What Brain Science Says about Becoming a Better Professional Writer


This piece on professional writing is in anticipation of our upcoming John Wiley & Sons sponsored ACA presentation on April 1 in Montreal titled: Writing for Publication: Insights and Strategies

The “Decade of the Brain” started way back in 1990. It’s been over for more than 15 years. So you would think everyone could get over it and move on. But obviously that’s not how things pertaining to the brain work. Too many neuroscientists, journalists, and other people are happily riding along on the brain science bandwagon to just let it go. Most things would be perfectly satisfied with their own decade and the attention that goes with that, but the brain is a selfish organ and obviously interested in hogging all the decades. And so the brain discoveries just keep rolling in and eager journalists keep on writing and talking about the brain, which is why the popularity of neuroscience is now officially off the map. Neuroscience’s reach has far exceeded its grasp, but such is the nature of popular things. Just think about bell-bottoms.

We still know very little about the brain. That’s partly why neuroscience excites people. The excitement is more related to our collective brains collective imagination of what neuroscience might be than neuroscience reality. This has turned neuroscience into a projective test (think of the Rorschach Inkblots). There’s some vague information or structure out there and so everyone takes some of it in, blends it with their unique personality and past experiences, and then projects hypothetical possibilities about brain science onto the blank canvass of reality. Then voila, people start talking about ridiculous things like male brains and female brains and teen brains.

I say all this as a balancing introduction that will help me not sound completely trite and ridiculous when I write,

Coming up next: What brain science says about how you can become a better writer.

Let’s pause and self-reflect here. This statement is both bad writing and bad science. It’s bad writing because I’ve transformed (through grammatical magic) the inanimate field of brain science into an entity that has something to say. It’s bad science because the first rule of becoming a better writer, although supported by neuroscience, is such numbingly basic common sense that it’s inappropriate to gift it the charade of scientific authority.

Put another way, brain science can’t talk; people talk. But if brain science could talk, and you asked it, “What can I do to become a better writer?” it would likely respond with something like:

The first rule to good writing is WRITER’S WRITE. This is what literary and professional writers have said over and over for centuries and you didn’t need me, brain science, to tell you something you already knew. (see also: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2013/09/04/professional-writing-for-us-professionals-who-may-not-quite-be-writers-yet/)

If there’s one thing we know from brain science (and common sense), it’s that practice leads to improvement. Neuroscientists might say it this way, “Your behavior directly influences your brain structure and chemistry; when you repeatedly practice something, you’re actually creating specific neurons and neural pathways to make that something easier.” Common sense (if it could talk) might say, “Repeated practice generally leads to skill development.” Speaking (apparently) on behalf of common sense, the renowned science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote:

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

The take home message here is simple. If your goal is writing success, then you must make time to write.

There is, of course, a caveat to this general brain-based common sense rule. Yes, practice leads to improvement, but there are always exceptions.

Sometimes, even when you practice with great effort, consistency, and sincerity, you don’t improve much. The good news about this exception is that in the world of writing there are usually fascinating reasons for why diligent writers aren’t improving . . . and I’ll get to that important content at some point in the future. For now, remember this: The first step to becoming a successful professional writer involves taking Bradbury’s advice—which I repeat and elaborate on below:

  • Write every day
  • Read intensely
  • Get feedback
  • Engage in self-editing—produce a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th draft
  • Schedule more time to write
  • Identify your target audience and then learn more about them
  • Deal with multiple distractions
  • Reward yourself
  • Get more feedback so that you can be certain that you’re not rewarding yourself when you should be engaging in more self-reflection and scrutiny
  • Read your 4th draft aloud to yourself, then read it aloud to someone you trust to get even more feedback
  • Find somewhere to submit your precious manuscript
  • Hope for the best, but prepare for rejection
  • When you get your rejection, stay calm and integrate the feedback into your writer-identity
  • Revise your manuscript again, read it aloud again, get feedback again
  • After dealing with your neuroses, improving your manuscript, and gnashing your teeth, find the courage and strength to face your fears and resubmit your precious manuscript to somewhere that will recognize its greatness
  • Hope for the best, but prepare for rejection—again
  • Repetitively do all these things to help your brain structure and chemistry develop itself and you into a better writer who has a better chance of writing success

Before moving on I should say that I realize Bradbury was advising fiction writers and fiction writers fall within the literary writing domain. This is an important distinction. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably busy juggling numerous professional activities. These activities might include a combination of teaching, research, service, attending classes, clinical practice, supervision, and more. Traditionally, writers with literary ambitions only juggle their daily writing and reading with a job delivering pizza or waiting tables. It’s likely that you have a more rigorous and full professional life. This is one good reason why your immediate goal shouldn’t be to publish your first novel or personal memoir. You probably don’t have time for those more ambitious goals; most human services professionals who write novels and memoirs do so during sabbatical or after retirement. For now, our goal for you and your goal for yourself should be to begin taking small steps toward becoming a professional writer. The best-selling novel will have to wait.

John hanging out with Robert Wubbolding

With Wubbolding

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “What Brain Science Says about Becoming a Better Professional Writer”

  1. great timing on this post as I’m bashing my head against the wall of writer’s block. What do you think about compiling a list of strategies people have come up with to jump start their writing?

    1. Hi Shawn.

      I think that’s a great idea. I wrote a little something on writer’s block over the summer. How about I try to find it, post it here, and include a call to anyone who wants to suggest additional ideas? You could post something too and see what you get. Although I don’t typically get lots of comments here, it seems like it’s worth a try.

      Thanks for writing and be careful of your head. Don’t bash it too much:).

      John SF

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s