The act of penning words is much messier and cognitively intriguing than most people imagine
“A writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”
- Burton Rascoe (1892-1957), American journalist
“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly: sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
- Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), American novelist
My love of language has led me to write a lot: academic journal articles, chapters in scholarly books, papers in conference proceedings, technical research tomes, reports for governments, this series of blog-like essays I develop and release in Naturally Curious, the occasional newspaper piece, and books at the intersection of science, social science and psychology. People who don’t write, or don’t write much, I imagine, have a view on how this is accomplished. The standard model, I’d hazard a guess, is that there’s a rational chain of logic in the writing process. Authors have ideas, think them as words, type these into phrases, sentences and paragraphs, edit and polish the prose, then send the end result in for publication.
Well, this might be the popular view in broad outline, but I’d like to make the case that it’s palpably, definitively, not as simple as that. In fact, that account is misleading. At least, for me, in describing my modus operandi.
For one, it’s hard for me to fathom where my ideas originate in the first place, and then there’s the question of where do the words that relate to the ideas come from? And then how do they end up joined together into phrases and sentences?
Take another aspect of the problem: as experience is always richer than the language we have available to craft in order to describe it, what’s the link between good ideas based on that experience in the first place, and getting them out on the page to render a good account? More narrowly, what’s the nexus between thoughts and the words they generate anyway? How are they connected?
Then, there’s the connotations the unique reader take from the words compared to the meaning-making of other readers. That, too, is a more mysterious phenomenon than it appears, but will have to be a story for another day.
I reckon it’ll be useful to have a look at the thoughts-and-ideas-being-somehow-generated-then-transformed-into-text process. Let me take you into my world for a moment, and introduce you to some paragraphs I wrote for this piece in close to real time.
I’m in my early morning café of choice, typing a Proustian stream of consciousness right now. By no means am I capturing everything I’m thinking as I can’t type that fast, but I’m doing my best. I think to myself: I don’t actually know which thoughts I render into words and which miss out; or how my thoughts translate into words and then map to this prose. In any case I often stop and reflect as I am doing this, on things like: is that the right word or even is there a word for that? And I often review what I’ve just written, asking myself: what have I just said? The unseen neurons are firing away inside my head in unknown patterns as this is going on, which is my brain’s way of figuring the answer to these questions, but I rarely consider that it’s thanks to the neurons sparking at the synapses many times each second that I can deliver this contribution.
(Reflecting on this, I admit that I honestly don’t know where the ideas that eventually become the words come from in the first place. And I’m not at all sure anyone else does, either—even though neuroscientists, psycholinguists, linguists, and professors of English, might try and explain the mechanisms. That metaphorical light bulb flashes, or thoughts just appear, somehow—despite it feeling as if I consciously produce them. Brains storm all the time—at the most unlikely times; and not just mine, of course. As Agatha Christie (1890-1976) once said, “The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” For me, I just allocate some writing time in the office or café, open up my device, and start what I’ve come to call thinkwriting. When I am in this mode, I am a kind of self-perpetuating, ideas-generating machine.)
Back to the café. Oh oh. I suddenly realize I am no longer typing directly into my laptop, but writing notes on a coffee-stained serviette for later transcription. I barely skipped a beat to make this transition. This was in recognition that I can write with a pen faster than I can type, at least in the short term, which I call endearingly, my penning-thoughts-furiously-into-words mode. And interestingly, typed words are always rendered in a different style than penned words; typed words are (and look like they are) much more precise—somewhat authoritative. So I get different versions of text depending on the physical medium used to generate it. I always like the words that come from scribbled out serviettes or jottings on odd scraps of paper best of all. They seem fresher, more authentic. That’s rather peculiar, don’t you think?
Mild rising panic now kicks in; maybe I will not capture everything I’m thinking. It subsides slowly. I’ll get what I need, I say to myself. Always have, always do. My self-belief is that I’m a competent agent, in charge of my own emotions and activities—and in control of my writing pace and quality. That’s not true, I argue to myself. You really are defensive sometimes, I think back, critiquing myself. I think: just who am I arguing with, inside my head? Shouldn’t I be wordsmithing?
Then I reflect: am I crazy, arguing with myself, and writing about it, for people to read? My academic colleagues, many of whom are more private than me, would caution me on this, I imagine. It occurs to me that if I am a touch crazy, hopefully readers will think “okay, maybe that is crazy, but in a sane sort of way”? (That last sentence should be read with a rising diphthong at the end, as a question.)
Straight away, for some reason, I’m back to typing my ideas on my laptop. And leaving the me-fighting-with-me behind. But hang on I say again—to myself—what does it even mean that I am debating with myself. I’m the same person, aren’t I? So how can I have a dialogue with me when “we” are one and the same? Talk about imponderables.
