This Is Your Brain on Writing

We live in a culture dominated by visual imagery. And this includes modern storytelling, which is dominated by film and television. We learn to tell stories visually, and this bias is so ingrained that it is actually reflected in our brain patterns, as this fascinating insight from a recent New York Times feature reveals :

As the scientists report in a new study in the journal NeuroImage, the brains of expert writers appeared to work differently, even before they set pen to paper. During brainstorming, the novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.

“I think both groups are using different strategies,” Dr. Lotze said. It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice.

via This Is Your Brain on Writing –

The first task when I am teaching creative writing to novice students is to help them de-program  their visual imagination, and learn to use their linguistic imagination instead. There’s no indication here whether we naturally tend toward the visual imagination, or whether it is a learnt tendency from our predominantly visual culture. In either case, it’s a vast problem for most aspiring writers.

There are at least three profound problems caused by this reliance on the visual imagination. The first is a crippling dependence on description. As the NYT article illuminates, novice writers are attempting to describe a film unfolding in their heads. They tell you what everything look likes, but neglect to tell the actual story.

The second problem arises when novice writers attempt to apply the grammar of visual narratives to a linguistic narrative. For instance, in a visual narrative single scenes tend to follow the basic structure Action, Location, Emotion. But a scene in a linguistic narrative works more effectively structured around Location, Action, Emotion. It sounds like slight difference, but in practice it determines whether readers follow your story or stop reading and put it aside.

Thirdly, writers working from the visual imagination inevitably neglect all of the small techniques that add up to a compelling narrative voice. Their prose lacks rhythm or effective sentence structure. They try to write transparent prose that simply conveys the story, not realising that in prose, the words and story are ultimately one and the same thing.

How does a novice writer shift from their visual to their linguistic imagination? A good writing teacher can help, but the bottom line is you need to switch off the TV and read lots of books instead. And analyse how those books work. It’s a hard transition to make. Even many professional writers never manage it, although those who fail tend to have a short career. But if you can begin to work from a primarily linguistic imagination, you’ll find your writing is transformed for the better.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

5 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain on Writing

  1. Hi Damien.

    I wonder if casual readers, though, as opposed to deep readers in fiction, aren’t looking for narratives that mirror their more prevalent visual imagination. This might explain the popularity of certain kinds of thrillers that are filled with set-pieces and action at the expense of character development.

    How do we train readers?


  2. Yes, arguably the majority of readers are looking for a “cinematic” reading experience. And they can get that, sort of, from a book written purely from a visual imagination. Lots of franchise fiction works in that way. Fair amount of genre. It can work where the reader already has an imagined universe they are projecting over the skeleton of events the writer provides. Much harder to do with anything more original. If you look at the long term big hitters, people like King, Gaiman, Martin they al have very strong linguistic imagination. Anyway, another two cents ;)



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