Tuesday, May 31

Writing skills 2: developing ideas

Just after writing my last post on generating ideas, I read Paul Magrs state that "For every one of my published novels and stories there's another one that I wasn't happy with or that didn't quite work out in the end" (Magrs, 2001: 17).  He seemed to be saying that writing is not primarily about flashes of inspiration, but about learning the craft of developing your ideas.  Which leads me neatly on to this week's skill...

Bits of stories

When I first started creative writing, I used to jot down short story ideas (or what I thought were short story ideas), but didn't know how to go from an idea (or a half-idea, or quarter-idea) to a full story. For example, I once jotted down that I would write a story about a person who tried to liberate farm animals, in the way that some people try to liberate laboratory animals. This is not really an idea on its own: it's a bit of an idea, a character or perhaps the context, but it isn't really a story.

Rincao by Eduardo Amorim
It's great to note down these sort of things - perhaps the sort of thing that might come up when you brainstorm for story ideas - but it's just as important to learn how to craft an idea or a group of ideas into a story.

Key elements

The problem was that my idea above didn't contain all the elements of a story, which include:
  • Initiating action - a problem of some kind that triggers off the events
  • Conflict - the key character being opposed/thwarted by other people and/or society
  • Rising tension - the conflict should get tenser as we go along.
  • Resolution/denouement - the key point where the central conflict comes to a head and is resolved for good or bad.
Most of all, something needs to happen - somebody needs to want something and/or have something that they are putting at risk, and fear to lose.  There needs to be action, and for most genres, the characters have to behave in believable ways.

If you have the beginnings of a short story, think about these elements, and how you might develop your ideas to bring these points in.  You could call it your story's structure.  A novel is not so different, but would usually contain several conflicts and resolutions, and a larger cast of characters


There is no avoiding the need for careful reading of successful authors to find out more about crafting ideas into stories, and structuring a story well. It is commonly observed - and has certainly been my experience - that once you start writing, you begin to read other people's work more carefully and perceptively.

Image by dalcrose
This means that rather than reading vast amounts at the outset, in the hope that this will turn you into a writer, the two things should progress together and have a recursive effect on each other.

Magrs, P. (2001).  Clearing some space.  In Bell, J. and Magrs, P. (eds.), The Creative Writing Coursebook.  London: Pan Macmillan.

Saturday, May 28

What should be taught at school?

I'm a teacher, so can't avoid discussions of how to make education better and what we should do to make students more successful.

Despite ongoing attempts to make education relevant, there is strange mismatch between what is emphasised in education and what people want to learn in the real world.  My experience relates to education in Britain, but I'd imagine that experience in other places is not completely different.

'School reform' by Funky64
This excellent list from marcandangel.com discusses the '50 things everyone should know how to do'.  The list, which overlaps strongly with this book by Samantha Ettus, is an example of the kind of thing I mean: how many of these key life skills are taught in school? And how many does the average person leave school without knowing how to do?

Here are my picks on the ones which are definitely taught to most school pupils, at least to some extent:

- Operate a computer
- Handle a job interview
- Recite basic geography
- Sew a button onto clothing

Four out of fifty - not great going for 13 years of compulsory education!

'Buttons' by andrea joseph's illustrations
To be fair there are many other useful things which are taught at school - reading, maths, appreciation of poetry...  But I think that the mismatch is largely due to the emphasis for teaching knowledge at school - when most of the items listed are skills.

Technology and Psychology

Another interesting aspect is that many skills on the list relate to technology or psychology - two growth subjects, but ones which are still marginal in pre-university education.

Examples include:

- Use Google effectively
- Change a tyre
- Deliver bad news
- Manage time
- Remember names

The shape of the school curriculum owes a lot to tradition, and with people's needs in the modern world adapting fast, it will be interesting to see how educators respond.

Friday, May 27

Book of the Week: Horse Latitudes

Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon

Paul Muldoon is a poet and author of several books including 'Quoof' and 'Moy Sand and Gravel'. Horse Latitudes was published in 2006 by Faber and Faber. The title refers to the geographical area north and south of the equator, 'where ships tend to be becalmed, where stasis if not stagnation is the order of the day, and where sailors traditionally threw horses overboard to preserve food and water.'

