Writing advice from a professor of psychology

Leonid Pasternak painting “The Passion of Creation”

Sometimes everyone who writes get frustrated. You search for different ways of improving your writing, and of understanding what it actually is. There is a whole support industry for writers, with all sorts of meta theories, methods and ideas. But which ones to choose? Historyradio.org decided on a different approach: we would seek out a genuine clinical psychologist and ask him or her some questions. Of course, there is the a chance that we might not be asking the right questions. But that’s what psychologists are for, isn’t it? We were fortunate enough to get in touch with professor Elena Grigorenko. And we got some things clarified at least: even a distinguished professor may struggle with writing. ……..Also, I think our questions could have been better.

Dr. Elena Grigorenko is professor of psychology at the University of Houston and at Yale University. She is a specialist on different aspects of the psychology of writing.

Historyradio.org: Some people write diaries or journals, does this have any proven psychological value?
Elena Grigorenko: This is a very broad question. Psychological value in general? Or as a component of something else, for example, treatment for aphasia or dysgraphia or depression? With regard to the former, it depends on how the writer frames diary and/or journal writing for him/herself. The subjective value attached to this exercise does matter a lot. It could be viewed as an autobiographical tool, as a self-efficacy tool, as a writing development tool, and all these tools are improvable—the more you practice, the better you get. With regard to the latter, yes, writing is used effectively in various treatment approaches and there is a corresponding literature for that.

Historyradio.org: Does it matter whether you write by hand or on a keyboard?
Elena Grigorenko: The writing mode one uses does matter. Consider a number of parameters here. The first is speed. When adults speak, they produce 120-180 words per minute, when they type—60-90 words, when they handwrite—18-24 words. The second is coordination—while writing by hand, we need to coordinate multiple modalities, there is a substantial fine motor element to hand-writing which is very important. The third is editability; when we type, it is much easier to edit, compared to handwriting. Finally (among many other possible dimensions of comparisons, I suppose), there are esthetic features to writing. Calligraphy was considered a type of art; not quite like painting, but… not that different, really. Typing has never been appreciated for its esthetic features. So, it does matter; different types of writing engage different (although overlapping, of course) sets of psychological processes.

Historyradio.org: What about writing literature, being creative and constructing scenarios that have nothing to do with your personal experience?
Elena Grigorenko:  What about it? This opens different dimensions for us to consider, among which are “gift with words” (this type of writing is different from creating grocery lists) and “gift of storytelling.” This is not only about the skill of putting words on paper or on screen. There is much more to it!

Historyradio.org: Is there an optimal way of writing, things that one should or should not do?
Elena Grigorenko:  Writing for what purposes? Developmentally, writing acquisition is a very important component of developing mind-hand coordination, so hand-writing is very important. In the everyday adult world typing saves time, makes people much more effective in expressing their thoughts quickly (and sometimes sloppily). There are different (very different!) goals for which different modes of writing are used, and it is important to differentiate these goals.

Historyradio.org: When I was a student, I found that writing had an impact on memory. For instance, if there was a lecture, whether I remembered its content or not often depended on whether I took notes. Regardless of whether I actually consulted my notes afterwards. Is this true?
Elena Grigorenko: Yes, it is true. Note-taking gives you a chance to process the information twice, initially orally and then when you put your thoughts on paper. This means you have encoded the information twice (and therefore, will remember it better).

Historyradio.org: Many writers have different rituals that they perform before beginning their daily sessions. Does this have any proven value?
Elena Grigorenko:  I, unfortunately, do not know much about these routines, but I assume that these are used as self-organization devices, so people get themselves into states of mind that they consider effective for the goals they want to accomplish. It is, probably, not that different from musicians or athletes or professors—all have to get into modes of maximum performance.

Historyradio.org: What does writing tell us about the way we externalize and organize ideas?
Elena Grigorenko:  Are you asking about judging the quality of thinking of an individual based on his or her writing? Sure, that can be done. That is why writing is used diagnostically in school settings, admission to higher education settings, and job performance settings. Yes, writing is a good diagnostic tool. And it could be used to diagnose different skills–critical thinking and creative thinking, among other things.

Historyradio.org: If we regard writing in terms of brain function, have we discovered anything new in recent years about the phenomena of writing?
Elena Grigorenko:  Writing does involve the brain and there are specific pathways (partially overlapping with and partially different from those used to substantiate reading and math).

Historyradio.org: Are there differences between the effect of different types of languages, for instance English and Chinese?
Elena Grigorenko: Yes, of course. Writing necessitates the mastery of a writing system, alphabetic or not. As systems differ, so does writing, both developmentally (i.e., how we learn it) and functionally (i.e. how we use it).

Historyradio.org: What about your own methods of writing? You have written several books; did you follow any of your own advice?
Elena Grigorenko: No, unfortunately, I do not have a recipe. Writing is difficult for me, it is hard work. And all I do to get better is practice as much as I can and solicit feedback as much as I can. And try to get better at it.