5 Ways Your Brain Sabotages Your Writing... And What To Do About It

When we sit at the keyboard, we rely on our brains to help us fill that vast white space with intriguing words, well-rounded characters, and watertight plot twists. Sometimes our brains oblige. But more often, our grey matter tells us that we should check Twitter (because what if our blog post got a retweet from someone important?), that we totally have time to catch up on TV while we eat lunch (because that’s just smart multitasking right there!), or that we should quit this writing nonsense and get a real job (because we suck anyway). Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is that your brain hates your guts. That’s just science.

Psychologists have identified all sorts of cognitive biases and mental tomfoolery that turn your mind against you every day. You can’t fix them all, but you can be aware of them, and in the illustrious words of G.I. Joe: Knowing is half the battle (the other half is severing limbs with a machete, but that’s a post for another day).

Escalation of Commitment

Your brain says: “You’ve put so much time and effort into writing this story, it’d be crazy not to finish.”
The reality: No matter how much you’ve invested in a project, sometimes it’s smarter to cut your losses. Kenny Rogers put it best: “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

Imagine you’re an eccentric millionaire—probably wearing a monocle—who has spent two years and close to $100,000 creating a desk featuring cool-water sprinklers for those working in hot climes. You are just $20,000 and six months from finishing your prototype when IKEA launches a sprinkler desk. It’s just as good as yours, much cheaper, and comes in a handy flat-pack box. They’re probably calling it Sprynklerd or something with an umlaut. Do you spend the $20,000 and six months to finish your prototype?

You may have said no because you are not an eccentric desk-building millionaire, so you can look at the situation from an outsider’s perspective and make a rational, fact-based decision. Why throw good money after bad? If a failing project has taken up years of your life, why give it even more of your time? Our brains are great at giving good advice to other people. This is the case with almost all the cognitive biases we’ll discuss here. Your brain isn’t out to screw everybody, just you.

When the situation is more relatable, Escalation of Commitment kicks in. Try this scenario: You’ve been writing a novel for eight months. You’re 75,000 words in when you realize that it’s not working. Really not working. There are plot holes everywhere, your characters are flat, and you’ve lost your passion for the story. Throw it out or keep writing? The truth is, you’d probably keep going. The more we have invested in a project—the sunk costs—the harder it becomes to walk away. Even when it would be logical to do so. Even when everyone else can see that we should call it quits. 

Solutions:

  • When you’re questioning the merit of a project, focus on what you have left to do instead of what you’ve already done. What will finishing the project cost you in time, happiness, energy, money, etc.? Is it worth it?
  • Recognize that the resources you put toward one goal take resources away from other goals. Making more time for writing means less time with friends, working on other projects, and taking Instagram photos of your food. Are you okay with that? Decide which goals are truly important to you and prioritize accordingly.
  • If you decide to walk away from a project, do it with confidence. Don't second-guess the choice or guilt yourself into a vat of Ben & Jerry's. Focus on what you gained from moving on, not what you lost.
  • Replace the abandoned project with one that you feel more confident about. 

Planning Fallacy

Your brain says: “Relax, you’ve got plenty of time for this project.”
The reality: You are straight-up terrible at estimating how long it will take you to finish tasks. You’ll almost assuredly underestimate the time you’ll need.

When they started building the Sydney Opera House, the blokes in charge were all like, “No worries, mate. She’ll be done by 1963 and this $7 million budget should cover things nicely. Throw another shrimp on the barbie.” (Note: I am paraphrasing here.) Then they proceeded to tear through the $7 million faster than a kangaroo chasing a boomerang (fun with stereotypes!). The iconic building finally opened in 1973—ten years late and $95 million over budget.

The same thing happens to you on a (hopefully) much smaller scale when you write. You tend to underestimate how much time projects will take for you to complete. It’s called Planning Fallacy, and it’s why Afternoon-You looks at the to-do list made by Morning-You and says, “Were you under the impression that I am some sort of goddamn superhero or what?”

