When I sit down to work on a day’s worth of writing projects, I often begin with the project that seems as if it will be the most challenging. This might involve writing on an unfamiliar topic, or it might simply require more writing, period. Once I’ve finished that project, I might shift to the one that seems like the second-most challenging—or I might switch gears and go for the project that seems easiest. Shifting back and forth between projects of differing difficulty tends to make a writing day run more smoothly; it establishes a rhythm that helps prevent you from getting burned out before the end of the day. But there’s a deeper mystery here: What happens during the writing process itself?
Even seasoned writers tend to balk at trying to analyze the writing process. While strict organization might work for cleaning your house, doing your taxes, or putting away your clothes, it’s difficult to apply these tidy processes to writing. Writing is the most mysterious of activities: You sit before a blank screen, think of sentences that have never been written before, and type them. Somehow, these sentences add up to a coherent piece of writing. How does that happen? We may not be able to explain away all of the mystery, but we can shed some light on the science behind the mental processes that go into even the simplest, shortest piece of writing.
Why Concentration Matters to Writers
Some people can write only in total silence, while others need to block out distractions with a set of headphones. (If you need some distraction-eliminating noise today, here are some fun playlists to get you started.) Still others thrive creatively in noisy environments. But all of these requirements have something in common. They are different paths to the same goal: total concentration. Unlike many other tasks, writing is something that most people need to focus on to the exclusion of anything else. If you keep getting sidetracked, it can interfere with the quality of your writing or bring your creative flow to a dead stop. Why are distractions so harmful for writers?
- When you write, your mind is working hard to process all of the information that goes into every sentence. If you’re suddenly distracted by unrelated information—whether this involves an unexpected phone call, a brief conversation, or even a few minutes of checking Facebook—it can overwhelm your mind, making it difficult for you to get back on track again.
- Trying to keep up with new information as you get it can actually make it harder for you to process the information you already have. A study done by the University of London found that office workers who were constantly trying to respond to new emails and phone calls throughout the day suffered a loss in focus comparable to going an entire night without sleep. In order to produce quality work, you need to be able to mentally quarantine yourself—temporarily, at least.
Why the Internet is a Double-Edged Sword for Writers
If you’ve ever gotten distracted from a writing project by something you discovered on the internet, it’s no accident: Your mind is actually programmed to look for distractions. If you’re trying to focus very closely on an abstract task such as writing, your mind will automatically begin searching for more immediate things to focus on. This might be a dog barking, your phone buzzing, or even a random memory that suddenly pops into your head. Writing tends to be hard mental work, and your mind instinctively gravitates toward things that are easier to think about.
Here’s the paradox: The human mind, in general, isn’t designed to handle all that many distractions. After all, for most of human history, people lived relatively distraction-free lives. Not until the advent of the information age were humans surrounded by non-stop distractions such as television, telephones, radio, and cable news. Now that almost everybody has access to the internet—most of us carry it around with us, via the mobile devices we keep in our pockets—we have access to a bottomless sea of distractions. Even if you aren’t in front of a computer, you can send somebody a text message, check your email on your mobile device, or track your daily steps on your Apple Watch.
Is this really so bad for writers?
In some ways, it isn’t: Information is now faster and easier to access than ever before. In theory, you could research and write an entire book without going to the library or digging through an archive. If you’re stuck for ideas, you can browse your favorite sites until you stumble on something that piques your interest. But the sheer amount of information available on the internet is also a potential trap. Distractions sap our energy; a study cited in Psychology Today found that office employees may lose more than 2 hours a day to distractions. You could find your curiosity tugging you from one article to the next, from one site to another, until you’ve left your original task—writing—far behind.
What’s the solution?
