Maybe you know the feeling.
Hunched-over, frantically typing, furrowed-brow?
Coffee jitters, 15 tabs open, anxiety mounting?
For many, writing is a drawn-out struggle to find the right words.
But it doesn’t have to be.
In this post I will share a powerful practical exercise for writing with mindful awareness, something I call being your reader. It will bring calm, clarity and simplicity to your words. To your mind, too, as you are writing.
Sound good? Let me explain.
It all comes down to whose perspective you are taking when you write.
Is it yours, or your reader’s? Let’s explore the difference.
Firstly, the fact that you are sitting here, doing your best to turn thoughts into words, already means that you have something to share. If you didn’t want to share it, you’d just sit around and think about it. But no, here you are — coffee, laptop and keyboard, ready to make something.
And if you plan to put these words out into the world, then you’re making a gift. A gift for your reader, given freely and generously, without expecting anything in return — and that’s a lovely thing to do.
It is very easy to forget this, especially in digital environments where our words are attached to a personal profile or avatar. Where we become absorbed in our self-image, worry about how we will come across and how we might be judged for what we say. These thoughts are extremely stultifying for good writing, for actually saying what we want to.
It’s a natural tendency of the human mind to worry about how others perceive us, but it is these very thoughts that produce the anxiety around writing that so many of us experience.
So how can we keep these thoughts in check while writing?
Well, the key difference between the calm, mindful writer and the anxious writer is this:
The anxious writer is thinking of herself, but the calm writer is thinking of her readers. The calm writer is sensitive to the experience of her reader. And that is the gateway to clear and lucid writing.
To tap into this sensitivity, you can use the following exercise: being your reader. It will allow you to literally read what you write, as you write it. It is a very effective mindfulness trigger.
Begin by remembering that with each tap of the keys, you’re crafting this gift for somebody else. And that something that might make their lives better — more interesting, more beautiful, more informed.
Forget about writing something good. Something cool, or clever or poetic. Just don’t worry about that at all. If you’re engaged with what you’re writing, in the moment, these things will come naturally.
Just think of someone reading and benefitting from the words you’re typing. That alone will bring you a warm feeling. You’re simply happy that your reader might be happier having read your words.
Now it might help to think of somebody specific — a friend or family member — who you hope will get something positive from your writing. Who would you really like to enjoy this gift? Think of them at home, opening your article and reading what you’ve written.
Now as you type, imagine you are them, seeing the words appear on the screen in real time.
Read through their eyes as your write with your fingers.
Now when you notice it, you’ll really notice it: because you’re imagining yourself in another’s place, seeing the words appear, you will find yourself extremely mindful of the words you are writing.
You will find yourself very sensitive to what you are saying and how you are saying it. When you are aware that you are giving, you are very awake, very aware. Your thoughts are calmer and clearer. Your body relaxes and the words begin to flow freely.
The whole act of writing becomes far less driven by “I am trying to write something good”, to reading your words through another’s eyes, as you write them. This makes it far, far easier to see when your writing is becoming unclear or rambling. Because you can literally watch it happening!
You’ll have to try this to get what I am talking about. And it does take a little practice. It is easy to forget the exercise and fall back into the usual habit of self-interest. With a little, persistence, though, you’ll begin to notice when you’re disconnected from the reader’s experience and back in your old habit of striving, worrying about yourself.
That’s your wake up bell. You’re thinking about you again, and not experiencing your words as your reader will.
Smile, begin again in your reader’s place, and enjoy writing.
Keep repeating the process, coming back again and again to the reader’s perspective. It’s like a meditation. You’ll fail a million times at keeping this perspective, but you’ll gradually improve and find that you can “be the reader” for longer and longer periods.
When we do this, rather than coming from a place of striving (thinking of ourselves), our words come from a place of generosity (thinking of the reader). It’s peaceful, it feels good. Calm. Your mind is free from self-interest, desire for approval, and fear of judgement. You’re free to write what you set out write.
In fact, this is the key idea behind the popular concept of “flow”.
Flow is when the “doing loses the doer”. So in the case of writing, it is when “the writing loses the writer”. There is just writing — words flowing naturally and effortlessly from you to your reader.
The better you can understand your reader’s experience, the better you can facilitate this stream of ideas, information, pattern and poetry — the better your writing will be.
And the better your writing, the easier it is for your reader to enter your experience of reality, of being human and having ideas and questions and dreams — and trying to share them. It’s an exchange that connects us. We come to understand one other as equals, with inner lives just as vivid and intense as our own — rich with joys and loves, wonders and confusions, pains and desires. In this way, every clear sentence you share increases the degree of connectedness in the world. The world needs that.
Words are the bridges between islands of consciousness. If you’re writing, you’re an architect. And for that I thank you.
I’ll take the opportunity here to share some more practical tips for mindful writing:
- Be aware of the body, particularly of your posture and of the fingers typing. While writing, you may often notice that you’re striving, struggling and over-absorbed. A little stressed. When you realise this, you’ll probably notice some tension in the body, like being a little hunched over your laptop or straining your neck very slightly. If you find yourself distracted, take 10 seconds to just be aware of your breathing, your body. Open your eyes, think of those who will read your work — come back to the calm feeling of freely giving a gift, and enter the mind of one who might receive that gift.
- Have a post-it note beside your laptop that says “writing”.
- Close all others tabs, or enter full-screen mode.
- Work on one post at a time, and choose what this will be before you start writing.
- You might want to try writing in intensive, full-focus “chunks” of time. The Pomodoro technique uses 25 minutes chunks. Here’s a timer.
- If you don’t need to do any research, switch off WiFi until you need it. When you do, be clear of your intention and don’t get sucked into social media.
- I personally like to bullet point what I want to say in an article, then “zoom in” and tackle each section chunk by chunk. This makes the whole task more manageable and stops one skipping around, which ruins mindfulness. It also helps flow, and you can reshuffle the chunks later.
- Saving the best until last, here is my favourite tool for mindful writing: ambient music. It’s seriously powerful flow-inducer that grounds you in a peaceful headspace. A couple of albums to start with, if you’re not already into it:
- Similarly, here is a great ambient noise app: http://noiz.io/