The Secret to Writing Well Isn’t What You’d Expect, New Study Shows

Secret to great writing
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What if the secret to writing well is in how you think about the story, not just how you write it?

Martin Lotze, a researcher at the University of Greifswald, recently conducted a study on the neuroscience of creative writing — and developed some surprising results, The New York Times reports.

Lotze asked 28 non-writers to copy some text from a page as well as finish a story based on a prompt, all while they were hooked up to an MRI machine. When it came to copying text, he didn’t see much activity in the participants’ brains. When they were coming up with a story, however, some of the vision-processing regions of their brains lit up, almost as if they saw their tale unfold.

While visualizing your story may seem like the right way to approach writing, it turns out that for full-time writers, the brain performs a bit differently. When Dr. Lotze watched writers from a competitive creative writing program perform the same tests, he found that experienced writers, while brainstorming, used parts of their brains associated with speech instead of vision.

That’s right: if you’re a professional writer, chances are you think about how you would describe a scene rather than envisioning the scene itself, using an entirely different part of your brain. Novice writers, Lotze suggests, are more likely to watch the story unfold like a movie inside their heads.

Could changing how you think make you a better writer?

Even more interesting, Lotze found that professional writers used the caudate nucleus of their brains while they wrote. What the heck is the caudate nucleus? It’s the part of the brain you use for things that might have been difficult to learn at first, but over time have become automatic. In other words, it suggests creative writing is a skill you can hone over time, just like playing sports — a skill that ultimately gets easier.

Creative writing is a skill you can hone over time, research suggests. Click To Tweet

While the Times reports that some other experts aren’t quite convinced Lotze’s experiment is an accurate representation of creativity, there are a few takeaways for writers from this experiment. When you’re brainstorming your next creative writing project, consider thinking about how you’ll articulate the tale to others rather than visualizing your characters and their actions.

And perhaps more importantly, write often. If creative writing is a skill your brain learns over time, then like anything else, the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

What do you think — are you more likely to visualize a scene or think about how you’d describe it?

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Emily Price (@emily) is a writer based in not-so-sunny San Francisco, California. When she isn’t writing she can often be found at a local craft brewery trying out its latest IPA or exploring the Bay Area with her favorite furry companion, Tucker.... .

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Comments

  1. Interesting study.

    I visualize and think about how to describe a scene. However, my mind has always worked like a movie. It’s probably why I gravitate toward screenwriting and shorter books, like children’s picture books and middle grade. Writing a 500 or more novel makes me feel anxious. 🙂

    • Emily Price says:

      You should give it a try! I’m a huge fan of Novel in November. It forces you to get down 50k words in just a month. That means you don’t have time to second guess yourself and just have to write. It may seem silly, but it really works!

  2. I’m a professional writer and writing instructor. When planing my writing, I focus on how I will say something, rather than visualize it. The study bears out my approach. Thanks for this useful post. I can’t wait to share it with my adult creative writing students.

  3. I’d say this makes perfect sense. Because “telling” a story is filtered for the audience.

    What I mean is, when we’re verbally engaged with an audience, we’re thinking of their needs and how adjust the story for the moment. All those “these folks don’t understand why it happened, better make it clear but fun” and “move it along, this isn’t the good stuff yet” calculations that we all do when we talk with people we know well.

    “Seeing a movie” of a scene might give us a headful of vivid details, but on its own it doesn’t show us how to USE them.

  4. I’m an artist/illustrator, so visualizing scenes and characters comes naturally to me. First drafts are generally written as I “see” them.

    However, revision is all about the words. I have to choose words that will immerse readers in the story. It’s less important that they see it as I visualized it, than for them to feel they’re experiencing it.

  5. Great post! I’ve always felt that writing is all about transferring whats in your brain to someone elses. Aka just write like you talk. Its less boring, and people will understand what the hay your talkin’ about. 🙂

    Side note, would love to hear more about your overall growth strategy and long term goals for the site. hit me up sometime 🙂

    Rob

  6. I do both. I sometimes see scenes like movies in my head and I transcribe what I see.

    When it comes to compiling the information to create a cohesive story I think about many things. I rearrange the information, delete cliches, try to make it exhilarating, and think about what would best serve the story.

    I also loosely follow the hero’s journey and three act structure to maintain balance.

    I don’t think that science can bottle what creativity is because it unique to the individual and influenced by so many variables.

    You would need a massive test group divided into the creative types: artists, writers, musicians, singers, poets.

    What about the people that fit all these categories?

    Then there are genres within each category which require different skills. Such as Crime writing and historical writing would require a fair amount of research. Whereas fantasy requires a vivid imagination with a great understanding of many universal themes to create living worlds.

    There is no easy answer.

    There are those born with talent in creative areas that are superior in creativity far beyond others. It is obvious when you come across these people that the way they view/feel/observe their world is on a different level to most others.

    Certain skills can be learnt and then honed to create works of art in all the categories but your instinct will always be honest with you in assessing those born with talent and those that try hard to be talented.

    This is how it should be. How boring would it be if we all could do everything with equal talent. There would be no need for writing, art or music. We would be desensitized to it all.

    Bibi

    • Thanks for your comment, Bibi! With so many factors and variables to consider, trying to understand creativity is quite a feat — plus, there’s a certain amount of “magic” that’s hard to describe, let alone measure.

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

  7. Oh, forgot to add that I really enjoyed the post and thank you. It was thought provoking and interesting. Bibi

  8. I am autistic and a visual thinker rather than a verbal or pattern thinker. I have been a journalist and magazine writer for more than 30 years. For me, writing is a struggle because I visualize everything and then must find a way to put those visions into words. So, I’m a slow writer but have been told by many they enjoy reading my “visual” style of writing. I’m about to embark on writing my first novel, and this study gives me hope that maybe my visual way of thinking will help me in my first attempt at creative writing. Thanks for posting this!

  9. Very interesting concept and I suppose just as interesting to study how different readers brains receive the story as well while some people may respond in a more visual way as they read than others. Thanks for making me think 🙂

  10. Steve Hansen says:

    I recently attempted to read a book written by a guy who purportedly was a movie script writer. The prose was clumsy and the dialogue was stiff, but the tedious action descriptions showed very keen visual imagination.
    Maybe this guy got better in later writing, but this early effort illustrated Emily’s point very well. As a journalistic writer for several decades, I have tried to write for meaning, simplicity and for how it would sound if read aloud, but I don’t always succeed in hitting all three of these targets. Visuals do take a back seat.

  11. Teresa Brown says:

    I’m glad I found this goldmine for writers. I’m going to make copies for my poetry group. I would like to see some sites just for poets and lyricists. Thank you very much!

  12. This makes a lot of sense. What a writer should be concerned with is the WORDS which will generate a ‘movie’ in the minds of his/her audience. Perhaps it is something like the difference between an actor describing his thoughts and actions first hand and someone who is watching the play describing what happens on stage. There are times, I suppose, when a writer must stand back and ‘observe’ but the most compelling story is usually told from the character’s point of view, from inside the character’s head.

  13. I do very little visualizing, only when I already have the story and dialog and I want to add some setting or detail the actions taking place in a scene, like a knife fight.

  14. Mass-Reader & Working Author says:

    I write thinking about how to describe the vision in my head. I read words and my mind translates them into scenes. I say this study, while scientifically interesting, does not define creativity. It simply catalogues how some individuals’ creativity was formed and is used.

  15. This is an intriguing article! I am fascinated by neurology, so this combines two of my favorite things. 🙂

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