Psychologists think your overly optimistic planning is caused by a combination of wishful thinking and how you view similar projects you’ve done in the past, which is to say you subconsciously take credit for the progress that was made but blame outside forces for delays. The last article took so long to write because your computer crashed, your neighbor was playing “Rhythm Is A Dancer” on his damned guitar again, and you got stuck in traffic on the way to an interview. Those things weren’t your fault and won’t happen again, you say. But they might. And if they don’t, other time-sucks will show up to take their place.

Solutions:

  • Your brain isn’t as bad at determining how long it will take someone else to complete a task. You’ll overestimate in most cases, but it’s nothing compared to the wildly overoptimistic standards you’ll set for yourself. When you need to determine a time frame for a project, imagine someone else will be completing the task and your guess will be closer to the truth.
  • Planning Fallacy is going to tell you that writing your book will take, oh, maybe two weeks if you stop for meals. As always, it lies. For a goal as complex as that, the only way to get a remotely accurate estimate is to break it into the individual steps it will take to achieve it. Besides, it's scary as hell to see "write novel" on today's to-do list, but breaking it down into steps like "research alpaca breeding standards for book" or "write chapter seven" turns it into something that's finite, specific, and easier to wrap your head around. Make a list. Write down how long each step will take. Add ’em up.
  • Make a note of how long similar tasks have taken, but don’t adjust for distractions or problems caused by outside sources.
  • Identify potential snags. Assume they’ll happen.

Hyperbolic Discounting

Your brain says: “Watching that video of a baby otter eating a medley of seafood with his little paws is a great use of your time.”
The reality: Your brain favors immediate rewards over long-term ones, so it tries to trick you.

Here’s the trippiest thing you’ve heard all day: There is more than one You, and they want different things. NowYou wants the immediate gratification of baby otter videos and afternoons at the park. FutureYou has a jetpack and wants NowYou to get crackin’ on that book so FutureYou can go on a jetpack-powered book tour and look all impressive to your skeptical parents. Mind blown? Just remember: Every time NowYou decides to reorganize your book collection by color instead of working, FutureYou wants to punch you in the face. You’d better hope nobody ever figures out how to time travel.

This phenomenon is called Hyperbolic Discounting: the tendency to prefer smaller rewards now over larger rewards later. Humans may have been hardwired this way since the caveman days, when they had to immediately consume the food they gathered to avoid spoilage and hungry animals. We are way less likely to get attacked by pterodactyls in 2012, but we are still plagued by fat guys who refuse to stop eating donuts now to avoid heart attacks later and idiots with YOLO tattoos. And more importantly, we still procrastinate when we should be writing.

Solutions:

  • Fool your brain by providing short-term rewards for completing parts of your long-term goals. Finish a chapter of your novel? Go eat frogurt, head to the pub, or do bath salts…whatever is rewarding for you.
  • Force NowYou to write a note to FutureYou every time you goof off. Explain yourself, dammit. Wait two weeks then read the lame excuses offered up by PastYou. Repeat until you’re furious enough to straighten up or invent a time machine.

Curse Of Knowledge

Your brain says: “Readers are going to understand everything in your story.”
The reality: Once you know something, it’s tough to remember what it was like not to know it.

Try this: Wander over to your office mate, captor, or barista and explain that you are going to knock on your desk to the rhythm of a song. It’s their job to guess the song. Use “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Thriller,” or some other well-known song of your choosing. What do you think the odds are they will be able to identify the song? Try and report back…

They didn’t get it, did they? And you were sure they would. When this experiment was run in a more formal setting, only 3 out of 120 songs were guessed correctly, and the tappers were shocked. The song was playing so clearly in their heads that they couldn’t imagine anyone missing it. That’s the Curse Of Knowledge (cue lightning and maniacal laughter).

As writers, it’s a cognitive bias worth watching for. Just because you recognize a reference, find something entertaining, or understand something about your plot or character, does not mean your reader will. If you’ve got an outline of your novel and knowledge of future events, it’s easy to inadvertently write scenes that confuse readers who don’t know as much about your story. The story in your head sounds like “Thriller,” but to your readers, it sounds like random tapping. Try to avoid that.

