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Want to improve your ability to put words on the page or screen? Pay attention to the neuroscience of writing….
Most of us like to think of ourselves as independent and full to the brim with self-will. But, in fact, many of us are directed by the chemistry of and structures inside our brains. We just don’t realize it.
In the last 20 years, neuroscientists and psychologists have made a host of discoveries about:
- dopamine (the ‘habit former’)
- oxytocin (the ‘love drug’)
- serotonin (the leadership hormone), and
- endorphins (natural painkillers)
All of these chemicals affect our physical, mental and emotional selves every day. You can channel them for good or for ill and I suggest you use them to boost your own motivation for writing.
Here are 15 ways to use the neuroscience of writing to help:
1-Embrace the concept of having a growth mind-set. Writing well is more about determination and hard work than anything else. Researcher Carol Dweck has shown that a “growth mindset” predicts success far more reliably than talent. As well, if you do more of something you’ll inevitably get better at it. (You can even take a free Coursera course on the growth mindset here.)
2-Make writing something you want to do. Most of us think of writing as something we should do. But with this kind of attitude, we’re effectively reminding ourselves about how tough the writing process can be – which only makes us less likely to do it. Neuroscientists know that creating positive visions of the future will release dopamine into our brain making us feel happier and therefore, more motivated. So, begin with some mindmapping using the following questions:
- How will finishing your writing project make you feel better?
- What are the benefits you will gain from finishing this piece of writing?
- What else will you be able to do after finishing this piece of writing?
3-Identify your best writing time. Everybody has a specific time during the day where their brain works at its best so be sure to save some of that time for writing. For the majority of people this time will be early in the day — a time when many of us are checking email or reading news sites. Stop spending your most valuable time on others and, instead, reserve it for your own writing.
4-Schedule yourself in advance. I had heard advice about time blocking for more than a decade and always discounted it, figuring that my crazy schedule — filled with meetings and phone calls — would never allow me to be so organized. Silly me. Time blocking works like a charm. I’ve written an entire blog post about it (which includes a form you can download at no charge.) Time-blocking will help you accomplish many positive things: It will stop you from trying to do too much, it will make you hyper-aware of your most productive times and it will give you a strong sense of urgency. When I adopted time-blocking about five years ago, I more than doubled my own writing productivity.
5-Start small. You may think it’s smart to set big, compelling “stretch” goals, but the evidence suggests you’re far more likely to succeed if you start small. Neuroscientists say that when we take on a task that’s too ambitious we’re more likely to trigger our brain’s fear centre (the amygdala). The outcome? We feel overwhelmed and, as a result, we tend to procrastinate and delay. But when we start small – not thinking about the writing project as a whole but just the next paragraph – we can avoid those feelings of fear. I usually suggest that beginning writers start with no more than five to 15 minutes of writing a day. And when they tell me that’s not nearly enough, I remind them that writing just 200 words a day will add up to 73,000 words in a year.
6-Keep your expectations low. You’ll experience a surge of dopamine when there’s a big difference between your low expectations and the actual outcome of your efforts. Even when you want to do something difficult and therefore need to set a high goal, it’s possible to keep your expectations low, by reminding yourself that you might not be able to achieve it. Keep your expectations low so that you’ll always remain happy.
7-Congratulate yourself on small wins. The frequency of success matters more than the size of it, so don’t wait until the big wins to congratulate yourself. This concept is especially important for anyone working on a very big project like a book (usually 70,000 to 80,000 words) or a dissertation (sometimes, 100,000 words+). The payoff — finishing the project and holding the finished work in your hands — may be years away. Find and celebrate smaller wins – finishing a chapter, perhaps. Or even writing for 10 days in a row.
8-Exercise your brain. Most of us are familiar with the concept of exercising our bodies but the idea of exercising our brains is likely to feel a bit strange. But don’t let discomfort put you off. It’s especially important to target areas of your brain that you use less frequently. Good suggestions for stretching your brain muscles include learning to speak a new language (I’m on day 1,637 of DuoLingo for French), learning to play a new musical instrument, or learning algebra. Sometimes your brain may feel as though it’s “hurting” (in the same way your body’s muscles hurt after a lot of squats) but it’s a good hurt, that will make your brain stronger — and better able to adjust to the challenges of writing.
9-Get regular exercise. Doctors and physiotherapists will frequently tell us to get more exercise. But I’m a writing coach and I offer exactly the same prescription. Moving the big muscles of your body will help you become a better writer. When we move, our heart rate increases, and oxygen is pumped into our brains at a much faster rate. As a result, new brain cells develop more quickly. And the more brain cells we create, the easier it is for cells to communicate with one another, developing new neural pathways.
10-Improve your posture. Did you know that the chronic position, sometimes known as the iPosture (you use it when you’re hunched over your phone) makes you a worse writer by causing you pain, reducing the oxygen to your lungs and making you feel tired? Check your posture every hour or so to make sure it’s optimal and consider bringing smaller devices closer to your face when using them – so you don’t have to look downward
11-Get enough sleep. Roughly 33% of Americans get fewer than seven hours a night which is widely regarded by doctors and scientists as the bare minimum. (And some people require more than that. As much as 10 hours a night.) Why is sleep so important? It helps the brain clear waste. Research in 2013, by Maiken Nedergaard at the University of Rochester’s Center for Translational Neuromedicine found that deep sleep opens “hidden caves” in our brains. This liquid cleaning system allows neurotoxins to be pushed through the spinal column leading to improved health, creativity and memory.
12-Reward yourself. Many people forget to reward themselves for the work that they do. If I received a payment of $5 for every client who was astonished when I suggested they reward themselves for a modest writing achievement, I’d be a wealthy woman. Identify some small, inexpensive rewards you can give yourself for doing the work every day. It might be as simple as a specialty coffee or 30 minutes watching YouTube or Netflix.
13-Make sure your environment meets your needs. Have a place to write that works for you with light, colours and objects that please your eyes. And recognize that sometimes a change of setting is a really good idea. I like writing in a coffee shop from time to time, or even perching on a chair on my back deck (as long as it isn’t raining.)
14-If you get stuck, go do something else. We all get stuck from time to time. Instead of trying to stare your computer screen into submission, give up and go for a walk. Or work on another project. Or go for coffee with a friend. This change of scenery should help unblock the paths that are currently preventing you from making progress. Doing something else is not a sign of failure. And anytime you suspect that it might be, remind yourself of the conclusion of neuroscientists Marcel Kinsbourne and Daniel Dennett: “The reason any problem is hard is because there’s an easy and tempting answer that’s wrong, and getting beyond that seductive error is the hard part.”
15-Find time for fun. All work and no play makes Jack or Jill a dull child. Detaching from writing is not just important for mental health but also for intellectual development. Just as you take breaks when doing physical exercise (and the break time is when your muscle actually grows) so too it’s important to take breaks from writing. The distance from your words is what allows you to come back to them with a fresh perspective.
Don’t fight biology. Adopt the principles of the neuroscience of writing — even ones that sound slightly off topic. They are likely to make writing easier and more successful for you.
Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
Have you ever been paralyzed by fear of writing? Don’t let this nasty psychological barrier make your life miserable or cost you missed income. I’ve developed an affordable 18-video series that will help you banish the fear. Plus you’ll get membership to an online group of others facing the same challenge. Have a look at it here.
My video podcast last week addressed when you might need to get special permission for material you’re including in your book. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
Have you ever used the neuroscience of writing to make yourself a better writer? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to José Luis Cruz, the winner of this month’s book prize, for an April 18/22 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, José!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!