The Best Kept Secret To Improve Your Writing – Writing Tips 19

The Best Kept Secret To Improve Your Writing You’re a writer, yeah? Well, when was the last time you actually picked up a pen and wrote, you know with your hand? I don’t do it that often any more, and I suspect I’m not the only one. Recently I’ve come across a few writers, who write their entire first drafts by hand. I was slacked jawed when I found out. I wouldn’t dream of writing a novel, a WHOLE 100,000 words by hand, I mean, can you imagine how long that would take?

How Long?

But is it really that strange? I’m starting to wonder if I am missing a trick by succumbing to the ease and speed of my keyboard, and the slap slap – edit, check, delete, Ctrl C, Ctrl V. This topic is extremely close to my heart. Six years ago, I was awarded a scholarship in Sydney to do a PhD on Distributed Cognition (DC), it was the wrong time, wrong place so, I didn’t take it (much to my wife’s disgust, who was so desperate to live there she had already booked a visa interview). But the topic still fascinates me, and it has come to the fore of my mind again because of the writers I have met who do so much writing by hand. I used to be totally against DC, but in my age, I have mellowed and as much as I hate to admit it (and I really do hate to admit it) I was wrong. I am going to ask you a series of questions throughout this post, to try and help you work out how DC can help you with your writing. How many of you write your first drafts by hand? Why? Why do you write by hand, and not type on the computer? For those of you that don’t, why don’t you? To understand DC first, we must understand what cognition is: Collective Intelligence Dictionary.com says cognition is: Noun

  1. The act or process of knowing; perception.
  2. The product of such a process; something thus known, perceived, etc.
  3. knowledge.

Google says:

  1. The mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses
  2. A perception, sensation, idea, or intuition resulting from the process of cognition

The origin of Cognition is from the Latin word – cognoscereget to know’ which I think is a much more pertinent definition when we think about DC, it is the process that is important. Not the knowing, but the action of getting to know. Traditionally, cognition was thought of as ‘thought processes’ which were until recently accepted as being confined within the constructs of brain, skin and cells. Defining Distributed Cognition is somewhat harder. Partly because it is an academic topic, so I am trained to give definitions of essay length, and filled with complex arguments. Let me see if I can give you two working examples. But first, I want to ask you another question: When you have a problem, a messy, awkward and causing you ball ache kind of problem, how do you go about figuring out a solution? Are you an introverted problem solver? Do you need time out from everyone to think and ponder and speculate whilst you devise a plan? Do you need a pen or pencil to draw squiggly diagrams? Or, are you an extroverted problem solver? Do you need people, or a person to bounce and spark ideas from to provide challenge? Example One:

Think Before You Speak

I’m an extroverted thinker, I think with my mouth… literally. You know that awful phrase ‘think before you speak’? Well, to me, it’s incomprehensible. Introverts say stuff like that, because they can think before they speak. I’m not attacking introverts here, not at all. I wish I could think before I speak, it’s a skill I admire and respect. But that’s just not how my brain works. I process physically, with my mouth, in real time, and that’s the key phrase. As the words form it is my brain forming them, just physically and verbally rather than silently. My words are a physical representation of my thought process, which means I ramble, I am messy and I jump to and from conversations. But, eventually, I will form a coherent sentence which makes sense and solves the pesky problem. Nine times out of ten I don’t know what I think until I say it. I don’t have a mechanism for consciously processing in silence. I find myself saying things to my wife or colleagues like ‘Don’t write this down I’m just trying it out…’ Example Two: Are you a doodler? Do you ever get frustrated when trying to explain something? Do you sigh and reach for a pen and piece of paper to draw a diagram? Perhaps you are problem solving and need that comfort of pen and paper to physically draw out that solution of how to get from A to Z. This happened to me the other day. Ironically I needed to explain how I like to approach a project (ironic because I was explaining why I needed ‘people’ around me)… Don’t laugh, here is my doodle. Sacha's Doodle I am circle A and trying to get to Z. I want to follow that straight line. That big squirly circle next to me with arrows pointing in, is where I need people to bounce ideas off so that I can follow the arched arrow from A straight to Z. It’s where my thinking happens to create a path from A to Z. If I don’t get that input at the start and at key points in between I follow the turquoise line, sh*t hits the fan I back track and go round the houses to get to Z. It’s inefficient. So What Is Distributed Cognition? Distributed Cognition I already said; Cognition was until recently thought of as purely ‘thought processes’ which were accepted as being confined within the constructs of brain, skin and cells. But what if it wasn’t confined to your brain? What if thought, conscious physical thought didn’t have to be restricted, confined even to your brain. What if we could think together, as one, at the same time? Have you ever had a friend that can finish your sentences? How can they do that? Is it because they know you so well they can predict what you are saying? Maybe. But I think there’s more to it; what if you are both sharing thoughts? Thinking together? There’s that wonderful phrase ‘Oh your on my wavelength’ what if the wavelength was real? A thing out there in the physical space between you, interacting with affecting your own thought process. What about the pianist whose fingers think for him when they strike keys and create symphonies? Pianist When you use a pen to draw a diagram, it’s more than just a physical representation of your thoughts on the page. It is your thoughts. It’s in real time, and if you weren’t drawing you wouldn’t have come to that conclusion. Writing is an insular job. Too often, we are afraid to talk to others about our work. We are afraid to commit our ideas to the air. Afraid of them not being good enough. Afraid of being judged, of theft, and a million other reasons all stop us from committing anything to the world before we are ready. I’m challenging that. Use Distributed Cognition to help you write, and write better. This can work even if you are an introverted thinker. If You Are An Extrovert Thinker: Share those raw ideas, those infantile thoughts with someone you trust, or someone you know will challenge you. Allow yourself to be affected by others. Let them spark you, question you, get on your wavelength. If You Are An Introverted Thinker: Just try it. Talk through your ideas with someone else but then go away take their thoughts/questions and points and digest them alone. If that terrifies you, then pick up a pen, and figure it out just you and a piece of paper. Next time you have a spot of writers block or a sticky character problem stop banging your head against your laptop. Stop trying to figure it out alone. Let yourself distribute your cognition. Instead of being caught in the same old cycle of: Think it, Write it, Share it. Try: Sharing it, Thinking it, Writing it… See what happens…. Afterall, didn’t your mother ever tell you a problem shared is a problem halved? Share Think Write

