Better All The Time?

By Mary Gillgannon

Some of my writer friends enjoy revising. They’re excited to have the first draft done and begin polishing the story. I, on the other hand, dread that part of the process. I much prefer the thrill of having the story unfold in front of me. The adrenaline rush of having my characters come to life and make things happen. That’s what keeps me writing.

Of course, it’s not always like that in the first draft. Sometimes my characters refuse to tell me what the story is. Or they take me off on a wild goose chase and I end up re-writing half of the book. But still the initial process is very often exhilarating.

And yet, I eventually get to the end and have to begin the important work of cleaning up the mess that is my story. It’s a seriously cringe-worthy process: Oh, my God, I didn’t really write that! No! I didn’t really use the word “really” about a hundred times. Not to mention “pretty” and “that’ and a dozen other bad habits. And then there are the doubled words (which Word never seems to catch) and the missing words. The logic problems. The occasional “homophone”; I didn’t mean “there”, but “they’re”!

And of course there’s the process of “quieting the ripples”. Because when you realize the middle part of the book is crap and try to fix it, you inevitably affect plot points throughout the story and have to fix them, too! And my beginning sucks! And why didn’t I think about that earlier in the book?

I always get through it. But it’s not fun. And I especially get discouraged because I’ve been writing for so long. I think: Why isn’t easier? Why aren’t I a better writer after 20 books?

Well, according to a research study, I am better. A scientist studied the creative process by tracking brain activity with MRI’s. His research subjects included both novice adult writers and “expert” writers (they were enrolled in a MFA program). To separate out the creative part of writing, he had them first copy something already written to get a baseline for the actual writing process. Then he did MRI’s as they brain-stormed an original story and wrote it.

He found that novice writers used different parts of their brain even while brainstorming. The novice writers had more activity in the visual center of the brain while the expert ones had activity in regions involved with speech. When the two groups began writing, there were other differences. In the expert writers a region in the brain called the caudate nucleus became active, while in the novice writers it was quiet.

The caudate nucleus is involved in skills that are learned through practice, such as piano playing, basketball or even board games. When a person begins learning these skills, they have to consciously think about what they are doing. But as they become more expert, the caudate nucleus takes over and coordinates these complex skills.

There has been a lot criticism of this study by other scientists, who are skeptical that it really shows where the creative process takes place in the brain. But I found the results encouraging. It suggests that as writers we do become better and more efficient in the writing process. We start using parts of the brain that are involved in more complex functions.

Maybe the problem for me is that as I get better, I also raise my expectations and become more critical. I have to tell myself that even though I still find stupid mistakes when I revise, at least I know they are mistakes and can recognize what needs fixing. So all the years of doing this have paid off and I really am becoming better at this.

At least I’ll believe that until I have to revise the next book!

You can read more about this study on the creative process in this New York Times article.

2 thoughts on “Better All The Time?

  1. terryshames

    Interesting idea that as you get better you raise your expectations. My third book will be out in the fall. I wrote several books before I finally got published and I realized that what finally did the trick was deciding I wouldn’t write a book that was “good enough.” I had to write above that level. Now, I find myself writing first draft with a mind to how to deepen the characters and make the plot just a little more interesting. Consciously. I think you’re right!

    Reply
  2. Patricia Stoltey

    I don’t think it’s a problem that you raise the bar for yourself as you write more and more, Mary. I think that’s the only way we can get close to writing those novels we’ll be most proud of. The creative process is a fascinating topic. Thanks for bringing this study to our attention.

    Reply

Leave a Reply