An interesting article recently discussed research on the brains of writers. Specifically, the research studied what sections of the brain “lit up” in an fMRI (functional MRI) scan during various phases of writing, like brainstorming and drafting.
One important finding seemed to match research in other areas, namely that experienced people think differently from those just learning the ropes. Being an expert isn’t just about knowing more.
What Is an Expert?
An expert knows more than novices obviously, but they do more than simply apply the information they know. They also change their thought processes. They’re able to skip whole steps of thinking about their task (on a conscious level) so they work more efficiently.
This lack of conscious effort makes their process look so natural that we might think they have a special talent. However, study after study has revealed that these experts have no greater speed, intelligence, memory, etc. Instead, they’d gained their efficiency through extensive practice.
The doctor behind the research on writers’ brains had previously studied other creative types, like musicians and singers, and I’ve heard of similar studies involving chess players and scientists. In other words, those willing to put in the practice time can become an expert. *smile*
What Efficiency Looks Like: Chess Masters
In the studies of chess masters, the differences between experts and novices came down to their experiences—but not experiences regarding potential moves. Rather, the experts’ experiences helped them recognize complex patterns.
These patterns allow chess masters to “simply know” that certain board configurations should be played a certain way. Without that recognition, a chess novice has to take the time to think through potential moves on each turn. Furthermore, those patterns make it easier for chess masters to learn new information, as they’re not starting from scratch each time.
Our brains love to be efficient (some might say lazy), and pattern recognition is a huge part of most tasks. Memorizing 50 random numbers is near impossible. Memorizing a 50-number pattern (2, 4, 6, 8…) is easy. One takes up 50 “bits” of our memory while the other takes up one “bit”—that’s efficiency.
With practice, typing progresses from hunt-and-peck methods to automatic “muscle memory” movements. The same conscious-concentration-to-automatic-processes happens for mental tasks as well.
One Way Writers’ Brains Change with Practice
In the study from the article, the brains of novice writers focused on “visual processing” during a brainstorming session—such as what we might expect if we were visualizing a scene. In contrast, the brains of experienced writers also activated speech centers during brainstorming—as though they were not only picturing a scene but also internally narrating, or starting the process of putting the scene into words.
I suspect this change occurs as more of the writing process moves to the automatic or subconscious level. Experienced writers who have developed their voice have patterns of sentence construction, vocabulary choices, or voice-specific concepts to draw from when translating ideas into words. Thus, the words bubble up without effort as our brain supplies the internal narration to go with the scene.
(Note: That doesn’t mean the automatic words will be great. We might, in fact, use too many pet phrases during drafting, but no one ever said our rough draft would be our best draft. *smile*)
Brainstorming and Drafting as a Layered Process
On Facebook, Jennifer Holm started a conversation about the article, and several of us shared our experiences:
Jennifer Holm: “I still see the scene in my head as well, but there’s a layer of the written word, and I hear the words as well. It’s kind of a funky, weird experience, but I like it.”
Sheabody Butter: “I let my subconscious mind do all the thinking, so that when I write, I’m just going through the motion of typing.”
Jami Gold (me): “I used to just see the movie in my head, but now I think of the words themselves too.”
April Bradley: “It’s a layered thing for me. The voice and words are definitely there but so are the scenes. Visually, it’s like building and tearing down the world as you inhabit it. It’s fluid and non-intrusive to an on-going narrative.”
Those all sound fairly alike. Experienced writers think in layers of scenes and words. I sometimes joke that I know when I’m ready to start writing a new story because I can’t hold all the half-drafted scenes in my head anymore. *smile*
The experiences of those who fast draft (including me) usually point to fast drafting as a good way to force our subconscious to take over. We can get into a writing zone where we’re listening only to that internal narration and not to our conscious thoughts of what we think should go on the page. Once we reach this stage, it’s easy to understand why the ancients believed in the voice of a muse, as for some writers, it can literally feel like taking dictation.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed one style of typo increasing with my internal narration method. Now that I draft by listening to an internal voice (rather than just looking around a scene in my head), I’m more often mis-typing “sound-alike” words: shoe, threw, etc. I usually realize the mistake right away, but apparently I don’t listen to myself very well. *snicker*
Other Patterns Writers Might Recognize
In a way, the struggles we sometimes face when starting a new story might come down to needing to wait for patterns to develop. If we don’t know our characters very well, we might have to figure out what they’d do rather than just know based on their previous behavior.
Some of us might experiment with different drafting techniques until one feels like it could become automatic. For me, I can write by the seat of my pants because I’ve internalized patterns of story structure. I recognize what should happen in a story and when, and I know the elements that create an arc.
Our knowledge and experience might combine to form patterns of reasoning, allowing us to see ways of twisting a story to force a plot event, methods of showing characters’ vulnerabilities, or approaches for adding layers. We might evaluate patterns for knowing how to tie subplots to our main plot or identifying the best scene for kicking off our story. Or maybe we analyze patterns during editing for tightening our writing, eliminating passive phrases, or reducing word count.
Will we be perfect and never stumble over these elements again? Of course not. But the more practice we have with writing, the more likely our brain will recognize those patterns. At that point, our instincts or subconscious will often take over, handling the details behind the curtain.
For example, my brain recognizes patterns of dangling modifiers and other grammar no-no’s, so I tend not to write them, even in a rough draft. Others might automatically avoid “telling” sentences or pointless scenes. Any amount of writing craft our brain can handle without conscious attention leaves more brainpower to focus on what really matters: telling good stories. *smile*
Have you heard of any of these “expert studies” before? Has your focus or methods for writing changed with experience? What elements of writing have become automatic for you? Does that cause any problems (more pet phrases, typos, etc.)? What patterns do you think writers can recognize with practice?Pin It