In 2002, a psychologist (Daniel Kahneman) won a Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences. Yes, you read that correctly. A psychologist won a prize in economics, by studying the imperfect, human variable in economic equations.
Kahneman is a pioneer in the field of behavioral economics: a mash-up of psychology, neuroscience, and economics. It examines how people make decisions in the real world – not an idealized marketplace populated by completely rational humans. The theory is that a better understanding of decision-making biases might help us lead happier, more successful lives.
Why stop with economics when we could do something similar for writing?
The writing mind is not entirely rational. The quality of our work is often determined by non-rational and non-linear thought processes that fuel creativity.
We would all be better writers if we understood the processes that make us tick and the ones that derail us.
Behavioral Writing Sciences
Schools and universities teach the mechanics of writing: grammar, vocabulary, and the essay form. Creative writing classes teach character development and story structure. But most literature and composition courses lack instruction about the most powerful writing tool of all: the brain.
As students and working writers, we are left to figure out how to put everything together without understanding what’s going on in our heads. We observe our behaviors and come up with rituals and routines, hoping for the best.
In my ideal world, universities would teach seminars in Behavioral Writing Sciences – the equivalent of behavioral economics, but for writers. These classes would equip students with an understanding of the different mental systems involved in the complete, end-to-end writing process.
Here are a few potential topics for these seminars:
- How to overcome the feeling that we have nothing worth saying or fear of the blank page
- How to silence the inner critic when writing a draft
- How to welcome and sustain that critic when revising
- During revision, how to step outside our own perspective and see the text with fresh eyes
- When proofreading, how to see what exists on the page, rather than what we believe we said
- How to fit the contemplative act of writing into a busy, interrupt-driven life
You Already Know What Works, But….
If you have been writing for a while, you already have insight into your own behaviors. You know whether you thrive on deadlines or wilt under pressure; whether you can write in a crowded room or need total isolation. Experience teaches you that good ideas strike when you’re away from the desk. Perhaps you have developed writing routines to summon inspiration.
So why do we need a field of behavioral writing sciences? I can think of two good reasons.
1. We need faith in our processes.
Cognitive science tells us why our practices work; why good ideas strike at inconvenient times, or why we cannot focus on our writing in specific situations. With science backing us up, we are more likely to stick to our best habits, and have faith in our processes.
2. Awareness is the best defense against writing obstacles.
We may realize that we work best with adequate time to prepare and incubate ideas, but then set ourselves up for failure or stress by putting off starting the process.
Or, we feel discouraged by the banality of our first draft and stop working on a topic, rather than trusting in struggle as part of the creative process.
If we have studied the steps of the creative process or understand the power of incubation, we can see these situations more clearly, and take steps to stay on track. We’ll create schedules that allow time for incubation, or turn off the inner critic to promote creativity.
Consider this an open challenge to English departments everywhere to collaborate with their psychologist colleagues on the teaching the mental processes of writing.
If this interests you, take a look at The Writer’s Process – my personal take on the cognitive science behind the writing process, written by an English major who spent a lot of time in psychology classes in college.