The best writing comes from the head, not the heart

Allow me to mount my high horse for a moment. I’ve found something to rant about.
Since I started Write for Your Life and began blogging coming up to two years ago, I’ve found myself delighted and exasperated in equal measure. Delighted at the amount of writers working together and sharing their experience online, exasperated at the frequent peddling of utter nonsense that only serves to misguide people.

The fact is, anyone can set up a blog and start offering advice to others. But if you do, you have to accept that it comes with a certain responsibility, especially if you manage to collect an audience. People read and act on your words. You have to make sure that they stand up.

The troublesome tweet

That said, the thing that got my goat and prompted this article wasn’t a blog post, it was a message posted on Twitter. I’m not going to say who by or anything like that, because I’ve seen similar messages almost daily since I started using the service. It’s a general problem.

Here’s what it said:

The best writing comes from the heart. Don’t think too hard before you write it.

Now there’s a chance that you might read that and think, what’s the problem? People often write about their feelings and writing is a good outlet for matters of the heart.

But read it again. Think about it as a piece of advice given to a writer just starting out, someone who has little experience and is looking for guidance that might affect significant decisions in their life.

Not only is it wishy-washy and void of any practical use, it’s simply plain wrong.

Use your head

Howard Jacobsen won the Man Booker Prize recently for his novel, The Finkler Question. Do we honestly believe that he ‘didn’t think too hard’ before he started writing?

Of course not. The best writing, any writing of substance, comes from an author’s ability to think carefully and critically about what they’re doing and what they want to achieve.

No successful author sits down at their laptop and starts typing without any thought as to what might result from doing so.

Even those writers who don’t have their work mapped out will have some sense of direction. They will think before they type and approach their work objectively.

Let’s lose the myths

The problem I have with all of this is that statements like the one above give new writers an entirely inaccurate impression of what it takes to be a great writer. More than that, it has the potential to stop them improving at all.

The best writing come not from the heart, but from research, practice and a willingness to learn from experience. The one thing writers absolutely need to do is think. And think hard.

Don’t get me wrong, I know where this talk of the heart comes from. It’s meant to encourage writers to let go and express themselves – their thoughts, their feelings.

But I don’t buy it. It’s just another example of the tired romanticisation of what it is to be ‘a writer’.

Because much like it’s a myth that our creativity comes from some proverbial muse, it’s also a myth that all writers need to do is find a keyboard and pour their heart out.

It never, ever works like that. There is always further processing. There is always thought. Saying otherwise is disingenuous, misleading and potentially harmful to new writers who are just starting out.

And with that, I dismount.

Share your thoughts

So what do you think? Am I right about needing to provide clear, practical advise or should writers be encouraged to get cracking no matter what? Let me know in the comments!

  1. I completely agree! I’m a novice myself… having not written creatively now for a good decade. I finally decided to get back to it and I have to say I probably spend too much time thinking about what I’m going to write. But I honestly see it as the only way to make anything good.
    I think about it in the car, in the shower, while I’m watching TV. I write. Then I think about it after I wrote it and I change it 5 times, or delete it, or draft it cause I need to walk away and then come back to it later to think about it some more.

    The topic may come from the heart, but the execution comes from the head. My stress headaches can vouch for that.

  2. Ah, yes, if only it were that easy – listening to one’s heart and typing away. Then sending it off and sit back and wait for congratulations.
    Nope. Writing IS hard and a whole lot of thinking has to happen before and during the process. Writing is a profession, and just like any other, skills, experience, and willingness to learn is necessary – especially if one wants to be successful.

  3. Utterly agree – places like twitter and Facebook are full of horrendous platitudes like “Be true to yourself and everything will be ok” – No, it won’t. “Think positively and positive things will happen” – No, they don’t. Well they do, but often from hard work and as you say careful planning, and even then you can’t expect them.
    The idea that everything can fall into your lap is tempting, but ultimately immature and futile. Being honest with people who are starting out is the best move.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. I think perhaps it depends what you are writing. (It’s a bit of a limitation of the verb ‘to write’, it covers a multitude of sins…)
    I would bow to your judgement when it comes to fiction writing, and novels.

    But there are some forms of writing – perhaps it is simply the reflective writing beloved of bloggers – where writing that comes from the heart has a different quality, essence, feel, resonance, and ability to move.

    1. See, now I completely understand what you mean, and if the tweet in question had that context and extra narrative, it wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, it’s something you’re brill at doing and why your reader’s keep on a-coming back!
      My issue is more with the throwaway comments that don’t have context and can be misleading as a result.

  5. Surely the tweet says more about the naivety of the tweeter than anything else. That person is probably one of the many millions whose Twitter bio says ‘writer’ but omits the word ‘unpublished’. Your rant is valid, but any novice following the tweeter’s advice will soon realise it’s silly.

    1. I know what you mean but you don’t necessarily need to be published to offer sound advice, so long as you stick to what you know.
      Rather than tweets like this being naive, I honestly think that they’re far more calculated and that’s part of what irritates me. Solid writing advice (or links to such) is being replaced by pithy quotes, which are, ine essence, retweet fodder.

