On Writing

Soundfuel: Music You Can’t Write Without

Do you listen to music while you write? I don’t listen to what most people would think of as music, but I do use some tracks created to aid focus and concentration.

But if you’re looking for inspirational playlists to hook up with while working, Leah Kathryn probably has you covered. She’s a classical pianist and composer who writes historical fiction and fantasy. She’s created playlists specifically for writing horror, science fiction, westerns, steampunk, even Southern gothic.

Pump Down the Volume: On Writing With Background Music

On The Millions, Jacob Lambert admits that he listens to music while writing:

I’m listening to it because I’m writing — an activity that for me, in recent years, has demanded musical accompaniment. Far from being a background diversion — something to make kitchen chores a little less soul-killing — I’ve come to believe that the music I listen to while writing bears a definite, if ineffable, relationship to the words that wind up on the screen.

Lambert says that he used to write in silence but tried adding music after he read that Chuck Palahniuk had listened to Nine Inch Nails as he wrote Fight Club.

But when Lambert looked at research into the question of whether listening to music improves writing, he discovered that the consensus is that it does not. Most researchers think that music detracts from writing by increasing the brain’s cognitive load: part of your brain power that could be focusing on your writing is instead paying attention to the music.

This is precisely why I don’t listen to ordinary music while writing. I have tried it. But I found that if I listened to music that I know and love, my brain was always waiting for the best parts, paying more attention to the next movement (my music is classical) than to the next sentence or even the next word. When I tried listening to music I didn’t know, I simply listened to the music and did almost no writing. I like music, and it’s hard for me to turn it into mere background noise. This is why I stick to the brain wave stuff, which doesn’t engage my brain in the same way real music does.

But hey, that doesn’t mean that listening to music won’t work for you. Lambert’s solution was to turn the volume down low.


Here are some tips from The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer (Cambridge University Press, 2015) by Yellowlees Douglas, associate professor of management communication at the University of Florida. Douglas teaches in the schools of business and medicine, whose students typically expect to analyze data and draw conclusions. They found other textbooks on writing frustrating and inadequate.

Douglas based her book on data from eye-tracking, EEG brain scans, and fMRI neuroimaging. The result is a text that tells students how to communicate information that they want readers to remember or to forget. Read the article to see why Douglas’s book offers these six tips for effective writing:

(1) Prime your readers.
(2) Use “recency” to your advantage.
(3) Disappoint without destroying good will.
(4) Bury bad news.
(5) Harness cause and effect.
(6) Don’t let passive voice drag you down.

The One Question Every Writer Has To Answer

The Write Practice focuses on the writing of fiction, but this tip calls itself important for all writers: “It doesn’t matter if you are writing memoir, fiction, non-fiction, or a screenplay, you have to answer this question.”

journal_writingThat question is “What is your writing about?” or, stated another way, “What are you trying to say?” But the real point here is that your answer must be one sentence, just one.

Pamela Hodges, the author of this piece, takes this idea from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat. This book focuses on screenwriting, where the one-sentence summary is called a logline. In order to apply the same concept to all other types of writing as well, Hodges refers to the summary as a whatline.

Writing this whatline about your project has three advantages:

(1) Writing a one sentence summary of your writing piece will help you figure out what your story is about.
(2) If you know what your story is about before you start writing it, you hopefully won’t get lost in the telling of the story.
(3) Your reader will appreciate the focused intent of your writing.

Give this method a try on your next writing project. I’ve adopted it for myself. Yes, it’s a hard task, but once you’ve done it and figured out exactly what you’re writing about, you’ve made the rest of the work a lot easier. I liken this process to the writing of a research proposal for a doctoral dissertation: If you do most of the heavy work in the proposal, you’re about 2/3 of the way through the project. Once you’ve figured out what to do and how to do it, which you do in the proposal, carrying out the research and writing up the results, which you do in the dissertation, is relatively easy.

So take the time to write your one-sentence summary. You’ll be glad you did.