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Train your Brain to be a Better Writer

If you have been around the internet lately, you have most likely heard of growth mindset. Growth mindset (the power of Yet) was made famous by Carol Dweck. In the education world, we have all heard her talk about the power of YET. If you haven't and you want to get started here is a link to the TED talk she did on the subject.

I have been teaching about writing with a growth mindset for years, and I want to share with you how that has helped me to be a better writer myself.

Before we can start retraining our brains to have a growth mindset we first need to understand how the brain actually works.

The brain: an important piece of the writer's arsenal. Without it, we wouldn't be able to create the amazing stories that we have swirling around in our brains. But very rarely do we have a deep understanding of what is going on behind the scenes. Let me give you a short description.

Your brain is made of a billion brain cells. When we have a thought electric impulses fire through these brain cells to connect all of the ideas from different parts of your brain. The path these brain cells take can depend on a few things.

The more we do things the more dendrites (the little arms on a brain cell) can communicate. These means there are a lot more ways for you access information. Think about it like a path through the forest. The more you explore the forest, the more pathways you create through the dense foliage. The more paths the more creatures, plants, and things you will see along your journey. Your brain is the same. When you are looking to come up with new ideas and be creative, your brain is searching all around your brain. The more pathways within your brain, the more ideas your brain can collect along the journey thus giving you the perfect twist or plot point.

It also allows for Myelin sheaths to form over these paths. But what does this mean? The more we practice things the more our brains create concrete pathways to get to that information. It might start as a trail through the forest, but slowly it becomes a dirt road, and someday, with lots of practice, a super highway.

Now that we have a better idea of how our brain works (seriously, brains are fascinating) let’s talk about how we start to shape our minds.

First, we have to train our brains.

Have you ever trained a pet? My dog is super smart and a bit anxious. We have had to really work to train her not only with tricks and commands, but also how to deal with stressful situations. Unfortunately, we can’t just plop her down in front of the computer and have her listen to a TED talk. We have to train her brain without her realizing it. And we must, as people, train ours (probably with a few less chicken liver snacks, but to each their own).

We have to set ourselves up for success.

I often fall into the trap of giving myself unreasonable expectations, and then I don’t hit them. This has fueled my imposter syndrome for years. As a person with anxiety and ADHD, this can be a recipe for disaster. We need our brains to produce the happy chemicals, and brains don’t give happy chemicals if we don’t set ourselves up to succeed.

However, I can set myself up for success. Just like my dog is not ready to walk into a room full of strangers, my brain is not ready to sit down and edit 300 pages in a weekend. Here are some strategies I have used for setting myself up for success.


I use timers a lot in my day to day life. Here are some strategies I have used with timers.

· Set a timer for 30 minutes. Do the task. When the timer goes off, take a break for 10 minutes. When that timer goes off, set one for 20 mins, do the task. Repeat with the doing time going down. It goes down because often we are getting a little restless the more we work on something. By reducing the time, we make sure that we are still able to be successful with completing the task. Completing the task gives us happy chemicals, and in 90 minutes you have still worked an hour. If you feel like 30 mins isn’t that long you can always start with a higher number or reduce the step down in time. You can repeat these steps as many times as it takes.

· I like writing sprints. I find 10-15 minutes is the sweet spot where I can get a ton of words on the paper, but not burn out. I average about 700 words in 10-15 minutes depending on how many typos I feel I need to fix during that time. Not only does it help keep myself focused, but it allows me to be successful due to the goal is just to write. Many of my students start out the year getting around 100 words in 10 minutes. I keep track of their word counts throughout the year. Now, in May my students were getting around 300 words. To put that in perspective, 350 words is about a page with the text double spaced. Some days they still only get about 100 words, and that is okay. I make sure to praise them for getting words done at all. And you should remember to praise yourself.

Creating a routine

Our brains love patterns, and we can use that desire for patterns by creating writing routines. Just as it does for animals and children, routines help reduce stress and increase focus for our minds. Writing everyday for the same amount of time may work for you. Or try writing in the same place, and maybe making it a place you don’t do any thing else can help. For instance, writing on my couch is hard because I also socialize, watch TV etc, but my spare bedroom I do not use for much (expect my dog sleeps in there) so I have an easier time writing in there.

I like to write using music. However, I try to use a play list that I only use for writing. I tend to listen to music without words that can distract me, and I hold off on starting the playlist until I am ready to start writing. That way when the music starts I am in the zone for writing.

Distractions are some of my favorite things: My family, my phone, my hobbies, my job. Distractions all compete for our attention every day. Limiting distractions is a good piece to build into routines. Turing phones to do not disturb, closing a door, or using noise canceling headphones can all help your focus on the task ahead. Remember this is all trying to set our brains up for success.

Obviously, there are times we can’t avoid the distractions in our life, but creating a routine with the people around you also helps them to learn the pattern of when not to bother you. Setting yourself up for success also means setting up the people around you for your success as well. If you know something is unavoidable, a sick child, a huge work deadline, etc., it may be more beneficial to not try to write or create as you know your routines will be interrupted. If we think we are not going to be successful, our brains are great at creating self fulfilling prophecies. It is better to avoid these then ruin the routine long term.

Check the next blog for more as we dive into growing as writers.

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