Research Shows Writing Is Brain Intensive (Duh!): Is A Unique Writing Environment The Key To Getting Faster?
As writers are fond of telling everybody (friends, family, strangers in the checkout line), writing is hard. Really hard.
A certified, card-carrying “slow” writer, I wondered why Stephen King could dash off a novel in about the same time it takes me to noodle my way through a headline.
In Michael Agger’s “How to Be a Faster Writer” article on Slate, he plunders The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (by Ronald Kellog) for writing tips like these:
The scientifically-tested fun facts abound. Ann Chenoweth and John Hayes (2001) found that sentences are generated in a burst-pause-evaluate, burst-pause-evaluate pattern, with more experienced writers producing longer word bursts. A curly-haired girl on a white porch swing on a hot summer day will be more likely to remember what you’ve written if you employ concrete language—so says a 1995 study. S. K. Perry reports that the promise of money has a way of stimulating writerly “flow.” Amazing! One also finds dreadful confirmation of one’s worst habits: “Binge writing—hypomanic, euphoric marathon sessions to meet unrealistic deadlines—is generally counterproductive and potentially a source of depression and blocking,” sums up the work of Robert Boice. One strategy: Try to limit your working hours, write at a set time each day, and try your best not to emotionally flip out or check email every 20 seconds. This is called “engineering” your environment. [ED: More on this last strategy soon]
Kellogg is always careful to emphasize the extreme cognitive demands of writing, which is very flattering. “Serious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task,” he declares. It requires the same kind of mental effort as a high-level chess match or an expert musical performance. We are all aspiring Mozarts indeed. So what’s holding us back? How does one write faster? Kellogg terms the highest level of writing as “knowledge-crafting.” In that state, the writer’s brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and — most crucially — theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what’s being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience.
OK, so memory plays a role; those with better memories would presumably consume fewer brain cells finding information in the midst of writing.
Frankly, in my case, that explains a lot.
And despairingly, we’re told writers are potentially depressed jugglers who have chosen a profession which makes “extreme cognitive demands.”
That’s maybe not the best news of the week, but it leaves us with this: how do you get faster?
Since writing is such a cognitively intense task, the key to becoming faster is to develop strategies to make writing literally less mind-blowing. Growing up, we all become speedier writers when our penmanship becomes automatic and we no longer have to think consciously about subject-verb agreement. It’s obviously a huge help to write about a subject you know well. In that case, the writer doesn’t have to keep all of the facts in her working memory, freeing up more attention for planning and composing.
Gee. Write what you know.
We’ve heard that before.
Still, there are nuggets to be gleaned here, one of which involves engineering a specific writing environment, so when it’s time to write, your poor, overworked writer’s brain falls into the right state of mind.
Writers have long tumbled for the “same time, same number of words every day” formula, but those of us using computers — the same people constantly tempted by the Internet — might want to take it a step further.
That’s the thinking of Sci-fi writer John Meany (in a guest post on Charlie Stross’ blog), who suggests creating a unique writing environment on your computer:
From this viewpoint, the most important thing about your chosen writing method – pen and notebook, laptop etc. – is that you are comfortable with it; and I suggest that you use it only for writing. Clearly that’s not mandatory for every writer – diversity is the one consistent theme I’ve got going here – but something has to have such a strong unconscious association to the writing state that its presence acts as a trigger.
It’s no coincidence that writers who use pens or pencils usually have a favorite brand of writing implement and notebook. Listening to a particular type of music works well for most people. (I can write an entire draft listening to the same album over and over, but that’s just me.) Write in a coffee shop or in your private study or (because you have to) on the train – wherever works best for the daily discipline. Stephen King wrote his early books in a laundry room, as I recall.
I’m guessing that most people will use their own laptop. Here’s some advice: have a virtual writing environment that looks totally different from your “normal” working environment. Try using a different colour scheme.
Meany later discloses writing his post in Open Office, but that he writes fiction only in a clean-screen configuration of MS Word (the horror), and to be blunt, I’ve started to see the wisdom.
I’ve long badgered my readers about programmer’s text editors — those marvels of productivity that don’t look or act like word processors, but are nicely suited to the online writer’s craft.
You can quickly alter their appearance, they offer little in the way of formatting options to distract you, yet they’re far more powerful than the “clean-screen” editors which have come into vogue.
While I haven’t gone to the same lengths as Meany, when it’s time to write (both for myself and clients), I dive into similarly configured versions of Emacs or Komodo Edit.
Does that trigger some change in my brain chemistry; a recognition that it’s time to get serious and forget about those irritating client emails?
Perhaps, but even if it doesn’t, I’m perfectly willing to deceive myself.
Whatever keeps me from blowing my mind.
Keep writing (no matter how many neurons you cook), Tom Chandler.