August 19, 2014

Are You an Expert? How Writing Changes Our Brain

Fingers on a piano with text: What Makes an Expert?

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?

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What do you think?

34 Comments on "Are You an Expert? How Writing Changes Our Brain"

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Experience is certainly where my HTML and CSS expertise comes from. I can look at a glitching website and guess what needs repair because I’ve made all the mistakes. More than once. Inner box wider than a larger one? Positioning conflicts? Omission of a semicolon and/or closing bracket? Accidental deletion of the closing HTML tag? Have done it, have seen the results, and therefore can recognize what’s likely going on when I see it elsewhere.

Back before I’d ever tried to read GRRM, two friends (independently, but in the same month) asked me to read A Game of Thrones, because they wanted my opinion.

One started trying to describe something that seemed to bother her about them, and from what she was saying and how she phrased it, I asked, “The characters seem to act OOC, more for plot reasons than for their own reasons?”

“Yes! That’s it!” she answered. And then she was all bewildered about how I figured out what she was trying to say, and I haven’t even read the books. As I pointed out then, I just happen to have a lot of experience connecting impressions at different levels to their core problems.

Even as a writer, I’m getting faster at identifying the differences among “I need to sit down and muscle through this” writer’s block, and “I’m afraid of finishing this” writer’s block, and “I screwed something up” writer’s block. I look forward to the day when that transition—from block to tackling it—is more automatic.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Hi there!
I haven’t heard of these ‘expert studies’ before, but I love the idea. I also agree with the layered writer aspect. I feel like I’m layered now, after writing so long and attending classes and conferences, submitting, getting rejected, and being given reasons for those rejections.
When I first started reading this post I worried, however, that I’m not practiced enough to achieve expert status, but when I read further I realized I’m under that umbrella at the very least.
I just need more practice…write, write, write 🙂
Have a great afternoon,

Deborah Makarios

I’m under the umbrella too! Although I still get drips down my neck sometimes 🙂


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Julie Musil

This is fascinating! I must admit, I do know much more now than I did a few years ago. Even when I’m writing a first draft, I’m able to avoid some of my earlier mistakes–info dumping etc. Or I can at least recognize them and put notes to myself in parentheses. Like (this sucks. rewrite in draft 2)

Yes, I write notes to myself in draft 1. What a weirdo!

Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle)

Julie, you’re not weird at all, or if you are, so am I. I also write notes to myself during the first draft. I know if I’m rushing, or not filling in the emotions, but I’m writing too fast to fix them because I want to the the story written. Once that’s finished I go back to all the problem areas and take my time to make things clearer, or delete something off tangent, or fill in foreshadowing.


Agreed that you aren’t weird. I’m an edit/revise-as-I-go type of writer, and I’ll still have details or things or spots where I leave notes to myself, because I judge it more efficient to worry about later.

A tip, though: Put notes in square brackets [ ]. They are so rarely used in fiction that it’s easy to find your notes that way. 😀

Marcy Kennedy

I think this also explains why many people who are excellent at something can’t teach others how to do it. Their brains excel so much at skipping steps that they don’t even realize other people can’t make those leaps. Teachers have to be able to set aside what they know and try to look at what they’re teaching from the perspective of someone who is new to it. Doing that isn’t a skill every has or can master.

Sharla Rae

Many problems I found in the day’s writing get solved in that short twilight time before sleep when the subconscious relaxes. I keep post a notes on the bedside table for this reason. Now that’s weird.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Lol “This is Your Brain on Writing”—nice reference to the This is Your Brain on Music book. FOR ONCE, a reference that I got! Anyway…. Oh yeah, I remember the studies about the chess masters, and yup they remember meaningful (not arbitrary) patterns that help them become experts at chess. 😀 Visual-processing versus verbal-processing? I’m a bit confused when thinking about how I do this during “brainstorming”, because I do visualize scenes, I don’t start the verbal narration, I think, but the DIALOGUE comes out automatically. Um…does automatic dialogue count as verbal-processing? ^_^” However, I’ve only been doing brainstorming for my Chinese novel recently, so it might be harder for me to have a clear narrative voice with a second language that I have so little experience in, haha. But even for my English story brainstorming, IF I REMEMBER CORRECTLY, I also visualize the scenes, don’t start narrating verbally, but again the dialogues come out by themselves even while I’m brainstorming. The dialogue automaticity can be so ridiculous that I would think I was brainstorming, but it turns out I’m already writing the actual scene because the line by line dialogue took over…(Or my characters’ voices took over. XD) Erm, so maybe I don’t have an internalized narrative voice, but I have very internalized characters’ voices? Lol. It’s true that I care more about and pay more attention to my characters’ voices than my third person narrator’s voice, though. By the way, to clarify what I mean by “brainstorming” nowadays,… Read more »
Tahlia Newland

Practice makes perfect is an old saying that’s relevant here. When I started writing and studying writing seriously back in 2008, I never imagined that I would one day be editing books for others, but the point came, after publishing 5 novels, when I realised that I had an ‘ear’ for hearing where and how prose could be improved. In this one area at least, I’ve become a kind of ‘expert’ . I did an editing qualification, but I realised when doing it that my skill in line-editing is really something that has developed intuitively from all the reading, writing and studying I’ve been doing, but out of those three, the actual writing had the most affect. In studies of meditators, scientists discovered that something changed significantly in the brain after 100,000 hours. I’ve well and truly done that in writing.

Tam Francis

This works for anything. My husband and I teach swing dancing and anyone can LEARN the steps, but I have to say, not everyone will be amazing. They may get to be a technical expert, but when talent and hard work are combined, the person without the natural talent is left behind.

At least with dance and sports. I would guess the same applies to writing. But what is talent or aptitude? A subject for another post?

Conversely, I’ve seen those with “talent” stagnate and fall behind because they don’t put in the hours.

I’m pretty sure this applies to writing as well. It’s interesting food for thought anyway.

By this assessment, I’m not quite an expert writer, but not a novice, either. YAY! Now, whether I have natural talent that I’m building on, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

~ Tam Francis ~


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Interesting post! In the last chapter I wrote, I found several typos of Road/Rode” which struck me as very strange. But maybe it was a good sign and not a bad one.

Thanks for the great Blog!!