  6. For my fiction, the only time it ever works to just sit down and let the words flow from the heart is after I’ve been chewing them over in my head for hours or days.
    Plots, characters, snatches of dialogue, all of that is worked out in advance. My heart comes into it when I breathe the life into them as I write.

  7. Hoo-bloody-ray! My own feelings exactly. I’ve just been blogging about something connected to this and it goes out sometimes soon. (Stuff happening first). I so so so agree, Iain. We do need to engage our hearts but our heads must come first, at least in everything except the first draft. That’s the only place the heart should rule.

  8. I completely agree about the importance of thought, of planning, of careful rewriting, of craft.
    I’m not sure why that should preclude writing from the heart, though. Unstructured, emotional writing may be a very good starting point if it releases ideas you might not otherwise have found. I don’t believe that this is a myth.

    But then a writer should return to the draft with a hard clinical eye and a red pencil.

    Or you might plan upfront, and leave yourself room to let go within a structure.

    These debates often seem artificially polarized to me. You’re a upfront planner, or a seat of the pants writer. You write from the head or the heart. But actually I believe there’s a continuum, and most of us are somewhere in the middle, juggling craft and inspiration.

    1. Hi Matt – I agree with pretty much everything you say, but like I say in my reply to Joanna above, the tweet, and snippets of similar advice, simply don’t provide the context that you’ve included so well here.
      The quote is, ‘The best writing comes from the heart…’, which of course implies that writing that’s had lots of planning and thought will be inferior. That’s just daft.

  9. Maybe the best writing comes from the heart and the head – probably in that order. I find writing from the heart often frees me up, gets me going, helps me get down the first draft. But then comes the writing from the head in the endless redrafting, the editing and polishing stage. That’s what works for me anyway.

  10. I’m with Matt – everything requires balance.
    Often, new writers don’t have the discipline to sit down every day and write. And many don’t believe in their abilities so they think themselves out of the chair.

    Perhaps, what the tweet should’ve read was, “The best ideas come from the heart…” or “The best stories come from the heart…” because anyone whose written a time or two knows the first draft always needs revisions.

    Then again, Iain, maybe you’re taking the tweet a little too literally. After all, it doesn’t say “The best writing comes from the heart AND gets published.” I’ve run into dozens of writers whose goal is not being published or winning awards: It’s simply to write.

    All food for thought =)

    1. Yep, I’m definitely taking the tweet very literally, but only to illustrate my point. This is just one tweet of many that get bandied around on a regular basis. And without the context that you provide (handsomely!) in your comment, they become potentially misleading, I reckon.
      I also definitely need to chill out about it a bit. I know that too. 😉

  11. A bit of both surely!I’m quite instinctive. I know what I want to write. I tend to throw a few ideas around and then add to it as I go. Then come hours and hours of endless revisions.
    I also live with my characters, crying and laughing with them. A little bit of madness, perhaps…
    We all have our own little ways. I tend to agree that there is indeed a lot of misguided comments on Twitter and Co. Do this, do that!
    I’ve always followed my instinct, it seems to have served me well.

  12. I actually know of a successful writer, Mark David Gerson, who strictly use the “follow your heart” process of writing. I took one of his writing classes and he completely believes there actually is a writing muse and even wrote a book on how to channel it. Here is his website.http://www.markdavidgerson.com/index.html

    Although I totally respect Mark David, I personally cannot write this way…at all. If things are not planned out, I have no story.

    I think the overall consensus is that everyone’s writing process is different. There is no right or wrong way to get the story onto paper. I do agree “just grabbing a keyboard and letting it flow” is dangerous advice for new writers. It is never that easy…for most.

    But—having that said, if you can write from your heart and get published, then who can say this isn’t the “way” to write.

    Do what works for you. Have several different people read your work and use the feedback in a constructive way.

  13. I think that elements of your comments are true but the best writing, the writing that reaches inside the reader and grabs a gut reaction, is ultimately from the heart. I have also seen the cynical manipulation of audiences on TV as in the reality talent shows etc and I watch the producers set up every second of the show, every word that’s said, every tear that falls all produced to pull the audience by every heart- string imaginable. When you watch this fiasco with a cold eye, it is chilling to say the least and frightening to see the masses so duped.I don’t like to see this in writing and I know there are set rules, little tricks and proven forumlas for fast sellers. I beleive the best writing uses an element of both, the raw emotion is tempered with carefully selected and beautiful prose, The God Of Small Things being a classic example.

  14. I don’t think it’s necessary to pour one’s heart out in order to gain a gut reaction from the reader. Knowing emotional triggers and using emotionally laden words are skills and not necessarily instincts.I always see ‘writing from the heart’ as a synonym for ‘follow your instincts.’ And in some cases that could be correct, plot wise or even thematically. But consciously using mechanics and rhetorical devices to create emotional responses from readers uses more brainpower than heartpower, so to speak.
    Now that I think about it, perhaps this is the reason why so many writers get ‘writer’s block.’ If they’re relying on the muse to show up and dictate verbatim, they’re going to be sorely disappointed.

