Are You an Expert? How Writing Changes Our Brain
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
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.
Ha! I love it. And can relate, as that applies to many activities and I’ve made many mistakes as well. 😀
Ooo, great example of recognizing the different styles of writer’s block. Yes, the faster we recognize it, the faster we can overcome it and get back to work. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insights and for the comment!
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,
Yes, I’ve followed these brain studies for years (brain function is so interesting to me 🙂 ), and I’d read a paper about the chess master research before, so I loved hearing about the discoveries for writers. We’re each going to have different experiences, so the patterns we learn will probably be unique. My first story was way too long, so I had to learn patterns for editing and tightening that another writer who writes bare wouldn’t need to learn at all.
In other words, we’re each going to become an expert in a different way, so we don’t need to compare our expertise to anyone else’s. 😉 Thanks for the comment!
I’m under the umbrella too! Although I still get drips down my neck sometimes 🙂
LOL! I think we all get those chilly drips sometimes. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!
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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!
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.
I have such a hard time seeing issues once the words are “on paper” that I should really try doing this. 😉 Thanks for sharing your experience with it!
LOL! What a great idea. 🙂 I don’t think it’s weird at all.
Like you, I’m more likely to recognize issues right away now, so that sounds like a good way to keep momentum going but not lose the issue in the overall manuscript. Thanks for sharing!
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. 😀
Good tip! I was wondering about that. 🙂
I find it particularly useful for side details that ultimately have to be accurate to the setting but that don’t really influence the story. For instance, a short story I just released features a mute MC. In one scene, another character had to harvest something else that would be 1. in season at the same time as summer squash, 2. near a particular garden, 3. good for hardiness zone 6. I wanted it to be a tree, but a bush would’ve been fine.
That’s the kind of detail that I’d jot in a note and worry about looking up later, once I stopped hitting a roll on the writing. 🙂
P.S. I ended up picking birch.
Yep, that makes sense. I think I haven’t tried that trick yet because my pantsing means that even the smallest detail might affect the story. At least, that’s what I tell myself. 😉
Ah, but that’s why you just leave the note there until you’re at a break in the writing flow. If the detail will affect the story, writer’s block will likely hit. 😉
Yep, for me, a lot of these details seem like they’d affect things, so I feel compelled to do the research Right. Now. LOL! As you said, I give in to that compulsion, or else writer’s block might hold me back.
Then again, I’m one of those who can’t just move forward from a typo either. I have to go back and fix it immediately. (One of the many reasons Write Or Die isn’t a good fit for me. 🙂 ) So I might just be an extreme linear writer. *shrug* But I’ll definitely keep that tip in mind in case I come across a detail that really doesn’t matter. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
Yes! Teaching is the ability to see these steps and be able to explain them. That skill doesn’t always match with expertise. Great point–thanks for sharing! 🙂
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.
Hardly! 😉 I’ve been known to tell my brain to figure out something as I’m going to bed, hoping my subconscious will supply the answer in the morning. 😀 And I have a light-up pen so I can see what I’m writing on my notepad in the middle of the night. LOL! Thanks for sharing!
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 »
Hi Serena, LOL! I didn’t even catch that reference–I suppose that’s better than “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” 😉 Good question about what elements we might internally narrate. Again, I think we’d all develop our expertise in different ways, so I don’t think there’s a “wrong” way of doing it. That said, like you, dialogue comes through the clearest for me. After that, I think of describing actions, emotions, and thoughts. In other words, I hear the internal narration for the elements that are more character driven, which goes along with our conversations about how our characters lead the way. Other elements, that of less deep POV elements such as settings and the like, are less clear for me. Ha! Love the questioning the logic style of brainstorming. Hopefully that keeps plot holes out of your stories. 🙂 And with my dictation, I often don’t know what the voice/my fingers are going to say until I’m typing the words. LOL! It’s often a total surprise. So I understand that mysterious force, magic, remote–whatever–aspect too. Ooo, totally agree with you on the pantser rant. Listening to our muse is NOT random writing. 😀 Yep, I understand what you mean about deducing our character’s personalities rather than figuring out what they’d do. Sometimes I have to translate our pantser methods to something a little more neutral for my blog posts. 😉 And I absolutely believe that we can get better at listening to our muse/subconscious, and/or that we become… — Read More »
Yeah, it’s really sad that a lot of people believe that listening to voices is a sign of insanity. People are only insane if their voices make them do things that harm themselves and/or others, in my opinion. If the voices help you, then that’s NOT crazy at all! Silly society. XP
“Sometimes I have to translate our pantser methods to something a little more neutral for my blog posts. ;)”
Oh goodness, I hope those plot holes will go away. I can still spot plot holes from time to time, though, sigh. >< Thankfully almost all my plot holes I spotted so far are easy to edit.
LOL! at “silly society.” 🙂
Yay for easy-to-fix-plot holes. *fingers crossed* it stays like that–if there are plot holes at all. 😉 Thanks for the comment!
“Yay for easy-to-fix-plot holes. *fingers crossed* it stays like that–if there are plot holes at all. ”
:O Yay! Yes, fingers crossed. 😀
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.
Interesting about how 100,000 hours marks a change in the brain, but there’s probably a reason we’ve heard that it takes 100,000 words to be a skilled writer too. 🙂 As you said, practice makes a difference. Thanks for the comment!
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 ~
Yay! for not being a novice anymore. LOL! I can only speak for myself, but I know the beginning part of my learning curve felt very steep. Then it reached a point where I wondered if it would ever get better (which is how you know you’re getting closer 😉 ). Until finally, I reached a gradual incline. If we’re lucky, we’ll always learn something new, so the learning curve never goes away entirely. 😀
Interesting question about talent. For writers–as most people have the ability to communicate decently–I suspect “talent” might be less important. Since caveman days, we’ve all been sharing stories, which is far different from the numbers of people learning a certain dance or sport.
That’s not to say that everyone would have an equal ease of storytelling ability. Some people can’t tell a story joke to save their life. LOL! But I do suspect it might be slightly more innate that physical coordination abilities (says the klutz 😉 ). Although I was wondering how mental patterns compared to physical “muscle memory” patterns while I wrote the post, so we were thinking of the same aspects there.
Great question! And obviously that’s all just IMHO, but it’s an interesting topic to think about. Thanks for the comment!
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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!!
I don’t know if it’s a “good” sign or not, but I know mistakes like that are common among experienced writers. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!