It begins with a series of sonnets, each based on the scene of a battle, and each place name starts with the letter 'B' - Beijing, Boyne, Berwick-upon-Tweed…  These show adeptness at historical themes and his playful attitude to rhyme, pairing 'Roma' and 'Hypersarcoma' and 'purple' with 'hip-hirple' among others. A woman called Carlotta features in most of these, providing a sense of unity and personalising the series.

Other poems are on a mixture of subjects and lengths, including 'Turtles', 'Eggs' and 'The Old Country'. There is a longish series of tercains in the middle, with the quirky title, '90 instant messages to Tom Moore'.

There are several references to modern culture, not least music: one poem is an ode to Bob Dylan in concert, and the last poem, 'Sillyhow Stride', is subtitled: 'In memory of Warren Zevon.'

Muldoon's poems can be obscure but they are rich with playful language and surprising choices of words and subjects.

I have decided to link up with the 'Friday Reads' hashtag/meme on twitter
 and dedicate Fridays to reviewing a book 
that I have read during the week.

Wednesday, May 25

QOTW: Ted Hughes on Sylvia Plath

Sylvia and I met because she was curious about my group of friends at university and I was curious about her. I was working in London but I used to go back up to Cambridge at weekends. Half a dozen or so of us made a poetic gang. Our main cooperative activity was drinking in the Anchor and our main common interest, apart from fellow feeling and mutual attraction, was Irish, Scottish and Welsh traditional songs - folk songs and broadsheet ballads. We sang a lot. Recorded folk song was rare in those days. 

Our poetic interests were more mutually understood than talked about. But we did print a broadsheet of literary comment. In one issue, one of our group, our Welshman, Dan Huws, demolished a poem that Sylvia had published, "Caryatids." He later became a close friend of hers, wrote a beautiful elegy when she died. That attack attracted her attention. Also, she had met one of our group, Lucas Myers, an American, who was an especially close friend of mine. Luke was very dark and skinny. He could be incredibly wild. Just what you hoped for from Tennessee. His poems were startling to us - Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens vocabulary, zany. He interested Sylvia. In her journals she records the occasional dream in which Luke appears unmistakably. When we published a magazine full of our own poems, the only issue of St. Botolph's, and launched it at a big dance party, Sylvia came to see what the rest of us looked like. Up to that point I'd never set eyes on her. I'd heard plenty about her from an English girlfriend who shared supervisions with her. There she suddenly was, raving Luke's verses at Luke and my verses at me.

Once I got to know her and read her poems, I saw straight off that she was a genius of some kind. Quite suddenly we were completely committed to each other and to each other's writing.
Hughes is known for his children's novel, The Iron Man
 (also known as The Iron Giant).  Image: reeway 2007
Hughes was an English poet and children's writer.  He was British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. Plath was an American poet, novelist and short story writer, best known for The Colossus and Other Poems and The Bell Jar.  The pair were married between 1956 and 1965, when Plath died by committing suicide.

Monday, May 23

Writing skills 1: generating ideas

When a writer begins a story, scene, or poem, there is always some kind of starting point: an idea, or perhaps several ideas. So, where do these ideas come from, and what can you do in order to have more successful ones? There are a number of techniques which can help:


As creativity researcher Csíkszentmihályi (1996) says, a writer needs to achieve the flow of engagement with their task, and it is important not to think how the end product will be received by critics.  Avoiding the 'fear of the blank page' can mean avoiding worrying (or even thinking) about the end product and how it will be received. Instead, the aim is to become immersed in the task.

Flow is the state of being relaxed but focused.
Image by premasagar
However, a bit of balance is required - getting too relaxed is not helpful!  Focus on a clear short-term goal can help to achieve this 'flow'.

Mind mapping

A mind map (see main article) is a method of note taking which links words and ideas in a cluster or spider-shaped diagram. Its non-linear form can be helpful in triggering non-obvious connections in your mind, and developing possibilities that might have been quickly discarded if they weren't down on paper.


