I’m often asked how to find a sense of “flow” when writing. This is a slightly tricky question to answer, because it depends very much on what you mean by flow.
Like all metaphors, the term flow is a concise way of expressing an abstract concept, but it also leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. It could refer to the structure of the argument, where one idea flows neatly into the next, or it could refer to the flow of ideas from your brain onto the page. These concepts are quite different, because one is centred on the reader’s experience and the effectiveness of communication, the other on the writer’s experience and the rate of production.
There is a third meaning, defined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, referring to a high-performance mental state experienced by writers (or artists, musicians or athletes) during creative processes. This flow state is one of total focus on the task at hand, to such an extreme that you cease to be aware of your surroundings, of time, of hunger, fatigue, or other discomfort.
During this kind of flow, it can seem like the work is just happening while your conscious self stands to one side (this is the original meaning of the term ecstasy-to stand outside oneself), and often the resulting work represents the very best of your ability.
So to answer the question of how to find your writing flow, we need to be clear what exactly it is you are looking for.
Writing without thinking
One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to “write without thinking”, so you can get words down on the page to sort out later. The rationale often given is that over-thinking makes you hesitant or perfectionist, and so writing without thinking helps you overcome that barrier.
While there may be some circumstances where this is a useful approach, and it can help you fill pages quickly, there are several drawbacks;
- There will be points in your writing where accuracy is crucial, especially if writing about a basic assumption on which the rest of your argument rests
- Some ideas are harder to express than others, and require more thought and time
- You will, at times, face problems in your writing which require careful thought and difficult decisions- if you avoid these by writing fast then you are saving problems for later and training a habit of avoiding difficulty
- The more time you spend writing without thinking, the more messy writing you will have to fix later
- If you are writing in a second language, writing without thinking may be impossible (and pressure to do so from native-speaking bloggers is unfair)
- You cannot improve skill by going as fast as possible
Is there a contradiction here? Why is it that writing without conscious thought has all these drawbacks, and yet is the basis of the creative ideal, the flow state?
The contradiction only exists because the definitions are over-simplified, so we need to look a little deeper.
The importance of skill
Flow, as defined by Csikszentmihaly, is more than just acting without conscious thought, and, crucially, it is not always the ideal state for work.
One of the key ideas is the balance between the difficulty of the task at hand and your level of skill in that activity. In order to achieve flow, the task needs to be at or close to the limit of your ability so that it requires your full and undivided attention.
The difficulty may be technical and intrinsic to the task (for example, you may have to do some difficult mathematics to analyse your data), or the task may be technically easy, but under difficult circumstances (such as a tight deadline).
Whatever the circumstances, pre-existing skill is one of the fundamental prerequisites for flow. In the case of writing, this could refer to general writing skill, language fluency or subject knowledge. If you are a good writer, dealing with a subject you know extremely well, in a language you speak fluently, flow may be possible. If you are missing just one of those three-for example you are a good writer, writing in your native language, but the section you are working on is not where your expertise is strongest-then trying to write without thinking is not the best approach.
Other conditions for flow
In addition to skill, there are two other key requirements for flow, clear goals and immediate feedback. The latter of these is crucial; you need to be able to assess your own effort and adapt as you go.
As part of the “writing without thinking” approach, the common advice is to “turn off the inner writing critic”, because this leads to perfectionism etcetera, etcetera. But, as I’ve written before, crippling perfectionism does not arise because you have an inner critic, it arises because it’s badly calibrated. If you read your writing and think, “this is all shit, I’m going to fail”, then that’s a problem, but if you read it and think, “I am unsure about this point”, “this sentence is far too long”, or “this point is repeated” then you can do something about it.
For a skilful writer, these assessments and changes can take place almost automatically. You develop a “feel” for a good sentence, and an instinctive awareness of style, structure and rhythm. The inner critic is not turned off, it is operating at an almost-subconscious level as you work in a state of intense focus.
Developing skill as a writer
Simply writing every day is not enough to improve. Practice does not always make perfect, because it very much depends how you practice.
Whatever your writing ability, you will have certain habits you repeat without thinking. This could be a particular phrase or sentence construction, or it could be a grammatical mistake (mixing “which” and “that”, to give an example of one of my own bad habits).
The faster you write, the more you rely on the engrained patterns established through practice. In activities that require instant reactions (which is rarely the case in writing), thinking can get in the way of skill and negatively affect your ability to respond quickly, but that does not mean you should always practice without thinking.
Modification of skill requires conscious effort; it means slowing down and thinking carefully about what you do, then repeating again and again and again until the new pattern gradually becomes instinctive and automatic.
Improving writing is no different. If you want to get better, focus on a specific aspect of your writing and give it conscious attention and focused practice. I would do this with short sections of writing, no more than about 150 words, because it has to be easier to edit (or learn to edit) a couple of sentences than to edit an entire draft of a thesis chapter.
The key is to give focused attention, but under relaxed conditions so you can play with the writing and try things out.
Flow is not the only effective working state. Csikszentmihaly presented a range of conditions depending on the relationship between difficulty and skill
Perhaps the most important of these is “arousal”- where the challenge is just beyond your current ability. This is where learning takes place.