35 comments

  1. Hmm. I shall take that away and think about it. Quietly. To myself.
    As for writing by hand; I often write notes on a scribble pad, only to find when I go back to them, that I can’t read my own scrawl. That’ll be the effect of more than three decades of keyboarding (and I still can’t touch-type, either).

    1. lol ‘quietly’ to myself! I see what you did there! it made me giggle! yeah, thats the thing, I write in block capitals! weird I know, but then I’m not at primary school anymore and theres no teacher to scald me for not joining my squiggles! I think I am suggesting two things, which is interesting you only picked up one – obviously I wasn’t clear enough! try talking it through too, that was the other one, but in a round about way!

      1. Although she doesn’t write, my wife Clare is an excellent sounding board. She doesn’t need to read my stuff, she knows it already. I have no doubt, if asked, she could talk you through the major plot points of The Orphans and Knight & Deigh – and she doesn’t pull punches if she thinks I’m going astray!

  2. Ooooh… lovely post! You really got my creative juices flowing! Im glad you explained what DC is, cos I had NO clue, but actually have experienced it. You know, when you think about someone and then they ring you. Or yeah, the finishing sentence thing. What about hearing fragments of conversations in your head? Oh wait… think there might be another word for that! Lol! You’re putting the science into something which has long existed but been denied, feared, misunderstood, I think. In my books, Conor cant speak but uses telepathy… is that part of the same thing?

    1. haha, to be fair, I didn’t expect anyone to know what it was. I was going to attach a couple of journal papers to the post but completely forgot. DOH. gutted. I’ve done that so many times, with the phone ringing. I also have a habit of picking the phone up thinking its about to ring, putting it down and then the minute it touches the side it rings. so weird… I think telepathy is interesting. I had never considered it in the realm of DC but I suppose loosely it would be on the extreme end of it. Although Clark and Chalmers, who were one of the instigators of this topic would probably more easily accept it as part and parcel of DC. I think DC from an academic point of view is more interested in a) the process of how it happens, but also whether or not cognition even can be distributed. Originally I was arguing not, but age and weariness makes me think it can…..!

      1. Its all too complicated for my feeble brain, especially at this time of night. It sounds a world away from your day job, which confuses me… I am easily confused! 😀

  3. I’ve tried writing by hand a couple of times, but have given it up as a total failure. My handwriting is poor, which precludes doing it. More importantly, though, is how slow it is to write by hand. I just can’t stand sitting there and writing when I’m going a million ideas a minute, especially when I’m a pretty fast typer! But I admire people who do write by hand, I just can’t imagine taking it that slowly.

    1. I’m with you, I couldn’t ever write a novel by hand, the amount of time would be tortuous. Although my handwriting is pretty neat – mostly because its block capitals! lol. What about how you form ideas though? DC isn’t just about pen and paper…. its about mind and thought too….

  4. I’m liking this about the sharing. I try and do it a fair bit – but usually in writing. I’m not sure how well the idea of sharing before thinking would work in practice though. To me, putting the idea to words forces me to think it over, or I’ll risk being misunderstood (which may be useful in its own right). This in itself gets me reflecting over the idea in a new way, even before I’ve shared it.
    That’s not to say I won’t thinking the idea through after having shared it and gotten feedback on it – I definitely do that as well. It’s just that the actual sharing requires a kind of thinking as well.

