Learn why mindfulness is important for writers. Along with how to use mindfulness to help your writing, whether you write fiction or non-fiction.
The concept of mindfulness is overused. It conjures images of people with a yoga mat over one shoulder, blissfully smiling at a lotus flower. It falls into the realm of the cliche, as a “state of being” or “a quest for an inner truth.”
However, to be a good writer, it is fundamental to practice mindfulness in your writing.
Why Is Mindfulness Important for Writers?
Let’s start with a general definition of mindfulness from HelpGuide.
Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment—and accepting it without judgment.
It doesn’t take a huge leap to understand why mindfulness is important for writers. Good writers need to be able to face their work in an honest and non-judgemental fashion.
Being non-judgemental doesn’t mean automatically loving and celebrating everything you’ve written. It means letting go of the attachments you have to your writing and any value-based assumptions you might have around your writing.
Here are a few examples of how writers place judgment and value on their writing:
- Pride in having written the most beautiful sentence ever, even when it doesn’t work in the context of the piece as a whole.
- Getting caught up in your own visual imagery, even when those images don’t come across in your writing.
- Wanting to defend and explain your writing when receiving feedback from readers.
Good writing requires mindfulness because it considers the point of view of the audience, not just that of the writer. It requires the ability to step back and evaluate what you have written, without placing the judgment of “good” or “bad” on your writing.
Most (all) first drafts start out bad. It’s careful and unattached editing that creates a good final draft.
How Writers Can Use Mindfulness
Luckily there are a number of ways that writers can break their value-based attachment to their writing.
1. Consider the reader
The first draft of a novel should be whatever you feel like writing about. Want to include a 500-word description of a medieval castle? Go for it! The important part is to finish the draft, gather all the details, and make sure you know the story, setting, and characters inside and out.
After that, it’s important to consider your readers.
I always start my second draft with what I call A Mindfulness Edit. I explicitly think about the point of the book. The plot arc and pacing. And the character development.
I rip the book apart and figure out what each chapter needs to accomplish. Then I put it all back together, like a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite have all the pieces. The second draft focuses on filling in the missing pieces.
If you’re not sure how to evaluate your work in this way I recommend checking out these books. There may be others, but these are the two that I’ve read.
- Wired for Story by Lisa Cron is a good way to check the pacing and plot arch of your story. It focuses on making sure that all the elements of fiction (character, setting, etc.) work together to build the narrative.
- A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins provides a detailed look into each aspect of writing: character, plot, setting, etc. Each chapter comes with a questionnaire that you can use to evaluate your story.
2. Take a break between drafts
Distance is KEY to good writing. When you first finish writing something you are so CLOSE to it that you can’t even see the typos. Your brain automatically supplies all the missing details. A bit of distance will help you gain perspective on your writing.
This is true for all forms of writing. I actually write all of my blog articles and magazine articles at least 5 weeks prior to publication. This allows me to edit from a fresh perspective.
Here are a few ways to gain distance from your fiction writing:
- Set the manuscript aside for at least 6 weeks before starting a new draft.
- Work on two pieces of writing at a time, so you can do something completely different between drafts.
- If you normally edit on the computer, work from a printout instead. Reading a paper copy provides a hugely different perspective. I’ve been writing on a computer since I was 8 years old, and I was shocked when I first tried editing on paper. It made a huge difference in the quality of my writing.
- For a final review, have the computer read the draft back to you. The monotone voice is perfect for showing what your writing is like without the natural emphasis that you might otherwise provide.
3. Exchange With Other Writers
I’ve taken a number of writing classes, attended conferences and workshops. I’ve also been a part of three different critique groups, so I have plenty of experience in receiving critiques and critiquing other people’s writing. It’s really a great way to learn how to write well.
Everyone is subject to the “Ikea effect“. We naturally like things that we made ourselves more than if someone else had made it.
Exchanging with other writers is actually the best way to learn how to critique ourselves. When you see the mistakes in others’ writing, you learn how to avoid those mistakes in your writing. It also provides an opportunity to listen to what they say about your writing, and learn where they got confused, lost, or bored. It shows you what areas need clarity and improvement.
However, critique groups only work if you are able to build mindfulness into your writing. Otherwise, it’s hard to benefit from the feedback.
4. Develop mindfulness generally
There are plenty of websites and apps devoted to the subject of mindfulness. I’m definitely not going to go into detail about the importance of meditation and learning how to breathe deeply. However, I will stress how much it has impacted my life.
I am lucky to live in an earthy, granola-y part of the world. When Una was a toddler, my family physician prescribed an 8-week mindfulness course. The cost of the course was covered by our socialized medical system. However, because it was a prescription, if I didn’t attend, I would have to pay to cover my share of the cost.
There were about 20 of us in my course. Everyone brought their own issues to the group: anger management, insomnia, anxiety, depression. We learned a few meditation exercises and committed to daily meditation practice. We discussed our problems and worked on accepting them without judgment.
The initial effects were small but immediate. However, the long-term benefits were huge, particularly in regard to letting go of my attachment to particular outcomes.
It is something that I draw from on a daily basis in my writing. And one of the main reasons why I believe in mindfulness for writers.
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