Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Advice on writing from... Psychologists?

First of all, THIS is a brilliant and inspired paper about a psychology experiment on writing.  The author, Bob Boice, challenges the pervasive notion of creative geniuses being wildly manic and deeply struggling, tearing their hair, vituperating their work, producing page after page in a flood of productivity.  Or, as he calls it "creative illness."

For Boice there are three 'goals' of the act of writing.  1) Productivity, 2) Creativity, and 3) Mental Health.  To examine these things and their relationships with each other, he set up an experiment where he evaluated two groups of young professors, all of whom were required to write and publish to keep their jobs.  One group had a moderate writing style.  They would sit down to write regularly about three times a week, never work for more than ninety minutes, and make use of plans and outlines.  The second group followed the binge-writing model.  They had more irregular writing habits, but when writing would often stay for up to twelve hours, and not so frequently use plans and outlines.

Shall we guess how these people ranked in their productivity, creativity and mental health?  For productivity, slow and steady wins the race.  The moderate but regular pace was able to produce more pages of quality high enough to be published.  Th binge writing pace was not high enough to produce the work required to keep their jobs.

In creativity, the regular writers had more ideas that were relevant to their work.  They also could get to work more quickly and not have to reacquaint themselves with their projects.  The binge writers did not think about their work in the off-hours, and were therefore less engaged and less usefully creative.

Mental health had the most distressing results of all.  Moderate writers would feel positive before they wrote, positive after they wrote, and positive for the next few days as well.  Binge writers would feel negative and apprehensive before a writing session.  Then during it they would report instances of euphoria as well as make faces indicating annoyance and frustration.  It would take a little while to come down, and then they would drop into unremitting depression a day or two afterwards.

As Boice sums up in his conclusion, a lot of his results are supported by advice in all those books on writing by writers.  It is supported by the story of Joseph Conrad.  (If you read any section in this paper, read the little narrative of Conrad's life and writings).  It is supported by the comments of Dickens on his own work.  His results are good advice.

So, what is the advice we can take from this interesting study?

1) Try to write regularly.  If you don't have time to sit down and write every day, take a little time, while doing other things, to think about your project.  Meditate on it.  Enjoy it.  The next time you sit down, the ideas will be fresh and percolating in your head.

2) Word counts are probably not the way to go.  Neither, though, is time limits.  Sit down when you are scheduled to sit down, and think about your project, even if you just doodle stick figures of your characters.  If you get tired, stop working, do something else.  Your best, most productive work, isn't going to be twelve hours a day.  Do not be ashamed to stop working.

3) Outlines and plans are 'on-task work.'  If the writing isn't coming, do something else that's on task.  Then use your outlines.  (Not slavishly, as Lois McMaster Bujold says: "The writer should always reserve the right to have a better idea.")  Creativity takes time.

4) Relax.
I mean, seriously.  Relax.  If this article shows anything it's that people who stress themselves out about their writing don't write as well.  This is kind of obvious.  It's the same on tests.  If you're really stressed about a test, it's harder to study and harder to focus when you're actually doing it.  If you go in there confident and positive, you're more likely to do well.  If you enjoy writing, not to the euphoric stage, but are generally happy about having gotten a chance to sit down and write at all, you'll be more productive, and less inclined to mania and depression.

So yay!  Four solid, experimentally supported pieces of advice to help you with your writing.  Write on! Don't succumb to creative illness.  Be like Dickens.  For him, writing was something that could help him through stressful times in his life, it didn't cause stressful times in his life.  And Dickens' productivity and creativity are, honestly, some of the most impressive ever to have existed.

1 comment:

  1. Much love for this. So many writers brag about how they flog themselves and write nonstop until a manuscript is finished. But this article proves it's bad for you to work like that.

    On a side note, I wonder what these psychologists would think of Nanowrimo?