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  • Writer's picturePhil Parker

Inside the brain of planners and 'pantsers'

Which type of writer are you? The 'Planner' who outlines your story in detail before writing a single word? Or the 'Pantser' who may have a vague idea of what will happen but launches into the story on a voyage of discovery?

There's no right or wrong to these methods, each writer works the way that works best, but have you ever wondered WHY you work this way? Recent discoveries shed light which illuminate these dark recesses and this post will introduce what has been found lurking in those shadows.

First of all, we need to remove the outdated theory of left and right brain thinking that often misleads. Right-brainers being creative, abstract thinkers who decry the worth of logical, sequence-driven left brain thinking, is inaccurate. The brain works in a far more sophisticated way than to leave thinking to the two hemispheres.

Let me introduce you instead to the Default Network (DN) instead. This is where your brain works on topics while you're busy doing other things, the mundane stuff such as watching TV or chatting to friends and family. (Remember the episode in The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon needs answers to graphene waves and gets a job in The Cheescake Factory to allow his brain to work? The episode was based on this theory!)

The DN's friend and ally is the Executive Attention Network (EAN), where the brain strategises and maintains focus on your high level thinking. It plans, analyses and decides relevance so you don't get distracted by the paraphanalia around you.

According to neuroscientist Scott Barry Kaufman at the University of Pennsylvania, there are 4 stages of creative processing:

1. Preparation: the brain takes in information and identifies material that generates that first spark of an idea.

2. Incubation: the brain processes the idea at an unconscious level, often when you're out for a walk or in the shower. This is the Default Network at work

3. Illumination: the Eureka! moment, content transfers from the DN to the EAN

4. Verification: The material is refined, crafted into a workable model.

The Pantsers out there will now be screaming that Stage 4 is not relevant to them. They've launched their novel at Stage 3! Why is that?

These two networks develop your creativity in ways that involve switching on and off the features that spark our creativity. It's these switches that appear to influence our approach to writing. So, have a look at the 'switches' below, see which ones are in the OFF and ON position in your brain.

Solitude: being alone, with an insular mindset turns the EAN off. The brain works differently when our focus is inward. For those authors who are introverts, this is ideal territory! If we focus on things in the 'outside world' the EAN kicks in and focus is lost. Remember that next time you're tempted to go on Twitter!

Daydreaming and mind-wandering: here the EAN is turned on, we're exploring things beyond ourselves, we might be researching topics for the novel. But we're in planning mode now, looking at what might prove useful and logging it away, strategising its use.

Mindfulness: The EAN is off. We're in our own world, mulling, contemplating, sat on a yoga mat with an empty mind. Even the DN may be dormant. But, when the brain kicks in, there's probably a load of stuff waiting to be processed.

Gaining experiences: probably favoured by the extrovert, this is where you do things that challenge you, take you out of your comfort zones, so the experiences enhance your creativity, give it extra sparks to ignite the writing flame. Both the DN and EAN are turned on here.

Sensitivity: a blessing and a curse. Sensitivity intensifies experiences, the DN will soak it all in for future use. Great! But, that same sensitivity leads to self-doubt, imagining what critics will say about your ideas. Here the EAN needs to be conditioned into side-lining these negatives so it strategises the positives. Easier said than done, speaking from experience here!

Think differently: research shows a key factor is producing a quantity of ideas, not limiting what you produce. The EAN needs to be off now, see where the ideas take you - the mantra of the Pantser. This is all about exploring with spontaneity and, for me, is the major difference to the Planner. That fourth stage of verification is turned off. At least until the first draft is completed!

If you think of your creative processes as a highly complex circuit, your natural inclination is to turn some of these switches on or off. This is what defines your writing process. You can discipline yourself to change the circuit and to do that you need to understand how, these factors might help. However, many of us write the way we do because we enjoy it, we find it works. In which case, these factors might help enhance your creativity even further. Researching this topic has certainly helped me understand my thinking processes!


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