The concept of mindfulness is completely overused. It conjures images of people with a yoga mat over one shoulder, blissfully smiling at 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.
What is Mindfulness in Writing
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 writing. Good writers need to be able to face their work in an honest and non-judgemental fashion.
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 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 judgement 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 to Promote Mindfulness in Writing
Luckily there are a number of ways that writers can help to break the 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 arch 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. And each chapter comes with a questionnaire that you can use to evaluate your story.
2. Take a break before editing
Distance is KEY to good writing. When you first finish writing something you are so CLOSE to it that you can’t even see simple typos. Your brain just automatically supplies all the missing details. A bit of distance will help you to 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. Which has meant some awkward editorial shifts around COVID-19, but generally works out well.
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 really take a break between drafts.
- If you normally edit on the computer, work from a print out 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.
3. Exchanging 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 we would if someone else had made it.
Exchanging with other writers is actually the best way to learn how to critique ourselves. When we see the mistakes in others’ writing, we learn how to avoid those mistakes in our writing. It also provides an opportunity to listen to what they say about our writing, and learn where they got confused, lost or bored. It shows us 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 enough to live in a more earthy, granola-y part of the world, and about 5 years ago I was prescribed a mindfulness course. Yes, 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, I would have to pay for every week that I didn’t attend.
There were about 20 of us in my course, bringing with us a myriad of issues: 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 judgement.
The initial effects were small but immediate. However, the longterm benefits were even greater, particularly in regards to letting go of my attachment to particular outcomes. It is something that I am drawing from on a daily basis in my writing, and particularly now during the COVID-19 crisis.