So how did I write all that stream of consciousness? How do I write academic papers or a book, or anything, I muse?
Daybreak (even pre-daybreak) is when my brain works best, so it’s a time I really like to write. Because of the levels of concentration involved when I get into the zone, my attention on other things is crowded out. All else that I could be focused on, and there is an enormous range of possibilities, is in the background as I attend to the specifics of thinking and writing, whatever the topic is that I am thinking and writing about in that moment. So the things I compose could be different if I did it half an hour later and the weather changed, or my mood altered, or I just raised my head and shifted my gaze over to someone attractive in the corner, or if I looked out of the café’s window on to the world passing by at that particular moment. The prose would change, as would the tenor and content of my writing. I feel that, I know that, deep-down.
Where’s the coherence in the end result that I produce, then? It sounds random—my words will depend on external stimuli, or whether or not I look in a certain direction? Or my feelings in the moment? That’s sounds more than random—it’s virtually arbitrary. So how come writing works? How come I end up with something relatively comprehensive, even coherent? Something people think: “he meant to write that.”
My mind shifts gears. I go off on a tangent, and snap somehow into thinking about gaps. I like that word, I say to myself in response: snap. And the other word: gap. Snap is onomatopoeic, sounding like the word it describes. In fact, snapping back and forth is a good descriptor for what’s been happening as I write out my thoughts. Although on the one hand, at times I feel in control, at other times when the ideas, impressions and emotions tumble, pulse (as in impulsively), and zig and zag, to and fro. This is a kind of thinkwriting that’s iteratively reverberating. I just made that phrase up and immediately do a double-take. What is that all about? Iteratively reverberating—sounds terribly pompous.
I’ve always found it fascinating that there’s far less planning in this writing caper and more just … well, stuff comes out. My technical word for it, borrowed from my academic work in complexity science, is emergent. Then it flits across my mind, will readers think any of this is interesting? Doubtful, I imagine back. But then I think: well, I do hope so.
I go off-piste yet again. The word gap seems to me a little on the onomatopoeic side, too: it’s a gulf, fissure, cleft, chasm. The reason it came to mind seemingly spontaneously is that I’ve co-written a book with my friend and colleague Dr Klay Lamprell on the “gap phenomenon” with the running title: Gaps: The surprising truth hiding in the in-between. The manuscript looks at the story of gaps from the perspective of how we mobilize our mental models and cognitive architectures to detect, perceive, and use gaps as we encounter the world.
There are conceptual gaps, as in the differences between right and left wing politics, distinguishable theories, and distinct ideas people have and hold to. And there are physical gaps, between atoms loosely coming together into a molecule, trees clustering as a forest and stars making up a galaxy. The book argues that an understanding of both conceptual and physical gaps offers great promise in re-energizing how we all think about the world. It says we can each learn more about gaps, and become a gap-thinker. To understand gaps, though, we needed to delve deeply into the nature of gaps themselves and, more broadly, space, the stuff of which physical gaps are made. I joke to people that it is actually a book on nothing at all.
But enough of in-jokes. There may be a tendency to think that gaps are nothing; a kind of vacuum. This would not just be misplaced logic. It would be incredibly wrong. There is no such thing as a vacuum. Even in deep space, there are particles at the quantum level that keep popping in and out of existence. That’s why I was triggered to think about gaps, too: because quantum particles pop in and out of space, just as ideas, thoughts and words pop in and out of minds.
Everyone has triggers for their creativity and curiosity of course. With sufficient time, inclination, and exposure to education anyone can jot down original ideas. In fact, everyone writes original sentences: virtually every sentence anyone ever composed, even in short emails, has never ever appeared before in that configuration.
Talking about creativity and curiosity, my thoughts wander again. I’m working on a new book, about one of the key mechanisms of our brains, so I briefly turn my attention over to thinking about that. It’s about how intuition works. Short version: it just does. We intuit, all of us, just as we think: naturally, easily, readily.
All this writing about whatever comes to mind in some sort of jumble of associations, I know, is my brain zinging around converting electro-chemical signals into ideas and then words. This is the basic fodder for those books and this essay. It’s those synapses firing, converted into the English language. Somehow.
In all of this time during these relatively unstructured thought-meanderings, musings, and recording of my perceptions and thoughts in the café, I didn’t once think consciously about any of this, at least not overtly. I wasn’t doing anything step-by-step, it wasn’t deliberative, like following a recipe or filling in a tax form. Things, stuff, ideas, just came to me.
I type more words, hurriedly, as I am trying to document all these ideas in real time as I undergo this flow-of-mentalese; this autobiographical, memoir-on-the-run form of writing. As I said, most of my work is writing up academic studies or editing my students’ and colleagues’ submissions to me, and my research teams’ contributions. That is not as much fun as this, I muse. Hope if they read this they don’t take offence!