Probably an overused term, especially in the workplace, but it still has its uses. The basic concept is to come up with a lot of ideas, however stupid they might seem at first. A later review stage is used to discard the less promising ones, but - hopefully - find one or two rough diamonds among the coal dust.

The key to brainstorming is to be non-critical.  Author Fay Weldon says that a writer needs two personalities: the creator of first drafts who is sloppy, emotional and impetuous, and the later editor who is argumentative, cautious and rational (Singleton and Luckhurst, 2000).


Freewriting is the author's equivalent of Sigmund Freud's technique, free association. Essentially it means letting one idea lead to another, without trying to consciously guide the process.  Freud believed that the process could uncover the id or unconscious mind.  Modern psychologists would probably see it as a way of switching off the conscious processes which direct and oversee human thought - your metacognition.

It can be useful to try freewriting first thing in the morning, as a sleepy state makes it easier to switch off this metacognition.  The subjects of your dreams can also feed in to the freewrite. But freewrites can also be directed, as in the following task...

Writing task

Gather a list of writing prompts - words, phrases or pictures will do, or compile some more detailed prompts from websites (e.g. here). Using a timer, set 5 minutes to brainstorm, mind map or freewrite on each one.  Give it a try! Better still, make it a regular starting point to your daily writing time.

Kitchen timer by pasukaru76

Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennia.
Singleton, J. and Luckhurst, M. (2000).  The Creative Writing Handbook.  Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave.

Saturday, May 21

Short story writer and novelist Ali Smith

Extract from an interview with Ali Smith by Northings, an arts journal based in the Highlands of Scotland:

N: Your fiction seems very preoccupied with narrative voices?

AS: Yes, that is the whole point of fiction for me, and I don’t know that you can have a story that doesn’t have a voice. Once you have found the voice you have the story to a large extent, and for me it is usually more than one voice.

N: What about structure – how do you deal with that in the quite complex narratives of your novels?

AS: For me it comes before the novel, like an overarching framework – you have no idea where the novel will go within that, but at least you have the structure. Once you are into that process it is a blind – and a blinding! – process to some extent, and you really have to give into that and see where it takes you.

N: So that structural framework is malleable rather than a rigid one?

AS: It’s not rigid, no, and sometimes I wish it was more so! At the same time, you know that whatever it was that sent you on that overarching arc in the first place will probably take you through.

N: Is there a continuous editing process at work as you build up the narrative?

AS: There is for me. That is really how I do it. You write something blindly and then you look at it and see what it is you have, and work on it and try to work out where it might want to go, and the next thing is a continuation of that, and you build it up that way. Or I do, at any rate.

(Source - read full interview here).

Ali Smith was born in Inverness and is now based in Cambridge.  Her novels include Hotel World, winner of the Encore Award, and The Accidental, shortlisted for the Man Booker award and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her collections of short stories include The Whole Story and Other Stories and The First Person and Other Stories (see review).

Thursday, May 19

Quotes from Nobel Prize-winning writer, Günter Grass

SPIEGEL: What are the characteristics of a good cover?

Grass: It should summarize and simplify the content of the book like an emblem. On the cover of "Dog Years," this is achieved with the dog's head, which looks like a finger puppet from a shadow play. For "Local Anesthetic," I chose a lighter with a finger above it.

SPIEGEL: You aren't the only writer of your generation who has made political statements again and again. Do you perceive a lack of similar vigor among your young fellow writers?

Grass: I would find it regrettable if they didn't draw a lesson from this relatively brief tradition. They shouldn't repeat the mistakes of the Weimar Republic and withdraw into their private worlds. Intellectuals contributed greatly to the development of our fledgling democracy in West Germany into a grown-up democracy. Unfortunately, there are signs that this contribution is waning. The financial crisis, child poverty, deportation (of illegal immigrants), the growing gap between rich and poor: these are all issues where younger authors should develop and express an opinion.

