Books? Resumes? Poetry? Our lives are surrounded by words, both written and spoken. It’s the thread of society that binds us. Yet, after our early years of schooling, how many of us still think about how to write. Not what to write or what tools to use, but how to write the words we use. How to take an idea and transfer it into symbols on the page or screen that hold meaning.
While most of the content on this blog focuses on creating books, today I’d like to take an aside and consider writing generally. Because the way we think about how to write, and how that impacts our ability to do so, is important to everyone. We fill our days with writing—from text messages and social media posts, to work related emails, proposals, or reports. All of us are writing, virtually all the time.
The Psychology Of Writing
Richard Kellogg’s book, The Psychology Of Writing, is an impressive look into how conveying meaning through symbols (in this case words) impacts us. Though the book is a bit dated (originally published in 1999), the principles he discusses hold true.
the psychology of writing
By Richard Kellogg
The human ability to render meaning through symbolic media such as art, dance, music, and speech defines, in many ways, the uniqueness of our species. One symbolic medium in particular–written expression–has aroused increasing interest among researchers across disciplines, in areas as diverse as the humanities, education, and the social sciences because it offers a fascinating window into the processes underlying the creation and enunciation of symbolic representation.
In part, Kellogg describes the idea that the process brings together personal symbols—essentially our abstract ideas—and consensual symbols—the words we all agree to and understand. We write to move our ideas into a real and shareable form. Communication is central to our lives and how we do so, both personally and professionally, is important to our success and even our identity.
I’ll come back to some of Kellogg’s ideas later, but the important thing is that writing is a necessity. Society simply couldn’t persist without communication, which is facilitated largely through words. Knowing how to share those words, it follows, is critical to effective communications.
Writing A Book
We write a lot every day. Authors take that a step further and write for fun too. It also makes the work that goes into finishing a book a great model for how to write. One, because it’s a lot of work, and two because authors write a variety of content.
A book itself is a multi-part construct. You’ve got your story, but when you write, there’s usually an outline or notes to guide the story. That same book also needs a description and/or abstract to help with the marketing. Those are unique kinds of writing. Authors know this and write in a variety of forms because that’s the best way to communicate their story.
There’s the storyteller, getting the ideas in your head onto a page in a way your reader can feel. Or the strategist who knows how to write a conclusion or hook line that get that reader excited. And the marketer, who can bullet point with concise detail the selling points of the story.
Making Time To Write
Technology has made writing (among so many other things) much easier and more accessible. I know I would struggle to finish a novel if all I had was pen and paper. I write slowly and I grip my pen too tightly. But I can crank upwards of 80 words per minute on my keyboard, and I can do that for hours.
Likewise, environment plays a part in productivity. Going back to Kellogg, he said, “environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance.” Which, if you can parse out the academic language, is saying that we structure our creative time around our daily schedule, the places we’re in, and other rituals. This kind of thinking applies to everyone.
For example, I rarely respond to non-urgent emails after about 3 PM. Why? I craft much more coherent and thoughtful words in the morning. Another example is that I almost never take notes on my computer. For sustained drafting, I can write on my computer for a long time. But notes are more concise and meaningful if I draft them by hand. Later, I’ll transcribe those notes and save them.
Writing And Productivity
Did you know that, by some estimates, we’re only productive for about 3 of the average 8.8 hours we work every day? Wild, right? Inc.com provides a great list from the study of our productivity about how we spend our working hours (when we’re not being productive).
Now think about how you spend those productive office hours. Some are probably in meetings where you’re taking in information (maybe taking notes?) or presenting information. Other times you’re likely interacting with documents, customers, or your fellow employees.
Point being, there’s an excellent chance a lot of your productive time is actually writing time. Even if authoring isn’t what you ‘do’, remember Kellogg’s idea I started from. Communication is an act of turning personal symbols (ideas) into consensual symbols (words/images).
If you spend this much time crafting messages, research papers, business letters, or whatever your productive hours might entail, doesn’t it behoof you to strive to do so well? Of course it does.
For those of you out there who have to use words to be productive, the question of how to write is one of productivity and practicality. Which brings us back to where we started; with how to write.
Sometimes writing is a chore. But that can be true of anything. When you have worked related writing to do or if you’re an author working on finishing a manuscript, there are active steps you can take to be more productive.
Kellogg argues, quite persuasively, that a multitude of factors can impact how well and how consistently we’re able to write. Since this is just a blog post, I’ll stick a smaller number.
Here are some factors you should consider to increase your productivity:
Do you write better sitting at your desk with a cup of coffee early in the morning? Or are you more of a lemonade and afternoon on the porch kind of creator? What about music? Is it jazz or classic rock or NPR in the background when you’re getting the most done?
Knowing that we’re all effected by our environment, use this to help focus your productivity. Strive to build your schedule around your productive environments so you can be more productive!
I prefer to write emails and other correspondences that go out to other people in the morning. I’m more clear and direct in the morning. I’m more creative in the afternoon. I like to edit in the evening.
All preferences; how you organize your time will differ. And be sure to think about how you organize your time alongside your environment because they often work together closely. For example, sitting at my desk (at home) and writing in the morning is natural. But in the evening, if I’m at my desktop PC it’s gaming or chatting with friends. Time and environment matter.
Call it a ritual, a pattern, or even just your daily schedule. Your habits will impact if and when you get words down. If you want to be writing more and you’re not or what you are creating isn’t satisfying you, you may need a change of habit.
One reason I get a fair amount written every day (around 3,000 words on average) is because I’ve built a strong habit of sitting at my keyboard. I’m pretty easily distracted too, so it’s important to acknowledge that and allow for it.
Part of my writing habit is to ‘gift’ myself with distractions every 15 minutes or so. Whether that’s stopping to browse Reddit or playing with the dog, I build in time to be distracted so I’m able to focus while I write.
Writing is a sedentary activity. You will almost always be sitting while you write. So, even if your posture is awesome, you risk soreness.
We all benefit from exercise. But for those of us who write either for a living or for fun, there are some specific concerns. Your back for sure. But also your wrists and forearms. Becoming conscious of the toll you’re taking on your body is the first step in treating yourself better.
Just like the way I schedule brief distraction breaks, I also stand, walk around, and stretch often. It might seem like a paltry thing, but it really helps.
And for the love of all things literary, drink more water!
Last one and it’s probably the most commonly talked about of the subjects we’re looking at here. How you write is also a very practical consideration. Pen and paper or a computer? And is it a laptop or a desktop? Some writers even use specific kinds of keyboards to get a certain tactile response when typing.
For me, the tools I use are often defined by the tasks. I do almost all my note taking by handing. I do most of my content drafting on a laptop or at my desktop. But if I’m editing, I will always be at my desktop so I can have access to the mouse.
The tools you use are important.
Why It Matters
We spend so much of our time communicating, be it with written words, through video, or in person. When we step back from all that time spent communicating and take a moment to consider how we achieve that communication, we open up opportunities for improvement and growth.
I can say, without any doubt, that I started becoming a better writer when I dedicated more time to thinking about how I write.