This is Your Brain on Writing

I used to write first drafts longhand. Yes, with my actual hands using a device they once called a “pen,” which is not the same as that stylus-thing you use at the bank or on your MaxiPad. And paper: lots of paper in lots of marble composition notebooks, at least fifty of which are currently on a shelf in my closet. Many trees died for my filthy habit. But I was not ashamed because they were bad trees, bad, misbehaving trees that jumped into traffic and collided with people’s cars. Bad, naughty trees.

Anyway. After filling several notebooks, I would type the first draft into my computer, massage it a little, print it out, scribble all over the products of more of those death-row trees; repeat until done. Okay, at that point, I was getting a little ashamed that perhaps I was rationalizing the tree thing. Maybe DNA evidence would prove that they had been innocent all the while. But I convinced myself that this was the only way I could write a novel.

Then a repetitive strain injury forced me to change. At first, I freaked out. I only knew one way to write first-draft: with a pen and a notebook. With elbow-to-wrist braces on both arms—and a doctor’s “suggestion” to give all that pen-using stuff a rest—I bemoaned my fate, convinced that the one novel I’d only partially written would be my last.

With patience and some ergonomic tips, I could eventually type again, but the holding-the-pen thing, not so much. Too painful. How, how, how, would I ever write first drafts again? Directly into the computer? That’s crazy talk. I NEEDED that connection, that brain-to-hand-to-pen-to-dead-tree connection. That’s how my brain was wired.

And then I tried it. It felt awkward at first, even a little naughty, like I was taking a shortcut that “real” writers would shun me for. (Yes, even back then, some writers behaved badly, although without FaceTwit groups, fewer people knew about it.)

Slowly, though, it worked. Now I write first draft material on the computer without even a second thought. Pens and notebooks? Those I took on vacation or turned to when the power went out, although not without a silent apology to the trees and a hefty donation to the botanical equivalent of the Civil Liberties Union.

Then my arms flipped me off again. We’re TIRED of writing, they said. We’re tired of all those things you do with arms: driving, cooking, invading small nations. I secretly think they were sympathizing with the trees for my past indiscretions. But there I was again, advised to avoid the one, arm-related activity that gave me the most pleasure. No, it’s not that, you filthy-minded people.

But this time, not only did I have the power of ergonomics on my side, I had the magic of technology. I had…a dictation program. Okay, it was in the early stages. I understand that dictation programs are better now. But the original manual was thicker than your average Stephen King novel. I had to train it to recognize my Muppety voice. I had to speak all the punctuation, which must have sounded bizarre: “So she went to the supermarket comma and told that so dash and dash so to open-quote bag his own grapes exclamation point close quote.” And odd words (pretty much half of the English vocabulary) had to be spelled out, in the military alphabet. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to the military for their service, but if it were the 60s, I’d be one of those kids in granny-glasses sticking daisies down the barrels of soldiers’ guns. And there I was, telling my computer, “Wilco Tango Foxtrot.”

Okay, the awkwardness of it distracted me during my convalescence. The misinterpretations created interesting impromptu haiku. It amused me to go up to my husband, a lover of military aircraft, and recite the entire Alpha Bravo Charlie alphabet. But it left me with another problem.

The writing process was maddeningly slow. I longed to get better so I could take my laptop outside and bang it repeatedly against a big rock. When I’m pain free, I’m one Foxtrot-ing fast typist. I can type at about the same speed the words fly into my word-maker. Not so with speaking. The two parts of my brain didn’t seem to want to communicate. I’ve always been faster, and my thoughts more organized, on paper than in face-to-face conversation. This new wrinkle rankled.

But given a choice between slow writing and no writing, I made the commitment to try. And it worked. I dictated the first drafts of two entire novels and many, many blog posts. Once again, I hadn’t given my brain enough credit.

Silly as we humans may be, with our petty arguments, Justin Bieber haircuts, and Insta-twits, our brains are often smarter than we think.

Have you ever had to change the way you write? How did it work for you?

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

22 thoughts on “This is Your Brain on Writing”

  1. I could never have become a writer without the computer. My handwriting is illegible even to me. But I am still a two finger hunt and peck typist so I can’t look at the monitor when I write, which makes for some interesting mistakes. I tried twice to learn to touch-type. No dice. My brain just refuses to adapt. It’s too slow and I don’t have the patience to wait it out.

    1. Yeah, I don’t know how people did this business on typewriters, having to retype each draft from scratch. Makes my fingers hurt just thinking about it.

  2. Don’t feel too bad for those trees. Paper has been made from recycled materials for years. As a member of the tree-hugger industry your old habit helped keep a recycling business going! Nice post.

  3. I have gone through exactly what you have gone through, Laurie. Except for the dictation part. What program did/do you use as I may be there real soon one day. Though typing with wrist braces are awkward, occasionally they do help, but I don’t wear them anymore as often as I should. I switch between typing on my argonmic keyboard to my tiny laptop and rests in between the two. And I love it when my typing speed passes my thinking process speed…fun to go back and fix those typos.

    Seriously, what program do you use to dictate your book? Is is dragon naturally speaking?