Portrait of Günter Grass. Image: NCMallory

Source: excerpts from a recent Der Spiegel interview with one of my favourite writers, Günter Grass.

Grass (born 1927) is a German writer and former WW2 soldier.  He is also an artist and sculptor, and produced his own cover art.  He is known for his left-wing political activism.  He has written many novels and short stories, with the best known being his Danzig Trilogy of novels.

Wednesday, May 18

Caffeine - fueling or harming creative writers?

Many of you probably find it hard to get doing without a morning cup of coffee or tea (or three!)  This is normal enough, an even less surprising when you consider that creative types are usually night owls.

What is caffeine?

Caffeine is the world's most popular psychoactive drug.  It is a stimulant which can affect alertness - and therefore performance on a range of tasks.  It is found in coffee, tea, soft drinks, in pill form, and in medicines such as cold remedies.

Coffee and books - a classic combination?
Image by christian.senger
Positive effects

Caffeine can make us think faster and focus for longer.  Research has shown that even a small dose of caffeine, such as that in a glass of coke, can increase alertness with no measurable adverse effects (Lieberman et al., 1987). In a study on university students, Smith et al. (1994) found that caffeine improved performance on semantic memory, logical reasoning, and memory tasks.

Negative effects

Caffeine is a drug, and can have side effects. It increases heart rate and therefore blood pressure, and can be addictive.  There are anecdotal reports of overdose following excessive use, and at extreme levels it can be fatal.  Like other drugs, regular use tends to lead to users becoming resistant to its effects.

Although the research is largely positive, cognitive tasks in the laboratory tend to be fairly simplistic tasks, and don't present a full picture of heavy caffeine use on the real world.  There are probably large individual differences - for example, St Claire et al. (2010) found that  coffee helps women cope with stressful meetings, whereas men got worse!


Many of us turn to caffeine when we are especially busy and stressed. In research with soldiers, Lieberman et al. (2002) studied the effect of caffeine on individuals who were stressed and sleep deprived. The researchers found that caffeine mitigated the effects of the stressors and sleep loss.  In contrast, caffeine may have a detrimental effect if you already highly alert and stimulated, due to the Yerkes-Dodson law.

How important is caffeine in your writing or creative context?  Do you see it as just a habit or part of your routine, or would you be unable to perform at your best without it?  Is there a point where it starts to have an adverse effect?


Lieberman, H.R., Tharion, W.J., Shukitt-Hale, B., Speckman, K.L. and Tulley, R. (2002). Effects of caffeine, sleep loss, and stress on cognitive performance and mood during U.S. Navy SEAL training. Psychopharmacology, 164(3), 250-261.
Lieberman, H.R., Wurtman, R.J., , G. G. Emde, C. Roberts and I. L. G. Coviella (1987). The effects of low doses of caffeine on human performance and mood. Psychopharmacology, 92(3), 308-312
Smith, A.P., Kendrick, A., Maben, A. and Salmon, J. (1994). Effects of breakfast and caffeine on cognitive performance, mood and cardiovascular functioning. Appetite, 22(1), 39-55.
St. Claire, L., Hayward, R., and Rogers, P. (2010). Interactive Effects of Caffeine Consumption and Stressful Circumstances on Components of Stress: Caffeine Makes Men Less, But Women More Effective as Partners Under Stress. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(12), 3106-3129

Tuesday, May 17

Jo Shapcott on why science matters to poetry

"Anyone who is curious, and I hope most poets are, will have that hungry attitude - the one that says there is nothing that is not interesting, and almost nothing not worth celebrating. I don't think poets have to understand science but I'd be amazed if their curiosity didn't lead them into wanting to know. I'm actually against writing about science - for the poet it's more that anything urgent within the consciousness will emerge in poems. Because of what the contemporary human knows about herself, inside and out, and knows about the Earth - and because of what humans do it - it would be amazing if some of these urgent nudgings didn't relate to science."

Image by Science Museum London

Jo Shapcott is an English poet.  Her most recent book, Of Mutability (2010), won the Costa Book Award.
Source: Centre for Poetry and Science, University of Liverpool

Monday, May 16

Creative Writing: why bother?

