criminal propensities be detected by measuring the skull, and so on? What part does heredity play in crime? Is there such a thing as congenital depravity?

It is a hundred years since Tolstoy’s hero posed these questions, a hundred years in which we have sought ways to use science to identify criminals and prevent crime. Our understanding of science has dramatically increased and Lombroso’s fame has largely died, but answers to these questions remain just as pressing. (endnote citations removed—Ed.)

In my view, the chances of getting a student to write to a history/story/analysis like this, by starting with the mechanics of the well-written essay, are slim to less than slim. I can’t see any historian beginning any history with a study or review of the techniques of the properly-constructed history book.

This is not to throw out those babies of some instructional value with all the bathwater of pedagogical technique. Of course it is important for students to have an outline, take notes in their readings, construct their endnotes and bibliographies in the accepted (Chicago) manner, and so on.

It is my contention that, in order to inspire students to do the hard work of research and writing necessary to produce a good, scholarly, readable history paper, one should start by encouraging them to read history, perhaps starting with some of the better work of others their age who have written successful history papers already.

Too often, it seems to me, the step of having students read history to find out how interesting it can be, and the next step of having them read about a topic in history on which they think they might want to write a paper are the most important ones.

After the motivation to read and report on some historical topic is in place, and a strong first draft is written, then the gods of Rhetorical Correctness can descend and do their duties. But it is not possible to repair a paper written with little research and no enthusiasm, using writing pedagogy alone.

I once talked to a Teachers College expert on reading and writing about the importance of content (knowledge, subject matter, et al) in writing, and she, who had been called, in a national publication, “The Queen of Reading and Writing,” said to me: “I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much.” Here beginneth the death of academic expository writing in the schools.

Educators in the United States talk a lot about “critical thinking,” but I, along with others, believe it is easier to learn and practice thinking of any sort if there is something to think about. If the student has almost no knowledge, then they have almost nothing to think about. When it comes to writing a research paper, if the students has learned a lot about their subject, then when they see whether they have done a good job of presenting what they have learned, that will inspire them to think more about it, and to re-write their paper so it does the job they wanted to do better.

Another difficulty in the United States is that reading and writing in the schools is almost universally in the hands of the English Department, and that means the reading will be fiction and the writing will be personal, creative, or the five-paragraph essay. This set of practices tends to shrink the educators’ vision of the capacities of high school students, so when they see the sort of writing in the following excerpt (from a 7,900-word paper by a New York tenth-grader who later graduated from Harvard and Cambridge), they regard it as the work of some freak and decide it surely has no bearing on the level of expectations in writing they have for their own students:

Keynes also discusses in The General Theory the danger of excessive saving (which he had emphasized earlier in his Treatise on Money). If an individual saves a greater amount than can be invested by businesses, he or she is failing to return income to the community and the result will be a contraction of the incomes even further. Because of the marginal propensity to consume, everyone else’s savings will also contract. The result will not even be a gain in total savings. Because savings and investment are carried out by different groups in our society, it is often possible that individuals will save more than can be invested. Therefore, thriftiness could lead to a decline in total savings.

The discussions in The General Theory of the marginal propensity to consume, the multiplier, and savings all point to the fact that investment must be increased to increase income and employment. According to Keynes, investment is determined by two considerations—the expected yield of the investment and the rate of interest on the money borrowed for the investment. Economists before Keynes (and also Keynes in his Treatise on Money) believed that excess savings will bring down interest and encourage investment. But Keynes makes the crucial observation that a shortage in investment will cause a decrease in income and, because of marginal propensity to consume, a decrease in savings, which will raise interest rates and further discourage investment. If there is insufficient investment, people will not be able to save as much as they had in the past; in fact, they will begin to use up their past savings. Because of this, even before The General Theory, Keynes advocated the reduction of interest rates by the government to both reduce savings and raise investment. But for Keynes, in The General Theory, even that reduction of interest rates would not be enough to reduce savings or stimulate investment sufficiently. According to Keynes, if certain conditions exist, especially in a depression, a reduction in interest will have little effect on savings. If there was a rise in liquidity preference (people’s desire for cash), such as might be brought about by falling prices, savings would not be reduced no matter how low the interest was. And decreased interest rates would not have a great effect on investment because of the second consideration that affects investment—expectation. The expected yield of the investment is extremely unpredictable. Keynes said of the factors that influence output and employment, “of these several factors it is those which determine the rate of investment which are most unreliable, since it is they which are influenced by our views of the future about which we know so little.” Keynes’s conclusions that neither interest rates nor expected proceeds could sufficiently encourage investment led him to his final conclusion that unemployment could exist at equilibrium—unemployment would not fix itself, and government intervention was necessary to increase employment.

In The General Theory, Keynes contrasts his main arguments with the traditionally held “classical” beliefs. The General Theory is filled with passages in which Keynes shows the inadequacies of what he calls the “postulates of the classical theory.” According to Keynes, “the classical economists” is a name traditionally given to Ricardo, James Mill, and economists before them. Keynes, however, says that he has also come to call more recent economists who “adopted and perfected the theory of Ricardian economics” classical. These economists include John Stuart Mill, and closer to Keynes’s time, Alfred Marshall and Arthur Pigou. Unlike some heretical economists of the past, Keynes had been brought up on classical ideas and had, in fact, remained consistent with them in most of his writings before The General Theory. Keynes’s father, John Neville Keynes, was a noted economist at Cambridge University. And when Keynes attended King’s College at Cambridge, he was a student of Marshall and Pigou, whom Keynes included in his definition of classical economists. Thus Keynes was doubtless taught classical theory from his childhood through the time that he was a student… (endnote citations removed—Ed.)

It should be said again that these are quite brief excerpts from history papers of 6,000 to almost 8,000 words by students in the ninth and tenth grades. I have published 791 (1,000) such papers by high school students from 35 (39) countries in the last 20 (25) years, and these students have greatly exceeded the expectations I started with in 1987. However, if I had decided to publish the standard five-paragraph essays or the short little “college essays” required by college admissions officers, naturally I would never have discovered what high school students could do.

Which leads me to state another caution when dealing with gifted students. It is important not to try to decide in advance what they are capable of doing. If, in the case of history research papers at the high school level, the choice of topic is left up to the student and there is no specified length, the result will be, in my experience, a huge variety of interesting and serious historical topics, and the longest paper I have published, by a twelfth-grader in this case, was a bit over 22,000 words.

Educators who are accustomed to defining assignments in advance might want to consider my experience, especially when suggesting work for gifted students. Of course, 22,000-word papers take much longer for the teacher to read and comment on, but we might want to make assignments that test the academic efforts and capacities of students rather than choosing them for their demands on us.

Another thing to keep in mind about these gifted students, while we wonder how much to teach them about outlining, note-taking, endnotes and bibliography, is that these are the same students who are taking honors physics and chemistry and preparing for Calculus BC exams. They are not stupid, and they can pick up what they need to know about endnotes et al, in a few moments, especially if they have models in front of them.

They do not need a semester of Writing Techniques Instruction before they pick a topic and start reading about it. We must remind ourselves not to load them up with our own limitations. In addition, they are quite capable of asking questions to find out what they need to do when presenting a research paper. They have been doing that (asking questions), often to the irritation of the adults around them, since they were little kids, after all.

It is also important, at least when working with gifted high school students doing history research papers, to stay out of their way.


Will Fitzhugh has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard, taught for ten years at the public high school in Concord, Massachusetts, and founded The Concord Review in 1987. This unique journal has now published 1,022 exemplary history research papers by secondary students from 46 states and 38 other countries.

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