Solutions:

  • Get a good editor or smart reader to give you honest feedback. When I started my novel, I had a giant Curse-Of-Knowledge-induced blind spot in early chapters. Fortunately, I was taking Christopher Bram’s novel-writing course here on LitReactor, and he pointed it out.
  • Make sure the test reader isn’t privy to the inner workings of your story. Another classmate, who had read my outline, noted that “Chris is right, but having read your synopsis, my mind just filled that information in for me and I never noticed it was missing.”

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Your brain says: “You’re a pretty awful writer. Why are you still doing this?”
The reality: If you were truly terrible, you probably wouldn’t know it.

You know those first episodes of American Idol where tone-deaf contestants shriek over Katy Perry backing tracks then look truly shocked when the judges don’t see their talent? Those deluded souls are victims of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which says that incompetent people lack the skill to recognize whether or not they are competent. In other words, truly terrible writers don’t know enough about good writing to see a difference in writing quality between Fifty Shades and Moby Dick. (They may also need to be told that Moby Dick is not a porn involving a bald vegan musician, but that’s a different problem altogether.)

You, on the other hand, are a tormented hub of self-doubt, constantly wondering whether you should put away this crazy writing dream and get a real job. Because you suck. So much. In other words, you’re a typical writer. Take comfort in the fact that if you were actually useless, you’d be clearing a space on the mantle for your Pulitzer.

Solutions:

  • Pay attention to critiques from workshops, readers, editors, agents, window washers, and anybody else willing to give you honest feedback. Use the constructive bits to improve and ditch the rest.
  • Set goals designed to help you become a better writer instead of goals to prove you’re already the best. Let yourself make mistakes. One more time: Let. Yourself. Make. Mistakes.
  • Most importantly, if you love to write, then write. To hell with whether you’re the next Faulkner or Dickinson.

Do any of these cognitive biases affect your writing practice? Which ones are the biggest pests?

Image of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite
Author: David DiSalvo
Price: $12.24
Publisher: Prometheus Books (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 309 pages
Image of Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior
Author: Leonard Mlodinow
Price: $17.72
Publisher: Pantheon (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 272 pages
Kimberly Turner

Column by Kimberly Turner

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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Comments

AssholeAmerican's picture
AssholeAmerican from America (CO, NE, NC, AK, NY, WA) is reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Portable Atheist by Hitchens, 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill July 19, 2012 - 3:47pm

Kimberly,

This was great. I was nodding along to every point either because I'm guilty of it and was realizing it or because I've spoken to others that are guilty of some of the points. Thank you for writing this and I hope you're still humming along with your novel!

Wes

Dennis's picture
Admin
Dennis from Hollywood is reading Ready Player One July 19, 2012 - 3:53pm

I loved this column. It rang very true.  Thanks, Kim!

Johanna Sabater's picture
Johanna Sabater July 19, 2012 - 4:18pm

Kimberly - true on all counts. Thanks for these!

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta is reading N0S4A2 by Joe Hill July 19, 2012 - 4:23pm

@Wes Thanks. The novel is slow and steady but that's okay. How's yours coming?

@Dennis and @Johanna Thanks y'all.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks July 19, 2012 - 4:25pm

Yeah, Kim, two for two. I like how this piece is brainy AND humorous. Together we can beat the brains!

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy July 19, 2012 - 4:31pm

I agree with all but the first one. I don't think you should necessarily trust your brain to think that a novel you are that far into is not working. I think you should definitely finish it and see what you have before you consider it a collosal waste. You might decide to trunk it and never re-write it, but I think you owe it to yourself to make sure it wasn't salvagable before killing it.

Otherwise, there is too much of a risk of mistaking shaken self-confidence for your novel actually being horrible. You could easily fall into the Dunning-Kruger effect and think you are wasting your time on the novel.

In my opinion, the only way to know that for sure is to finish it.

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading Wide Sargasso Sea July 19, 2012 - 5:36pm

Great, Kimberly! I loved reading this instead of working on my novel. Everything you say is true. So true. So, so true. Sigh.