Creative writing is a curious game.  So many people seem to want to do it, yet the odds of success seem stacked against the budding writer, and even those who do establish a viable career usually have to work hard for relatively little in the way of fame and fortune.  So why do it?

The value of literature

One way of looking at the question is to focus on the writing itself, the end-product. Literature is of course a worthwhile thing in itself: it has been described as a 'life support system', and applications in crime reduction and therapy have been tried with some success.

If worthwhile literature is to exist, then someone has to 'do' writing, and do it well.  In any artistic field, the more people there are to do it, the better the chance of finding one who does it really well.  But this doesn't explain the motivation on individuals who do it.

Life as a writer

If writing is anything more than a hobby or passtime, then you have to assume that the writer him/herself has an aim.  I think that for most new writers I've met, these goals fall into two main categories, with a bit of overlap:

- Become a commercially successful writer/earn money
- Write something good/that other people enjoy reading

For many people, writing is a career like any other - a way to earn a crust, perhaps in combination with some offshoot activities like reviewing or tutoring.  I'd say the majority of new writers have taken this approach, with varying levels of clarity about what they're aiming for!

Enjoyment of the product

It seems logical to say that if the aim is not to make money, then it must be to write 'well', or at least for others to think that it is done well.  I guess this is my category, as I already have a career as a teacher.  I began because it was fun, but as with any task, it quickly occurred to me that I'd enjoy it more if I was better at it.

Bookshelf by jurvetson
The second category is a happy place - and also a comfortable waiting room until you declare yourself ready for the other camp!

What is your motivation...?

So, why did you take an interest in creative writing?  Do you see yourself 'being a writer', or is there a subject matter that is important to you?  Do you just love literature, and want to add to it?  Have you diversified from another field?

Sunday, May 15

Clare Wigfall on why short stories are wonderful

"I love short stories. I love to read them. I love to write them. I have known that junkie craving one can feel as you work your way through a brilliant collection, aching for the next fifteen minute/half hour slot of time when you can sit down and read a story through in one sitting, hitting the high with its conclusion and feeling the effects long after you’ve left the story behind.

I do honestly believe that short stories, in their small, compact way, make the world a more beautiful place. Imagine a world without the perfectly-crafted gems of Truman Capote, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Claire Keegan, or J.D. Salinger, for example. Short stories might be an endangered species, but I’ve been extremely fortunate to find a publisher with enough faith to publish mine, and I’m proud to have done my bit towards their survival in adding one more collection to the shelves."

Clare Wigfall's debut collection of short stories, 'The
Loudest Sound an Nothing (2007).

Saturday, May 14

The 'halo effect'

Isn't it unfair when people are so damn talented? Watching Lady Gaga interviewed on the Graham Norton show last night made me realise that not only is she musical, galmourous and massively successful, but she's also smart and witty too.  But was I being objective?

The 'halo effect'

In Psychology, the 'halo effect' is the idea that global evaluations about a person (e.g. "she is beautiful") affect judgements about their specific traits (e.g. "she is talented"). Pop stars demonstrate the halo effect perfectly: because they are often good-looking and charismatic, we tend to assume they are also intelligent, friendly and so on.

Youth an looks are two traits which often
lead to the Halo Effect.  Image: thomas23

The halo effect was first described by psychologist Edward Thorndike, and later Nisbett and Wilson (1977) demonstrated how little access we actually have to our thought processes in general and to the halo effect in particular.  

In their study, one group of participants watched a lecturer answer a series of questions in an extremely warm and friendly manner.  A second group saw exactly the same person answer in a cold and distant manner. Consistent with the halo effect, students who saw the 'warm' version of the lecturer rated his attractiveness, mannerisms and accent more highly. The students were also totally unaware why they gave one lecturer higher ratings.


Do you think the halo effect can work for (or against) you in a writing career? Whatever a reader first encounters is going to influence their later judgements - and often, this will not be physical appearance.  A cover of a book (despite the aphorism) or its first page will play a huge role in whether someone reads on.  Websites, social networking presence and even pen names can affect how you are judged and evaluated.