    1. I have a Mac, so began on iListen, which became Mac Dictate. Dragon has now taken over both platforms. I haven’t tried Dragon yet, but I hear it’s easier and more accurate. Good luck!

  4. I’m still the “pen-thing” user. I suppose I could someday change to just keyboarding my thoughts directly into the computer, but for now, I don’t see it happening. My fingers speak an entirely different language from me–this note has had more spelling fixes than a kindergartner’s first writing attempts. “The” comes out as “th4e”, my fingers’ favorite. “Into” once came out as “ih=nto”. I ask you, what’s the sense of expecting these wayward digits to produce a coherent sentence? My train of thought derails every time I have to go back and fix spellings, so I write. My hand cramps up, but still I write. My MS is a good two inches thick, and it takes me two hours per chapter or more to type them in. But this is how I catch my errors in continuity and empty narrative, OK–now to go back and fix my misspellings here…

    1. Sounds like it’s working for you, KR. Thanks for the comment. What’s really putting my brain through more paces lately is attempting to type on an iPad. So I have my “normal” Mac keyboard plugged into a laptop at home, a Jurassic PC keyboard at work, and the pad. I make a lot of typos as I transition back and forth. I’m trying to see that as extra exercise for the hand muscles.

  5. I used to write everything in longhand, too, Laurie. Then I started doing just the first draft in longhand, and transcribing it into the computer. Somewhere along the line, that got to be too much of a pain in the butt. Now I do it on the computer from the start (and woe betide anyone who tries to read my handwriting now — I wield a pen so infrequently that my output is nearly illegible).

    (I’ve got hand pain, too, but mine is from a job that required me to retype 40 pages of copy every day, back in the days when nobody had ever heard of ergonomics. I wear braces at night and have learned to grab and hold things differently than I used to. And if I forget about the correct hand position, I am rather forcefully reminded….)

    1. Oh, my longhand has gotten horrid, too, Lynne. I know the hand thing gets to be a pain (groan), but it’s the quickest way to self-correct. By now I can tell that a pain in a particular part of my shoulder means the armrests are not at the right height, and I can quickly make the right adjustments.

  6. I didn’t give up writing, I gave up my first passion, painting. Injured a shoulder venetian plastering a ceiling and knew I would never faux finish again. Even small painting hurt. Now I create my paintings with words on a computer. My shoulder still gives me fits at times and the idea of losing my new art is horrifying. In the end I don’t regret the loss because I feel I can write the worlds I could never quite capture with paint.

    I’m trying a new way of treating my shoulder and other problems which have cropped up since then with Egoscue. Maybe it would give you some relief too. Supposedly the very act of sitting at a chair typing all day is what is giving us problems. I figure I have nothing to lose and a lifetime of free movement to gain so why not.

    Also I tried the dictation thing and wound up with a text of one run on sentence. Crazy stuff. You must have been very persistent to use that.

    1. Thanks, Elisabeth. My persistence was because giving up writing was not an option for me. Like you (and my physical therapist) mentioned, bodies don’t like sitting in chairs. I get up a lot during the day and stretch frequently. The other advantage to the dictation is that thanks to a wireless microphone, I can pace around the room while I write. 😀

      1. Pacing would work for me. I hate sitting for so long but I also lose track of time. I’m going to try the egoscue for myself. Only did one time with it and felt a little better. Be worth it to regain my mobility but I have walking problems now too so even pacing is a luxury I don’t have.

  7. If only my handwriting was even slightly legible. If I wrote my first drafts longhand, I’d lose half of it due to pure incomprehensibility. I probably should have been a Doctor.

  8. Since I’m a transcriptionist I have used Dragon Naturally Speaking from time to time and actually I’ve found it worked just as well training it for a month as not training it right out of the download. However, although I’ve entertained the idea, I haven’t used it for a novel yet. I too started with pen and paper, long yellow legal pads, when my handwriting was better. Now, forget it, handwriting hasn’t seen legible since the 90’s.

  9. I have used Dragon to transfer a lot of my random notebook scratchings to the computer (the ones I could read, that is), but I haven’t had the patience to train myself use it to dictate my thoughts directly as they happen. Somehow the speaking interferes with my thinking, but I’m glad to hear it can be done!

  10. It seems we all have an early writing faze to fess up about. I used to:

    1. Write longhand
    2. Read what I’d written into a Dictaphone
    3. Have it typed up by a lady friend who happened to be a typist (120 words per minute)

    I next progressed to doing the typing part myself, on an electric typewriter (hunt and peck). My first computer was an ‘Apple Mac’, where I began to reap the benefits of not having to start at the beginning every time I made a mistake. When the Mac died, a computer techy friend of mine put together a PC for me out of parts he’d acquired, and since then I have never looked back. I have taken a couple of touch typing courses but never quite mastered it. I use all my fingers but I spend half the time looking at the keyboard and half the time at the screen.

    As always, Laurie, excellent post; and as always, sorry I’m late to the party.

  11. I do the laptop thing but I carry a pencil and notebook everywhere. My best ideas usually happen on the interstate (scary, I know but I do pull over). I’ve tried a recorder but I hate talking to myself about how stupid I sound instead of actually putting an idea on it. Great post Laurie.

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