The Three Writing Mindsets
I write nearly every day and I have the hypothesis that there are three writing mindsets. Put simply:
- Raw. When I wake up from a dream, or share a meal with someone interesting, I have a surplus of ideas in my head. Often they’re strange, sometimes they’re interesting, occasionally they’re brilliant. In all cases they are fragments of ideas: phrases, concepts, images, memories. They could be anything, ideas for books, or systems of government, or a new kind of terrible spray cheese product. I know I can’t predict what idea will lead to what other ideas, so I write down tons of the raw thoughts that cross my mind. I have many places for capturing the raw things that come out of my mind. I have a pad by my bed, a small notebook with me all the time and a digital journal.
- Run. When I’m developing a specific post, essay or chapter, this is the mindset that lets me build a narrative, find a theme, and run with it for as long as I can until it dies out. Sometimes I can run with a thread for pages. Sometimes I barely get through a paragraph. But unlike Raw, with Run I stick with the same idea for as long as I can and continue trying to make it work.
- Review. When nothing else works I review. I reread from the start. I fix things. I change the order of points. Sometimes I change bigger things like the order of paragraphs, pages or chapters. Sometimes I fix little things like spelling or grammar. This is editing, in that I’m primarily working with what’s already there. If I’m reviewing to avoid running, I try to review only long enough until I have an idea and the confidence to start running again (saving real editing for the big read).
Some writing sessions involve moving between these three mindsets frequently. I might decide to scrap an entire chapter or add a new one (Raw), or pick up a side path and make it the focus (Run). To do either of those tasks might require me to reread entire sections (Review) before I can hold enough of it in my mind to make a Run.
There are good days where I balance the three mindsets well. On other days I get lost on one particular run on something that in reality is a tangent, and I won’t know it until the next time I sit down to review the whole creation. Now and then I find myself obsessing about a detail (Review) far too early, when then entire piece isn’t developed enough to justify polishing.
Often I can control which one I want to use and it’s a choice. When I sit down each day I often know where I left off yesterday. I begin the writing session I already have in mind what the next session needs to do. Other times I have trouble continuing, and need to write freely in my journal just to get the exhaust out of my brain (Raw). But on some days I’m a slave to my mind, when it wants to Run, or wants to be Raw, even though the task at hand is to Review, I sometimes let it have its way.
I always have projects at different stages lying around. If I can’t concentrate on the mindset one project needs, I’ll at least go and review something, or continue a Run (e,g, a half-written blog post) I abandoned weeks ago, until I sort out what is distracting me from what i want to do. I try to never let myself do nothing: there’s always a way to use whatever state of mind I have to my advantage. At minimum I can do some research on the project (a kind of review, just of other people’s work). But I know on some days the escape from having any conscious mindset at all is what I need, and the solution is to go for a run, chase the dog, have a beer with a friend and see where my mind is the next day after my body has had its way.
[This post was 1% Raw, 74% Run, and 25% review: I wrote it in 25 minutes just now, while avoiding a much larger writing project]
In thinking this over I realize I frequently make lists. Some of my Raw activity is simply listing possibilities for something (books, chapters, topics, ideas, questions, insane thoughts). I find lists psychologically satisfying and if you looked in my notebooks you’d find a lot of strange kinds of lists.
I’d consider list making a combination of Raw/Run – it’s raw in that I’m not writing paragraphs or complete thoughts, I’m just putting down enough words to express an element in whatever the list is for. But since the list is for something, a list of possible book titles or stories to include, it is a kind of Run activity as I’m deliberately choosing which direction at a high level to go in.
Fascinating how hard it is to describe the processes of the mind (perhaps they’re not processes or mindsets at all, but that’s the only way we can articulate what’s going on)
I like how you described the Run Raw and Review process. I’m not a writer but would love to be. I have ideas flying around in my head and I put those ideas down paper. Sometimes I amaze myself with how a paragraph or sentence reads back but unfortunately more times I find I haven’t set the scene or described it very well. Just because I see it clearly in my mind I forget the person who might read it can’t. This is were I experience problems, I’m not very articulate and with only a second level education at my back I rely on the dictionary…a lot. Is there a rule of thumb on how much description is too much?
I get a kick out of your last bracketed paragraph—me too: When I was very young, I knew how to avoid, but not how to constructively avoid.
True. There’s a fancy term for it, “constructive procrastination” or something. It’s a notion I learned from my wife who used to switch between two paintings whenever she got stuck working on one of them.
This is an excellent lesson for all writers. Every writer needs to read this. :) )))))
I found that my best writing happens when I do not think of good writing, but simply writing. Ideas flow well when I do not worry about grammar and logical constructions.
While I have done my fair share of writing (academic papers, tech books), currently most of my “writing” is writing code. Interestingly, as I read this post I realized that the three mind sets you describe apply perfectly to that type of writing as well.
I wonder how far this idea can be taken? Are these three mindsets common to all “creative” pursuits?
I am 71 years old and in a very terrible position in my financial life but I have been engaged in social, economic and political struggles most of my adult life. I have thousands of news paper clippings and have served in numerous civic, veterans and community affairs. I have been wanting to write a book for years but it seems it keeps getting longer and more complex with every passing day. My mind is full of passion and it seems I am never happy without some form of controversy in my daily life. My problem seems to be when will this book begins and ends because there is just this constant rush of activities that have drained me to the point while I don’t have a clue how I can tell any story in 300 pages or less. Help if you have any ideas of coping with this problem.