    1. Interesting, this makes me think you must sit somewhere on the border of introvert and extrovert, in terms of a thinker anyway. See for me, sometimes I genuinely don’t know what I think until I am actually saying it, and quite often I have to ramble in order to bring myself back round to a coherent answer or explanation. its like my mouth runs off a stream of my consciousness! lol but as you say, i sort of forewarn people I constantly have to say ‘don’t write this down’ because i don’t know what I want to say or ‘I’m just trying this out, so don’t write it yet’. Thanks so much for reading and stopping by 😀

      1. I think, that a lot of the time I have a pretty good feeling, or impression, of the idea. Putting it into words highlights the logical leaps I’m making. I know that a happens and then b happens. Writing the idea down for someone else forces me to explain that b happened as a consequence of c, which was caused by a.
        Sort of…

  5. Hey, not bad for a ditz! That is one fine post you’ve got there, Ma’am! I write a journal by hand. I love that physicality, the sense of brain seeping onto page which isn’t the same as with the keyboard. I write my fiction and blogs on the computer. Why? Partly, like Keith I’m illegible after a while – I go all to pieces (old joke: man goes into a WH Smiths. Man: ‘Do you keep stationery?’ Shop assistant: ‘yes for the first five minutes, then I go all to pieces.’) partly because by the time I started all my writing at work was on the computer. I am an extrovert. I bounce ideas and problems around. I used to tell my team, if they had a legal issue they couldn’t see their way through, find someone to explain it to. Chances were that halfway through the explanation they would have worked it out for themselves. I think your explanation makes sense and is very clearly laid out ( and without one footnote!). We all have those moments of group lucidity that are a joy. And the wife was right. You should have gone to Sydney!

    1. OI, Le PARD….. what’s this ditz business? You think I’m a ditz? :O.

      Now I’ve finished being insulted, I’ll take that compliment! Glad you liked the post, chump! :p

      I 100% agree about brain seeping onto page. It literally does, it oozes out through your hands. and thats exactly what DC tries to explain, and that its reciprocal, and that the page and pen directly affect what you think, even if only slightly, but as you say, its different than a keyboard and no doubt if you could do it twice with no memory of the first, you would write different things.

      Haha, I have nice neat if a little odd fully capitalised hand writing!

      you should know, i am hideous with jokes… I will tell chloe this one, no doubt she will laugh, and then roll her eyes as she has to explain yes ANOTHER joke to me, and then after 5 minutes sigh in shame as I fall about laughing having ‘just’ got it. #truestory #happensallthetime! #OHtheshame

      NOW SIR, that is a damn fine suggestion, I have never thought of that in such a brilliant way. I do, do just that though. When I have a problem, I have to grab the nearest unsuspecting soul and talk at them till I have rambled everything out, and then if I hadn’t already worked out the answer, get them to ask me questions! never fails!

      footnotes? I laugh in the face of footnotes….!
      ok I dont. I tried hard not to use them!

      haha. sod Sydney. I would have been a boring academic by now. wouldnt have ever written a novel… she says written, she means two thirds written. my god when I write ‘the end’ and can finally call myself an author/writer whatever, that will be a joyous day!

      1. It always amuses me, the speaking out loud bit. I recall being chased down the corridor by a colleague who had sat dutifully for twenty minutes listening to me explain my dilemma when I just upped and walked out because I’d had the light bulb moment I was seeking. They wanted to hear the rest and give their opinion which by that point I no longer needed!.

        1. pahaha, you sound like me! I do that A LOT, and it drives everyone nuts. I also have a habit of falling deathly silent mid flow. and then bursting out of nowhere – usually interrupting someone because of just that… light bulb moments. ah the life of an extroverted thinker… I still haven’t forgiven you GLP… ditz indeed. tut.

  6. I used to write by hand but now have RSA and speak directly to the computer. Is this another form of distributed cognition? Some of the errors made by my voice activated software can be quite amusing but I’ve never yet been tempted to use them, though they often get left behind in my comments on blogs, much to my embarrassment.
    But I wonder, when you write about the pianist’s fingers doing their thinking for them, do you really mean that literally? Is it not that certain postures, places and positions evoke particular memories that then facilitate a certain kind of behaviour?

    1. OOOOOh interesting. Clark and Chalmers, who wrote one of the seminal papers in this field would argue yes. Me, I’m not so sure. I figure it would need to be AI before it was DC. but they would say yes, because the interaction of you dictating would change your thought process… I’ll leave that up to you to decide if you think it does or not.

