How to write effectively: passive and active writing stimulation

Photo by dusan jovic on Unsplash

As a writer, I often struggle to find the happy medium between just enough stimulation that my brain is able to work without tipping the scales into overstimulation or trying to multitask between too many things.

There are some things I can do while writing, and others I can’t. For example, I can listen to an audiobook, but can’t listen to podcast episodes. Something about the format, it’s easier to tune out and back into chapters of an audiobook, but if I’m tuning out pieces of a podcast, I may miss some critical advice that’s sandwiched between anecdotes.

writing is a science

I believe that writing is a science, and too often people expect to be able to write while multitasking. Knowing my limits as a writer has been crucial in learning how to write consistently. Growing up, my mother always needed complete silence when she was working on something. Any amount of visual or auditory stimuli would overwhelm her and make it impossible to focus.

Through some testing, I’ve found that my brain enjoys a bit of background noise as I warm up my writing for the day after journaling freely for a page or two. But whatever I’m listening to has to be easy to pause. Music is a good choice most days since I don’t mind pausing in the middle of a song to wait for my thoughts to clear or to re-read a paragraph I’m editing.

don’t distract yourself into multitasking

Overstimulation while writing happens when I’m being stubborn. Seriously. If there’s a youtube video I really want to watch, or a documentary I want to listen to, I can sometimes trick myself into attempting to do two things that are BOTH interesting at the same time, but everything will take 10x longer. That’s bad multitasking, and my brain is so overstimulated it can’t focus on either, so I do a crap job at both learning about the documentary and writing efficiently.

Creating is about knowing your limits and knowing when to push through. If I’m really struggling to get a piece flowing, if the words feel like sorting grains of rice instead of humming a few bars, I’ll turn off any auditory stimulation first. I routinely need to use ear plugs throughout my day to give my ears a break. For example, this week there’s construction happening by my house, and the constant beeping of the bobcat in the backyard drives me up the wall, and makes it really hard to work or focus. Using ear plugs and choosing a low stimulation environment has been the only way I’ve been able to work and write.

writing can be active or passive

I wish more people would consider whether what they’re trying to write is a passive or active piece. I consider an active piece to be something that does not follow a template. Creatively, a passive writing piece might be a listicle, a review, or something that has a specific structure provided. For passive writing, I can usually tip the balance a bit into overstimulation without overdoing it. I need more sensory input to stay engaged with my work, and will often set timers to switch tasks so I don’t get bored.

Active writing usually requires silence, or quiet music. This doesn’t mean slow music, although I have been known to cue up a few of Halsey’s bops when I am looking for something particularly broody to inspire me. Occasionally I’ll listen to an audiobook or music to get my brain warmed up for the day, but once I hit the flow of things I unusually find my music has been paused.

I’ll often choose an ambient light like purple or blue when I’m writing in my office after dark to keep my eyes happy and prevent migraines while I’m working at a screen. I have to emphasize that in active writing, I never introduce something new. I can’t listen to songs I don’t know, or new artists, because my brain wants to be present and enjoy that experience fully.

stick to what you know

For my active writing, where I am channeling my voice, and listening to the words come from my personal narrative, I choose not to listen to unfamiliar audiobooks or songs. This helps me stay present in my writing, and keep my trains of thought more efficiently than if I was pausing to look up an artist or a song every 3 minutes. It’s much less efficient, even if I think I’m having more fun.



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Liz Brinks

Liz Brinks

Hey, I’m Liz Brinks (they/them) I’m a queer gender-non-conforming writer, business coach & cat-parent (@itsjuustliz everywhere) based out of Wisconsin!