Writing is such an effective tool for change that I use it in all of my classes and workshops. It can help you clarify intentions or goals and assist you in staying on track. It’s also extremely useful for helping you calm down, focus, and develop clarity about troubling or difficult issues.
The pen compels lucidity. —Robert Stone, novelist
The catch is that in order to get the best results, you need to be clear from the outset about what you want from your writing. You could just fill page after page in a notebook (something I did for quite a few years until I chucked the lot), but after you’re finished you may not be any clearer than you were to begin with. You might even be more confused.
Starting out with a question or prompt, maybe just a keyword or key phrase, can allow you to access some of the thoughts that may be swimming below the surface. Using a multi-part exercise can help you get even deeper and reap greater rewards.
The two basic approaches to writing—flow writing and deliberate writing—involve using the two different parts of the brain (System 1 and System 2). The problem with completely unstructured writing is that it can muddle these two approaches so that you don’t get the full benefit of either.
Making Use of Associative Thinking
The unconscious (System 1) excels in associative thinking. It detects patterns and connects dots quicker than the conscious part of your brain (System 2) can. It’s a fast processor that sometimes sacrifices accuracy for speed. But it also has access to lots of information the conscious brain isn’t aware of.
Flow writing, which is also called free writing, is non-linear, non-rational, and non-logical. You put your pen to paper and write quickly, letting the words “flow” without censoring or editing them. You don’t stop to think about what you’re writing. The best way to free your mind for flow writing is to set a page limit or use a timer.
Flow writing is a good choice if you’re not entirely sure what the problem is. If you have a lot of thoughts swirling around in your head, you can get them down on paper and take a look at them. But even with flow writing, you’ll get better results if you begin with a specific question, prompt, or keyword.
Making Use of Logical, Linear Thinking
The conscious part of the brain is rational, logical, and linear. It operates at a much slower—more deliberate—speed than the unconscious. A good way to engage conscious thinking is to respond to a series of questions or prompts. While flow-writing casts a wide net in search of answers or information, deliberate writing narrows the search.
This 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise is an example of using deliberate thinking to gain clarity. You proceed through the sequence of questions or statements with the intention of reaching some resolution.
Making Use of Both Kinds of Thinking
Sometimes flow writing or deliberate writing alone is sufficient, but integrating them can be much more powerful. Integrated writing is synergistic rather than additive, which means the whole (the result) is greater than the sum of the parts you used to get there. A few examples of integrated writing include:
10 minutes of flow writing (System 1 associative thinking) followed by writing the answers to a series of questions (System 2 logical, linear thinking). You can create your own set of questions or use the ones in the 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise.
Write Your Way Out of the Story. For instructions scroll to Antidote #3 in this post on rumination.
Go Deeper: This is a 4-part exercise that’s best to do in one sitting. Begin by writing a question at the top of a blank page and then flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Next, reread what you wrote (engaging System 2), select a sentence or phrase, and write it at the top of another blank page. Flow write in response to this sentence or phrase for 8-12 minutes. Finally, reread both pieces (System 2), find a question—either one you asked in your writing or one that occurs to you after reading—write it at the top of a blank page, and flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Then reread all three pieces and write a one-paragraph summary (System 2).
No matter which type of writing you decide to use, remember to have an intention. Be clear about what you’re doing and what you want to get out of your writing.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Even if writing doesn’t come naturally to you or seems like punishment, if you want to create habits that serve you, follow through on your goals and intentions, and develop your self-awareness, it’s worth exploring and experimenting with it.
As with any tool you want to master, regular practice makes all the difference. When you set and keep the same general time and place to write, you encourage (or prime) your brain to respond.
When you go into a restaurant, your brain is focused on deciding what to eat. When you get into your car, your brain is focused on driving. This is one of those obvious things you probably don’t really think about it. When you go into the restaurant, your brain is not focused on driving because it isn’t presented with environmental cues related to driving.
Another reason for developing a writing practice is that the real benefits of writing are cumulative. They are gained over time, not as the result of any individual exercise or piece of writing.
Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.