Miranda Moth's picture
Miranda Moth from Guelph, Ontario, Canada is reading The Maze Runner by James Dashner July 19, 2012 - 9:40pm

lol yes, I totally just read this instead of writing. Point proven. I think it's my favourite one of your articles so far, very funny. We should all assume that in the future we own time machines, and get to work now to avoid that well-deserved beating.

Cody Riddle's picture
Cody Riddle July 20, 2012 - 12:46am

The dunning kruger effect is a lack of observational skill?

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta is reading N0S4A2 by Joe Hill July 20, 2012 - 1:10am

@Jack You make good points. There's a fine line between succumbing to escalation of commitment and dunning-kruger. It's tough.

@Josh and Jane Gracias.

@Miranda Sometimes I wake up with bruises I don't remember getting. I'm just going to assume that's the work of FutureMe. I think she's been working out.

@Cody Essentially, yeah. It's lack of self-awareness pertaining specifically to your low level of skill at certain subjective things (obviously, you could tell if you were bad at something like jump-rope because there's a clear measure of success...don't get hit in the leg with the rope).

Blair's picture
Blair from Southern California is reading Needful Things July 20, 2012 - 12:14pm

Well, I'm fucked because I thought I was brilliant.

Raul Felix's picture
Raul Felix from Huntington Beach, CA is reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X July 21, 2012 - 10:45am

I do have the problem of setting overly ambitious goals and then failing to accomplish anything because I set out to do too much stuff. I found if I keep it simple: Write X amount of words, read for an hour, work out, and read a couple of articles of writing I feel like I've made some forward progess. 

WordNerdGuy's picture
WordNerdGuy July 25, 2012 - 5:21pm

Really great article. I love the psychological aspects to writing that you've outline and how they sometimes hold us back from the real work. I suffer from the NowMe versus the FutureMe, though I hope I'm somewhat immune to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. That would be tragic. 

Jeremy Cloven's picture
Jeremy Cloven July 26, 2012 - 4:11am

"Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is that your brain hates your guts. That’s just science."
Damn, I love science.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks July 26, 2012 - 11:25am

FUCKING MAGNETS, HOW DO THEY WORK?!?!?

Stuart Wright's picture
Stuart Wright August 20, 2012 - 5:46am

A friend of mine studying a Phd about brain wrote the following under a facebook update when I posted a link to this article.... 

"The Left hemisphere might be generalised as where you do tool based processing. The Left works in the immediate timeframe, uses language, works sequentially, prefers inanimate objects, works with simplified context, is self assured and can block the Right Hemisphere. Prefers Melody, responds to Adrenaline.

The Right Hemisphere has the evolved sense of self and awareness of the environment. The right sees life in objects, notices change over time, has visual spatial processing, prefers rhythm. Responds to stimulants that increase awareness.

When you combine these ideas you can see the left doesn't like being distracted from single tasks, has burst of energy and gets tired, is assured of itself (even to delusion) and has the ability to ignore the right.

The right understands yourself and tasks over time but has no way of expressing those ideas or enforcing them.

Your left might be the excitable part of you that gets anxious and excited and the right is the one that takes a longer view. In very general terms you can tell by the stimulants they respond to that the left might be loosely described as the seat of anger and the right the seat of sadness.

I get through a lot of work (PHD, job, Liverpool soccer website) and I do it by avoiding the anger, anxiousness and sadness drivers I just mentioned. I remove the emotional cost to choosing to work. I also try to loosely manage the idea of things I've done during the day by ticking them off. These strategies point at the tendencies of the left and right - one to anxiousness / anger (just work without choosing) and sadness (cheer yourself up with demonstrable progress). I think these are the basic reasons the "Getting Things Done by Dave Allen" works so well with me. I use a website called ActionComplete to treat myself like a workflow node :)

To write effectively I find I need to devolve the anxiousness and sadness related to the work. I grab the iPad and just sit. Once I give myself no option to do anything but write I find I just start. I just do some for 30 minutes and get up and walk around. It's not a rest but a management of the back :) Then I sit down and do some more.

jcasey274's picture
jcasey274 from Cape Town, South Africa is reading Post Office August 2, 2013 - 2:33pm

Some days my brain tells me I'm a genius. Other days it tells me I'm a big, useless fake.