      Ahh yes, the pianist. Well it depends which side of the academic DC fence you sit on. I used to argue quite strongly, that there was no way anything other than synapses and brain matter could do any thinking or cognising.And part of me still struggles with that concept. Let me pose another question. A pianist, who is so talented and played for so many years, can improvise on the spot, and it can be something magical. Those key strokes happen pretty quickly, especially if they are playing some jazz piece (theres a lot of jazz in the family!) they don’t stop to think about what key is next, they just play. It could be muscle memory, or perhaps the years of learning what sounds mix well with others, but the speed at which I have seen some pianists just let the music flow… I dunno. something happens to them when they touch that piano, its like an extension of themselves, and thats what Clark and Chalmers were getting at. Where does your mind and thought end, and a ‘tool’ begin… I’m not sure I have actually answered your question?!

    1. That’s very interesting. I hadn’t ever thought of employing this tactic. I am one for finding someone, grabbing them and forcing them to ‘talk’ it out with me when I get stuck. But actually, I should take my own advice and try writing it, see what happens! thanks Diana 😀

  7. I use both writing by hand and writing on a keyboard. Each morning, I sit with my first cup of tea and my journal and write. I’m left handed and a visionary in my left brain, but I need to work diagonally and wake up the right side of my brain by the movement of my left hand. Ideas/concepts/single lines get written out by hand. Poems always get written out and worked out by hand; with prose, I work from the keyboard. In part, because I see a scene (I’m a visual thinker) and need to capture it and shape it as I see the words form on the page. Visuals are how I communicate.

    Interesting post. Thanks. I just came back from the Austin (Texas) International Poetry Festival and one of the presenters was a neuroscientist who also writes. He talked about the way the brain’s circuitry integrates (or doesn’t) and how to facilitate that integration. I suspect the more we learn about our own patterns and how our circuitry works, the better writers we can grow into.

    1. Im so sorry its taken me so long to reply. It’s been a bit of a week! thats interesting, because the left side of your brain controls the right side of your body and vice a versa, so makes sense if your left hand works and wakes up your right brain. I would be fascinated to hear more about the Neuroscientist, can you remember his name? I would love to google his research. I have to agree though, we are all wired up differently so how we integrate and interact with our words and tools will be different for everyone, we just need to work out what works for us and then take advantage of that technique. I think I have finally figured out my own writing process this week :D. thanks for commenting and taking the time to read the post 😀

  8. Love this post! In a way, I think that’s what I did with my third WIP. I’m introverted, so I think… a lot. I was thinking about a character and I wrote her into a flash last summer. When I shared, I got more feedback that led to thinking differently. I ended up processing several characters that way, through sharing flash fictions. It was definitely a different process for me and I liked the inspiration that came from sharing.

    I don’t write long-hand, anymore. Instead I have evolved a weird one-handed typing process. It really freaks out people when they see me. I’m slow when watched because I feel self-conscious about it, but when I’m writing, watch out, my hand flies over the keys! I know how to type. I took typing in high school. I learned keyboarding in college. But I can’t type and think at the same time!

    Tell your wife I can commiserate with her. My spouse is an extrovert, too! 😉 I know all about that thinking out loud!

    1. Haha! Yes sorry about us extroverts it tends to exhaust the introverts! But it’s the same for us and you guys. It’s one of the things I learnt about when researching Myers Briggs. So fascinating.

      OOOH I am really interested in the fact that despite being an introvert you found the sharing process worthwhile for your character building.

      I really think we humans are not meant to work in isolation. It’s sort of built in innately to need other people, and yet we so often find that to be a negative thing.

      It’s strange but I do a lot of SUBconscious processing. Where I just need time for things to mull but I don’t consciously think about them.

      lol I can touch type (I think? – I type fast). I know of famous authors who write one fingered! The author of beautiful creatures does just that!

  9. Hi Sach. Thanks for sharing this link with me. I think this post was written just before we connected, as you suspected. It’s a fabulous post, as all your writing posts are. (I’ve yet to find a better describing word for some of the things you share here.) I don’t think I could stereotype myself in one category, as I’m a mixed bag. I write longhand, I write like an introvert. I solve problems alone in my head, before I can share them with anyone. But then I need to run my work by someone else after I think I’ve fixed things, needing at least a pair of new eyes, which always turns out to be a necessity.
    I love the issues and questions you raise in your writing tip series! <3

    1. I thought it might have been, but I had to share when we started talking about writing by hand!

      Haha, that’s what I love about Distributed cognition, it sort of does what it says on the tin, and the thing is, so many of us do it and don’t even realise. Think I am the other way round, I sort of think my problems aloud, even if it’s to myself or on a bit of paper, I need that act of externalisation in order to solve things. Yet, I can be an introverted person! lol. Brains are weird!

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