If you want to avoid distractions while you’re writing, you need to make a conscious choice to do just that. This itself is a mental distraction, so the best strategy to adopt is to limit your own access to as many potential distractions as possible. Turn off your phone, sign out of Facebook, pull down the shades—do whatever you need to do to create a distraction-free environment. If you need to do research online, do it before you start writing. Finally, here’s a trick I sometimes use: find an article or a video you’re really interested in, and tell yourself you can only look at it when you’ve finished the serious writing task you’re working on. On a given afternoon, for instance, my personal rewards might include this classic longform article from 1998 about a teenager who tried to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard, this music video from one of my new favorite bands, or a quick game of speed chess at Lichess.org.
How Self-Editing Can Slow You Down
If you’re anything like me, writing isn’t a nonstop march from the first sentence to the last. It’s more likely that you find yourself glancing back at what you’ve written and jumping back to make a change or two. It’s not at all uncommon for writers to self-edit themselves as they work. This can be good for the final product—after all, it’s rare to produce a perfect piece of writing in one go—but it can also slow you down. The reason is simple: Self-editing is a distraction.
I’ve noticed that if I’m unsatisfied with something I’ve written—such as a paragraph or even a sentence—and I stop and rewrite it until I’m satisfied with it, it can be difficult to get back into the swing of writing. Just as you might lose your train of thought in a conversation when someone else interrupts you, interrupting your own writing can make you forget your destination. Switching from writing to editing means that you’re changing tasks, which gets in the way of the flow of your work. Once you’re ready to switch back, that’s another change your mind needs to adjust to. Even the most minute changes of task can have a cumulative effect on your productivity. The more frequently you switch horses, the longer it takes to ford the river.
Every writer probably has his or her own solution to this problem. My own answer is to go back to the beginning and read through everything I’ve written so far, then start writing again from the point I left off. Sometimes I’ll even delete the last few sentences and rewrite them from scratch to get my writing juices flowing again. The point is to get yourself thinking like a writer again—not an editor.
How Writing Affects Your Brain
We’ve explored the effects of distraction on the writing process, and we’ve hinted at the role that “flow” plays in it. Now it’s time to venture into the most mysterious territory of all: What happens in your brain during the writing process? This isn’t just an academic question; after all, if we understand the basic neuroscience behind writing, there’s the possibility that we might be able to use that knowledge to become better writers.
In 2014, a group of university researchers in Germany conducted several experiments that shed some light on what writing does to the brain. During the experiments, the researchers asked writers of varying levels of experience to write while fMRI scanners took images of their brain activity. The experiments generated these insights:
- Different parts of the brain were active when the writers were engaged in original writing than when they were simply copying down lines. When they were doing their own writing, the scans showed activity in the visual cortex of the brain, which processes visual information.
- When the same experiment was tried with more seasoned writers, the scans revealed that the most active parts of the brain were those involved in speech perception. In other words, the more experienced a writer was, the more likely they were to think in verbal terms, rather than visual terms.
- For the more experienced writers, the scans also showed that the caudate nucleus was activated. This part of the brain deals with procedural memory—that is, learning and remembering complex mental and physical tasks, such as learning to play an instrument or a game.
So, what does this tell us? The evidence suggests that if you write frequently, your brain activity is different than that of people who only write occasionally. This study suggests that writing, in many ways, is a skill much like any other. At the start, you are fully conscious of all the effort you are putting into your writing. As you get better, however, your brain begins to make some choices automatically, just as a skilled basketball player makes split-second decisions on the court. The more experienced you become, the faster the writing process becomes. You aren’t thinking hard about every word you type; instead, your brain is making numerous small decisions in between each of your conscious choices. In short, the harder you’re thinking, the less likely you are to be conscious of your entire thought process.
That’s not to say, however, that our writing isn’t affected by choices that we consciously make. In fact, understanding the mental activity that drives our writing can help us make those choices. Many writers have found that they are most productive—and most satisfied with the outcome of their work—when they are free to think as clearly as possible. That means eliminating distractions, avoiding backtracking and self-editing, and having all the resources they need to work right at their fingertips. If you’re dissatisfied with your current writing process, establishing a better creative environment for yourself may be just what you need to let your brain do its best work.