And what about query letters?  Do yours show personality?  Have you tried asking other people how they come across?  Try drafting a couple of letters, and asking a friend which one they like best. Remember, they might not know why they like it!

Nisbett, R.E. and Wilson, T.D. (1977).  Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes.  Psychological review, 84(3), 231-259.

Friday, May 13

2 quotes from writer V.S.Naipaul

On stopping writing:

'I think it will happen and I think it will be extremely painful. Without writing, everything will become insipid. Reading would have no point, because a writer reads with a purpose.'

On meeting other writers:

'I would not know what to talk to another writer about. He would be thinking about his book. And I would be thinking about mine. And what would we think of to say to each other?'

Thursday, May 12


Unfortunately after a Blogger outage, my post of 12 May seems to have disappeared... My children are busy drawing treasure maps, so hopefully we'll be able to track it down soon :)

Wednesday, May 11

Raymond Carver on why he chose to focus on short stories & poetry

'Finally, a writer is judged by what he writes, and that's the way it should be. The circumstances surrounding the writing are something else, something extraliterary. Nobody ever asked me to be a writer. But it was tough to stay alive and pay bills and put food on the table and at the same time to think of myself as a writer and to learn to write. After years of working crap jobs and raising kids and trying to write, I realized I needed to write things I could finish and be done with in a hurry. There was no way I could undertake a novel, a two- or three-year stretch of work on a single project.'

Image by billmcintyre

Source: Paris Review

Monday, May 9

Poetry quote - Charles Simic

"Recalling what it was like to work as a painter was useful for when I was editing my poems. I'd remember, for example, how much red I'd want to use in a painting, or even when I’d have to paint over the damn thing. And there are some obvious parallels there with editing. Early on I wouldn’t know when to leave a poem alone, which is a real problem but, perhaps, having some of the instincts of the painter proved useful there."

Simic is a Serbian-American poet who in 2007 was appointed
Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
Source: Wolf Magazine, Issue 24

Sunday, May 8

Synaesthesia - the mixing of the senses

Synaesthesia is the experience of a crossing of sensations, such as experiencing a colour when you hear music.  it is a harmless condition which is thought to affect 1-4% of the population.  Some of the most common symptoms include:
  • Letters and numbers evoking colours
  • Sounds evoking smells or taste
  • Pain and temperature evoking colours
The condition results from overactivity in-between sensory areas of the cerebral cortex.  The condition can result in various patterns and degrees of sensory overlap in different conditions.

Artists with synaesthesia

Writer Vladimir Nabokov seems to have had such experiences; he wrote:

'One hears a sound but recollects a hue, invisible the hands that touch your heartstrings.  
Not music the reverberations within; they are of light. 
Sounds that are colored, an enigmatic sonnet addressed to you.'

Another artist synaesthete was Wassily Kandinsky.  Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a Russian modernist painter, whose canvases are brightly coloured and full of abstract shapes.

Kandinsky's 'Composition VIII'. Image: William Cromar
Kandinsky described his paintings as attempts to portray a symphony on a canvas, and it can only be speculated how much of this Kandinsky 'saw' in his mind's eye.


Synaesthesia can give an individual certain advantages.  The brain learns by forming associations (including sensory associations), and it appears that mild overactivity between sensory areas can lead to improved memory and other advantages (Smilek et al, 2002).

In one of the most famous cases of an exceptional memory was Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian journalist who experienced seemingly unlimited memory.  The case came to light when he was reprimanded for not taking notes at work; in his defense, Solomon showed that he could recall entire conversations word for word.  He appeared to have an unsually extreme form of synaesthesia whereby each of his five senses was stimulating associations with each of the others (Luria, 1968).

Despite his incredible abilities, Shereshevsky had an average IQ, and struggled to remember faces!

Writing exercise

As an exercise, try describing the travails of a school age boy or girl who experiences synasthesia.  Perhaps they keep their condition hidden, or maybe they attempt to explain it to others.  If so, how do other people react?  This could be written as a fiction scene or script, or even a flash fiction story.

