Never stop learning, because life never stops teaching
1. How can learning about the writing process help us?
If you’re already a writer, you may think that a discussion on writing process doesn’t apply to you. I’ve heard this when talking about the book, The Writer’s Process, to established writers: I already know how to write. I wouldn’t dream of telling you how to write. You are the expert of your own process. Yet even experts can improve through intentional study and practice. What I’ve tried to do in The Writer’s Process is provide cognitive science tools and a structure for looking at your own processes and making sense of what you discover. When you examine what works and what doesn’t with a sense of curiosity and inquiry, you inevitably discover things that you can use to your advantage.
2. How does the knowledge of cognitive science help demystify the process of writing?
Many topics of cognitive science are incredibly relevant to writers, including focus, flow, creativity, and self-discipline. All of these subjects are part of the writer’s inner tool box. Even if we are already expert at wielding them, a better understanding only makes us more proficient.
The true craftsman never stops learning about the tools of the trade. The same is true for writers – only in this case, the tools reside within our heads. Understanding them better offers many benefits, including:
Validation: Sometimes the cognitive science simply validates what we have already observed. For example, when you wake up with a great idea in the early morning, it helps to know that during REM sleep, you brain processes connections from the previous day. You’re not being chased by the writing spirit in your sleep – your brain is simply doing what human brains do.
Incremental optimization: Have you reached peak productivity as a writer? How about peak creativity? Is that even possible? Each of us has room to improve. If a better understanding of the science of self-discipline can help you avoid tempting diversions, then it’s worth pursuing.
Discipline: I’m fairly committed to observing my own best process, yet I am still tempted to skip steps or try to shortcut the work. That rarely works out well.
Studying my processes makes me more disciplined about sticking to them.
Barriers and pitfalls: The underlying cognitive science gives us insight into how to get around mental barriers and blocks. For example, when we get stuck, insight into the stages of the creative process can help us find a path to better ideas.
Here’s an excerpt from The Writer’s Process about one of the most famous writing pitfalls, writer’s block. To put this excerpt in context, I refer to the mental processes associated with subconscious creativity and associative thinking as the Muse, and the hard-working intentional processes as the Scribe.
EXCERPT FROM THE WRITER’S PROCESS
Working Through Writer’s Block
Any discussion of obstacles must address the most famous one of all: writer’s block.
A few authors insist that the phrase is an excuse for laziness. Others confess to struggling with it, even to walking away from their careers for years at a time.
But what do we mean by the term writer’s block? Does it refer to those moments when you have nothing to write about? How about having a topic but not knowing how to start? Being stuck in the middle of a draft?
When we apply basic cognitive science and the seven steps of writing to these problems, we might be able to dig down to underlying causes. Here are a few suggestions for dealing with assorted variations of writer’s block.
If you have nothing to write about or feel depleted of ideas, try the following:
Collect ideas. This is the same strategy that you apply when you have no time: become a collector of ideas. Read and observe. Take notes everywhere you go. Gather thoughts in a journal—not a pour-your-heart-out journal, but a collection of ideas, paragraphs, scenes, and snippets. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson describes how Charles Darwin maintained a “commonplace” journal, a collection of observations and ideas in which he developed the thoughts that later led him to On the Origin of Species.
Write anyway. If you’re drawing a blank or stuck, use freewriting to explore topics you want to learn more about.
Acute writer’s block may be a case of the inner editor nixing every idea before the Scribe can evaluate and develop with it. Use freewriting to shut down that critic and dig deeper for ideas and associations. When you approach the task with a growth mindset, the act of pulling words out of your head may inspire the Muse to contribute ideas.
Filling the Empty Page
Can’t get started on a piece? Facing the empty screen or blank page with a sense of terror?
Follow the seven-step process. The blank page fills some people with dread and stops them in their tracks. This fear may be a signal that you’re trying to start at step four, assembling the first draft, without gathering the ingredients in research or planning the structure. Your brain isn’t ready to work on it yet. Revisit the first three steps of the process: research, incubation, and outlining/structuring. These steps prime the Scribe and Muse to collaborate on the draft.
Start drafting in the middle. The drafting process doesn’t have to follow the linear order of the final result. Many authors only write the introduction once they are well into the development of a piece, when they know how it has unfolded. Start working where you feel confident or have ideas, and skip ahead or backward as needed.
If you’re feeling stuck at a particular point or drawing a blank, consider the following:
Invite open attention. Walk the dog, hop in the shower, or snooze for 20 minutes. Do something that doesn’t require mental focus, so your mind can drift, inviting the mental systems of the Muse to look for connections or solutions.
Sleep on it. Your brain may provide connections overnight that make the work easier the next day.
Change your environment. If you don’t have time to take a walk or wait overnight, try shifting location. Step away from the desk and bring a notebook with you instead of a laptop. Change settings to loosen connections in the brain. The Scribe temporarily retreats and the Muse has a chance to pitch in.
Excerpt from The Writer’s Process © 2017 Anne Janzer
For More Information
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And if you’re having trouble finding time to write, find a short series of videos on barriers to writing on my website here: Videos