When you face a difficult problem in your writing (often mistaken for “writer’s block”), then simply writing fast, or writing without thinking, or writing “where the energy is”, then you will never, ever improve as a writer, and you will never be able to reach deeper insights than those you already have. Slowing down to engage with the problem and working out a solution is the only way.
You can also find yourself in this state when you have a new idea you haven’t considered before. Not knowing how or if it affects your work, and perhaps not knowing if the idea is valid, it takes some time and effort to think through the consequences.
You can follow the standard advice and just write, spewing words onto the page in a torrent of creativity, but this doesn’t seem a very academic way of working. Surely it’s better to slow down and think a little, to ask yourself what it means and to consider different possibilities?
I do this using a notebook rather than by typing, because it’s faster, it gives me more freedom to scribble down ideas and notes, and because it allows a separation between the processes of exploring and communicating ideas. Many of these ideas I never use, but the ones I do are much easier to write about because I’ve given them due thought first.
Control & Boredom
On the other side of flow there is control, where the challenge is well within your ability. These are tasks you know how to do easily, which may not require your full attention, though this can easily slip into boredom, especially if the task is repetitive.
Writing a thesis is not all technically difficult; there will be countless boring tasks such as adding and formatting references and captions, compiling tables, formatting data… This dull-but-essential donkey-work needs doing, and it needs doing well. Now, many will tell you not to worry about details and just get words down on the page, but I think it’s a mistake to leave all the mundane tasks to the end.
I’ve worked with too many students who have under-estimated the tiny, boring tasks involved in preparing a thesis or publication, and end up in a mad panic trying to take care of them all in the final days before submission. While each task may be easy in itself, the sheer number of them, combined with severe time-pressure and the inevitable screw-ups when trying to import references from one piece of software to another, can be overwhelming (see this post on the importance of formatting).
There seems to be an assumption that worrying about details “gets in the way” of creative flow, but this is not always the case. Sometimes taking care of the donkey-work first can remove a block. For example, pausing to run or double-check some analysis can give you the content or confidence to continue writing.
Avoiding the mundane can lead to severe problems. If you have several hours of audio recordings of interviews, listening to and transcribing them is an essential step before you can write anything meaningful about your research results. And yet it is amazingly common to find PhD students who have written tens, or even hundreds of thousands of words without having taken the most basic first analytical steps. Why? Because of the false – and damaging – belief that they always have to be writing.
Sometimes, you need to put creativity to one side and take care of the mundane.
The common factor in these different working modes is focus-the ability to dedicate your attention to a task no matter how challenging or boring.
This means that when you face a difficulty you don’t immediately know how to solve (whether in research or writing), you stay with it and at least give yourself a chance to solve the problem, even if it means slowing down. Writing “whatever comes to mind” will give you a short term boost in terms of words on the page, but is ultimately nothing more than avoidance. Sooner or later you will have to face the difficulty, so why not now?
You may not find a solution even if you do slow down, but by taking at least a little time to think you can start to understand what the problem is. Only then does it make sense to step away from it to allow your brain to mull it over while you work on something else. Leaving a problem for later should be the last resort, not the panicky immediate response to the slightest difficulty.
Repetitive or boring-but-essential tasks also require focus, and it helps to put some kind of target in place. “Chunking” work so you have short-term milestones to work towards is one way to do this (for example; if you have 30 separate data files that need manually formatting to import into software, set a short-term goal of importing and formatting 5 of them). It also helps to be meticulously careful, perhaps using check-lists to make sure you don’t skip a step.
Whatever the task, cut off any distractions as best you can (turn off the internet!) and see the work through to completion. It’s easy to lose focus when it’s almost done.
Flow is not always the ideal
The main point here is that flow is not always the ideal. Sometimes your progress will be slow because it needs to be in order to learn or to rigorously explore a new idea. Other times you will have to take care of mundane details that, while essential, don’t immediately put words on the page.
It is quite possible to write slowly, carefully and well, taking time to express each point clearly without ever reaching that transcendent state of ecstatic creative flow, For those who do reach it, it’s impossible (and undesirable) to stay in flow all the time.
One of the keys, I think, is to accept that your writing pace will vary, and to have the patience to positively engage with and work through the difficulties that arise without panicking about speed.
While writing my thesis, I broke many of the most commonly repeated “rules”. I wrote my introduction first, I took my time to complete each section before moving on to the next, and I took care of details like formatting as I went. Perhaps most importantly, by writing each section in an unbroken sequence in the order it would be read I focused on the flow of ideas as presented to the reader, rather than trying to find my own sense of flow (though I sometimes found it simply by focusing on the task at hand).
This approach meant that sometimes I was slow and difficult, but for me, writing the thesis was the most enjoyable time of my entire PhD. I like the writing process precisely because it’s hard; because working out a solution to a difficult problem of expression is satisfying, It’s no fun if the words come easily, because it’s no fun if there’s no challenge.
In her superb TED talk on creativity, author Elizabeth Gilbert describes her writing process as an often “mulish” struggle to find the right words, but crucially she learned to “show up and do her part” no matter how slow and difficult it is, without worrying about finding flow (she uses the term “muse”, but it refers to the same thing).
Also check out the books, “Creativity” by Csikszentmihaly, and “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (covering some of the same ideas but using different terminology).