Luria, A.R. (1968). The Mind of a Mnemonist.  New York: Basic Books
Smilek, D., Dixon, M.J., Cudahy, C. and Merikle, P.M. (2002). Synesthetic Color Experiences Influence Memory. Psychological Science, 13(6), 548-552.

Friday, May 6

The self-concept

A fiction character's behaviour depends greatly on their personality, but as developmental psychologists are aware, there is often a difference between a person's image of themselves and what they are really like.  Psychologists use the term self-concept to describe the various elements of a person's view of who they are.

Not just self-esteem

The self-concept is a broader idea than self-esteem, and includes several aspects:

  • Self-esteem: how much to we value ourselves
  • Self-image: what do we think of our physical appearance
  • Self-efficacy: how good we think we are at things e.g. our ability to play sports

A person's self-concept is often inaccurate.  The views of others play a major role in how we see ourselves.  We go through life taking in board the comments and judgements of others, distorting our self-concept.  Think of a person with anorexia nervosa mistakenly thinking they are too fat - a clear example of having a distorted self-image.

The work of Rogers

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers was a major figure behind developing this idea. He said that everyone has an ideal self - a view of how they would like to be.  A major part of developing into a fulfilled person and feeling happy is to get past the judgements of others and their attempts to control you, and become the person you want to be.  However, this does not mean fantasising that you are successful!

The problem with boosting self-esteem

One thing I notice with my own students is that those who have done the least work and are least able are often the most likely to brag about their abilities.  Carol Craig of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing in Glasgow states that this can link to an educational obsession with boosting self-esteem in young people.  Although low-self esteem is problematic, serious anti-social behaviours such as road rage and sex crimes are more likely to be committed by people with high self-esteem (Baumeister et al., 1996).  This may be because their fragile, unrealistically high self-esteem is often threatened.

This links to Rogers' ideas again - having an accurate self-concept is much more valuable than having an unrealistically positive one. 

Writers: do you think about a character's inner conflicts and contradictions?  Is it something you would take notes on when developing a character, or does it develop more organically as you write?

Writing activity

As a writing exercise, have a try at portraying a character whose self-concept is significantly different from their true character.  This could involve a person who has a distored view of their own abilities, their own personality, their likelihood of success etc.  There may also be a contrast between their speech/attitudes and their actions.

Baumeister, R.F., Smart, L. and Boden, J.M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: the dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103(1), 5-33.

Wednesday, May 4

The many uses of the mind map

A mind map is an image with words or pictures connected by lines.  The technique of drawing up a mind map is commonly used for idea generation or planning, and the maps themselves are sometimes used for revision/memorisation.  They are generally brightly coloured, and are supposed to represent the connections our minds make as we think.

An example of a mind map - image from mythoughtsformac
How is it done?

The technique's main proponent is Tony Buzan, author of The Mind Map Book (Buzan, 1996).  He suggests that to be effective, mapping has to be done in a specific way, including:

  • Using a single, central image
  • Writing words along lines rather than connecting them with lines
  • Keeping all lines the same length
  • Using a variety of colours
  • Using images where possible
  • Making the overall map visually distinctive

Peculiarly, Buzan states that mind mapping is a very different thing from a spider diagram - I'm still not too sure why!

Fact or pseudoscience?

The technique seems to originate from the undoubted fact that the brain forms associations between different words and concepts, which in the 1960s and 1970s began to be drawn as semantic maps:

However, a mind map uses one central image or word which every other item links to, forming a hierarchy.  It is pretty clear that the brain doesn't process ideas on the basis of hierarchies.  For example, when we see a fork, we don't process it via a clunky list of categories:
  • It's an object -> kitchen implement -> item of cutlery -> fork
Indeed, we don't even think in words at all.

Buzan has made a successful career out of mind maps, but can only feed the skeptics with dubious statements like the following in a 2009 interview:

"It is my firm belief that every brain is, by nature, a mind mapper! The fact that a baby learns a language is evidence confirming that it must learn by multi-sensual images and their radiating associations."

