by Jay Donnelly
Creating great art isn’t something that can be taught. It’s more of an experience that bubbles up from the unconscious, sometimes effortlessly. If you were to ask a great composer or writer how they came up with such incredible novels or symphonies, they probably wouldn’t be able to put their experience into words, no matter how much time you gave them.
But what state of mind are great writers in when they do their best work? How is it that they can create such remarkable works that captivate their audiences?
In recent years, there’s been a lot of focus on the idea of “flow” – a brain state in which the writer loses themselves entirely in their work, not stopping to think about superficial things like grammar and punctuation. In this state, they lose their sense of time or perception of the outside world and can remain single-mindedly focused on their narrative for hours at a time. Flow allows writers to unleash the full productive potential of their brains without interfering thoughts interrupting their progress. It’s when writers are in this state that they produce their best work.
What flow actually is is something of a mystery. It used to be thought that writers used the right hemisphere of their brains to intuitively and emotionally feel their way to the best possible prose. But new science debunks the notion that our brains are split into two distinct regions, each responsible for different types of thoughts (left for rational and scientific thinking, and right for emotional and intuitive thinking). It’s now believed that the process of writing is a whole brain experience, encompassing both feeling, emotion, logic, structure and memory. Brain scans of writers show that numerous regions of the brain light up, indicating that the process isn’t limited to a single section.
With that said, achieving flow is difficult. Scientists think that writers need to reach a certain level of competence before flow is possible, and even then, it still might not happen if they are not capable of entering the right mental state. At the very least, writers need to have an unconscious command of the language and be able to manipulate it in written format unthinkingly. This doesn’t happen overnight but is instead the result of many months or years of repetition.
It’s similar to driving. When you first learn to drive, you have to think carefully about everything that you’re doing and try to coordinate both your hands and feet. There’s an enormous amount of conscious effort to keep the car under control. But over time, actions are learned and then increasingly regulated by the unconscious mind. After a while, drivers don’t need to put any conscious effort into what they’re doing: they just do it automatically.
A similar thing happens for writers at the top of their game. Over time, the nuts and bolts of the writing process become automatic, freeing up the conscious mind to focus more on style, expression, and rhetorical form. Once all other distractions are blocked out, flow just happens as the natural result of all that unconscious learning.
So how do you achieve this magical state of flow? By its very nature, it’s not something that can be learned through instruction. But there are things that you can do to bring yourself closer to it. Here’s how.
Read Your Writing Aloud
Proofreading your work is a good idea. But your internal voice is often very different from your real voice – the one that requires the use of your vocal cords. As such, many aspiring writers get into the habit of reading their own work aloud to make sure that the intonation is how they imagine.
Sometimes when you read your work aloud, it sounds entirely different to how it did in your head, prompting you to make changes. At other times, it seems okay grammatically, but it doesn’t sit well with your intended audience. Perhaps it’s too formal, or too complicated, requiring simpler sentence structures and shorter paragraphs.
Reading aloud also helps you to identify problems that your eye might not catch. Scanning a document is one thing, but truly listening to it is quite another.
Experiment With Sentence Structure
Learning how to manipulate sentences is a crucial writer skill. There are all sorts of ways to arrange English that will make sense to your audience, but only a few ways that feel natural. Many struggling writers seek the help of a virtual writing tutor to show them how to create sentences that flow naturally on from one to another. Writing that does not achieve flow can feel disjointed and ugly, and can confuse the reader.
If possible, try to get your ideas down on paper first before you start rearranging. Then, once you’re happy with the content, start fiddling around to see what sounds good. The editing process can actually be very beneficial. Although it’s time-consuming and challenging, it will slowly teach you how to create fluency in your work, making it easier to get into the flow state later on.
Novice writers often feel that they have to pad their writing with additional fluff. This should come as no surprise: schools teach the importance of adjectives and adverbs to build the scene. But genuinely effective writing tries to communicate complex subjects in the simplest possible terms. Additional fluff gets in the way of conveying meaning to the reader, and in some circumstances, can be downright annoying.
Also, keep a keen eye out of sentences which run on and on. It can be challenging to communicate certain concepts, especially conditionals, without including multiple clauses. Good writers learn how to shorten sentences so that they retain the focus of the reader without sacrificing rigour or clarity.
And Finally …
Make sure that you get your ideas down on paper first before you start the editing process. Allowing yourself the freedom to write without constant self-criticism is the first step to getting into the flow state. There’s always time to go back later and sort out the punctuation, grammar and structure.
Find more writing and publishing tips at Nothing Any Good.
I think reading one’s work aloud is an excellent method for ferreting out a wide range of errors: missing words, misspells, duplicate words, grammar, punctuation, etc. When reading silently, it’s far too easy for the author’s eyes to gloss over those little “Ooops” that can drive reviewers and readers crazy–and believe me, reviewers will mention them because it diverts the mind from the story you’re trying to tell.
The point about sentence structure is useful as well. Sometimes a longer, complex, or compound sentence is needed to make a point. At other times, shorter, choppier sentences are better at conveying fast or anger-driven action. There must be a continual variation in the length, complexity, structure, and construction of sentences or your reader is treated to the literary equivalent of a phonograph record (what’s a “phonograph record?”) stuck in a groove. Not very interesting reading. Zzzzzzzzzz….