Well it was a blast, putting that down. Once I get an original draft crafted, then it’s re-crafted multiple times, like folding and re-folding pizza dough. So the version you are reading now is far away from the first jottings I made.
I’m reminded of the novelist E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, saying, aphoristically: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” He was arguing that he doesn’t know what he is thinking until he sees a written draft he’s made, and then reacts to it. That’s oddly reversed from that standard model with which I opened this piece. I’m with E.M. here.
All this took a couple of hours or so at the start of a busy day, and I was sense-making and meaning-making, as I did this. I attended selectively to the massive range of presenting stimuli in the café, and to my internal voice although clearly I could have thought many alternative things, and transcribed those into words. It was obvious to me that there were multitudinous amounts of other information available for encoding if my brain took the opportunity to focus on it.
Did I do all of this thinking and processing, as in the me that is me? The surprising answer is yes and no. Only some of it was. I did not plan it all out. I did not consciously say to myself “I’ll write an essay on thinkwriting.” In fact I changed the title, and the tenor of what I wrote, several times. I just began with a vague idea to document my thoughts about writing. Much of what then transpired just happened. It was not at all a conscious manifestation of me saying, right, this is what I’m going to write. Parts of it came out of my below-conscious, whatever that is, and then presented to my consciousness, whatever that is. So it was my creation in the sense that my mind generated the thoughts and integrated them for my conscious self to write up, at least some extent. My hands then typed the words, but I didn’t think about that either, in terms of explicitly making them move across the keyboard. Much of that handcrafting of QWERTY letters was also emergent. The typing was accomplished by hands far removed from that purpose—evolved for brachiating, and making stone tools, not typing on modern keyboards.
The cognitive processing, the mental cacophony that created these sentences and paragraphs did not feel jumpy or discontinuous, but kind of—this phrase comes to me—associatively coherent, by which I mean of course there is a relationship between the ideas popping into my mind, the words that these ideas evoke and the process of committing them to copy. I’m not sure which psychological-cognitive-linguistic theories are investigating this phenomenon but I’m guessing some researchers are working on it. This thinkwriting process must be similar, we can assume, for all other thinkwriters.
The world presents itself to us, we respond to the external stimuli we encounter, we dredge up internal notions, one or other or both of these internal and external stimuli generate mindful responses and these, or at least some proportion of them, become prose. Then, others read, glance over, skim, get bored with, or just ignore the freshly minted text. That last point is another serious problem for writers: it’s estimated that only 51 of a typical 161 readers of a Slate article (that is, pieces written by the best journalists and writers who are working hard to keep you there till the end) finish. A completion rate of 32%. Sheesh. You are probably not even here any more.
One additional thought occurs as I battle on from this blow. The main point we have arrived at is that the disorderliness of thinkwriting is at odds with and may even disturb “standard model” readers. But the messy, uncertain, imprecise explanation means that writing eventually stutters out to something intelligible. This was me, working, and is how a book, or blog, or Naturally Curious essay, is produced.
Here’s my final comments by way of reporting on some more internal dialogue, recorded as faithfully to my thought processes as possible, in real time, as I finished this piece.
Me: Is this wordsmithing thing always this messy? Me in response: You bet.
Me: And productive? Me in response: It may not seem like it, but I guess so—I’ve written lots of books and academic manuscripts that got published.
Me: The proof’s in the pudding, then? Me in response: Maybe; it’s definitely two steps forward and one back, and it often feels like running in molasses rather than being creative.
Me: Is this messiness inevitable, and typical of writers, or am I completely abnormal? Me in response: I reckon it’s a version of normal. But readers will decide for themselves.
In the end, I still don’t have the faintest idea how writing works, even after this mind-excursion into my own foibles. I can’t deny a possibility that this entire essay is an exercise in futility and few will even read it, understand it, or care. But if readers reflect on it and think that writing is largely impossible and yet completely commonplace, then we are one on this. A completely everyday mystery which prevails is how each word and phrase comes to the page. I can lay down no principles, policy, prescription, or words of wisdom by which to guide anyone else’s writing. But in this, I’m not alone. The brilliant playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) once opined: “There are three rules for writing … Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Except I do have one piece of sage advice, from another of my heroes. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), the American poet, argued against any lack of confidence: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise”, she said. And immediately after this she concluded: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Eagleman, David (2011). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. New York: Random House.
Forster, Edward M (1927). Aspects of the Novel. New York: Rosetta Books.
Manjoo, Farhad. (2013). You Won’t Finish This Article: Why people online don’t read to the end. Slate, June 6: https://slate.com/technology/2013/06/how-people-read-online-why-you-wont-finish-this-article.html.