He also places great store by the visual similarity of a mind map to the connections of a brain's neurons.  By this logic, we will all work better using from brain-shaped paper!  So, is there any scientific support?

Efficacy of mind-mapping

Perhaps the most important question about mind maps is 'do they work?' Researchers Farrand et al. (2002) compared the effectiveness of mind-mapping with a free choice of study technique to learn a 600-word essay. Participants were medical students, and they were tested straight away after a distraction task, and again a week later.

Farrand et al used medical students in
their study.  Image from TulanePublicRelations
A significant improvement was found in both groups, but only the mind-mapping group maintained their improvement after one week.  Motivation was lower in the mind-map group compared to free choice of technique.  Researchers concluded that mind-maps improved recall, and would have done so even more strongly had motivation to use them been higher.


For writers and other professionals, a mind map is most likely to be used for planning or brainstorming (although unlike brainstorming, mind mapping is primarily an individual rather than group technique).  My first ever mind map a plan for a novel (as yet unwritten, ten years on!)  A mind map provides a structure to idea generation, and is supposedly less linear than simply listing ideas.

In research with executives, Mento et al. (1999) found it useful for capturing ideas and planning.  As with the Farrand et al. study, success may depend heavily on users' opinions of the technique and motivation to use it - it is unlikely to work well with people who are unenthusiastic, or simply have other methods that they prefer.

Mind mapping can be time consuming, but if nothing else, it's very easy to do, and can be much better than staring at a blank sheet of paper, waiting for ideas to come.

Buzan, T. (1996).  The Mind Map Book.  London: Penguin.
Farrand, P., Hussain, F., and Hennessy, E. (2002).  The efficacy of the 'mind map' study technique.  Medical Education, 36(5), 426-431.
Mento, A.J., Martinelli, P. and Jones, R.J. (1999). Mind mapping in executive education: applications and outcomes.  Journal of Management Development, 18(4), 390-416.

Monday, May 2

Blue sky thinking - with just a few clouds

Blue-sky thinking is open, expressive idea-making, which focusses on possibilities without being held back by details.  It is the kind of thinking, in short, that creative types do well, whether artists, inventors, businesspeople or whatever.

The problem with blue-sky research

The related term 'blue-sky research' is where scientific research has no immediate link to practicalities.  It is imaginative and perhaps ground-breaking, but has no clear real-world application - at least at the outset.  This can be a problem - bodies which fund research often prefer research which has a clearer potential use, albeit with little likelihood of a ground-breaking discovery.

The trouble is that the benefits of a scientific breakthrough are often obscure until after the research has been completed.  Western nations have increasingly attempted to link research funding to economic benefits of the work, leading to protests by leading scientists (Travis, 2009).

Some clouds threaten the clear blue skies!
Science versus the humanities

This links closely to prevailing attitudes to education.  More and more, preference is being given to STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths.  We are told that these are vital to society and should be encouraged (i.e. funded) at both school and university, often at the expense of arts and humanities.  However, according to Robinson (2001), this is more a matter of ideology than logic.

Rather like blue-skies research, the benefits of improving as a creative writer can be unclear.  The benefits of reading a book can be unclear.  The benefits of studying subjects such as philosophy can be unclear.  But collectively and across the population, these activities lead to a literate, educated society.

Thinker and Writer Umberto Eco, by giveawayboy

I think that studying creative writing has a lot in common with blue-sky research.  Each may lead to outcomes which are highly interesting but not immediately practical.  They can both be time-consuming and expensive, and the hope of a monetary payback can seem distant. But just occasionally, they produce something ground-breaking, with quite unexpected benefits.

Right now, the rise of epublishing could be such an outcome.  Suddenly a massive, international, English-speaking market has opened up, and people who have developed skills in creative writing are ideally placed to exploit it.

Robinson, K. (2001). Out of our Minds: Learning to be creative. Chichester: Capstone Publishing.
Travis, J. (2009). Is the (Blue) Sky Falling in the U.K? ScienceInsider.  Retrieved from: http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2009/02/is-the-blue-sky.html