    1. Yep, I agree with you mostly there. The issue I had with that tweet in particular was the notion that the ‘best’ writing comes from the heart. It might be the case that ‘your’ best writing comes from the heart, but not ‘the’ best writing.
      ps I mean the proverbial ‘your’, not yours specifically!

  15. Iain,
    Woot! This is the second post I’ve seen today where a respected blogger on writing is expressing frustration about writing advice.

    This is a toughie. I shudder to think that on the first day a want to be writer gets on the net they run across a blog post on writing that is filled with odiferous diatribe and poor advice.

    The smart ones will find their way to Write For Your Life and for them, there is hope that they will be saved.

    Very savvy and timely advice here, Iain.

    George

  16. Taylor Swift writes from the heart. My apologies to any Taylor Swift fans here, but that’s the kind of dreck you get when you write from the heart. Just sayin’.

  17. The original quote doesn’t say “Don’t think.” It says, “Don’t think too hard…”
    There must be a balance between the two, and I don’t think the author of the original quote believed that authors should just sit down and blather mindlessly in a stream-of-consciousness haze. Then you might end up with something like Beckett’s “Molloy” or Camus’ “The Fall” or Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.”

    Oh, wait…

  18. I would unpick this a little and say yes, the best writing does come from a PLACE in the heart. And yes, no sequence of words could be constructed and make sense to a reader without some level of thought. However, I could write comprehensively about quantum physics by researching, getting my facts right, and ordering the thoughts and words before committing to writing BUT I am not as interested in this as I am about the subject of art and creativity and many readers might not be too. Thus for me, writing from the heart is about one’s passion (which in my world is writing from the heart) and the excitement/passion usually makes the writing interesting because it shines through.
    I have also seen people crushed by the notion that they can’t do anything because they haven’t got any qualifications or some-one told them such as they ‘can’t write’ at school and I think that’s rubbish. Yeah write by all means, if it is rubbish, contains no thought, and makes no sense no-one will read it or congratulate you for anything and one may quickly learn that (or not depending on who you are!). It may also be brilliantly written but hold no value for the reader and so you still won’t get congratulated, even though it was well thought out and written.

    Yet, like anything we have to start somewhere, practice continuously, and learn along the way and improve (hopefully) and starting is surely a good thing – from the heart or otherwise.

    You’ve picked a particulary poignant twitter quote because it has the added element of ‘don’t think too hard’ which yes, isn’t the usual ‘write from the heart’ statement that I see (and say myself!) 😉

    Always good to have thoughts provoked though.

    Cheers,

    Amelia.x

    1. Thanks for the comment Amelia – all very interesting and glad the post provoked your thoughts!
      ps I definitely don’t think you need qualifications or anything to be a decent writer, just that the very best writing is typically done with thought and preparation.

  19. I agree and even has a blog post that is a little similar that was written about passion versus persistence. Though the thing that bugged me enough to write about it wasn’t from twitter as the advice instead came from my non-writing dad. He also thinks artists only paint whenever they feel like it and that they never make themselves do it on a regular basis. Having some heart, excitement, etc for the story can help but in order to get a finished product the head has to be in it too.

    1. I’ve heard that advice from your non-writing dad lots of times, and to a degree I think he might be right. The only times when I’ve really struggled to write is when other parts of my life have somehow intervened – when I simply can’t focus on what I’m doing.

  20. Even the very Romantic Wordsworth (and I’m not a big fan) argued that the best poetry was rooted in emotion recollected in tranquility. The implication, then, as you rightly point out, is that thinking and re-thinking and planning and all kinds of pragmatic things need to happen.

  21. Can someone give me some advice on writing a Cook Book with stories attached to each person submitting their recipes.I’m very new to this and have never ever written anything,but I came up with an idea 10 years ago thats been bugging me more and more with each passing year. Thanks

  22. To be generous on what people mean, and where this statement is true, it’s like sport. ONCE you’ve learnt the technique so damn well it’s second nature, you then need not to overthink but to rely on that second-nature technique – it’s like a tightrope walk, and overthinking produces what in golf I believe they call “the yips” and in tennis “choking”. I imagine writng would be the same. But I’ve only been doing it for 10 years or so so I don’t know the technique well enough to know.
    Of course, some clever sod will always say “On the Road” but, as with all these things, if you can name the exceptions it proves just how rare they are

  23. […] It’s no coincidence that most writers get better the more that they write. We gain experience and with experience comes better judgement and the ability to analyse our own scribblings. […]

  24. I’ve just bought a brand new high horse just fir this message!!!I know you should express yourself, but I once actually tried not thinking at all about my writing…
    I’m not going back down *that* road, lemme tell ya.

  25. I think both of you are wrong to say it is one thing or the other. I think to write something that is effective and realistic you have to be able to tap into emotions and sensitvity, the heart will tell you alot about character. Many of these things are also very intuitive. On the other hand I agree with you things like plot and theme need a great deal of thought. I think a reason that writing is such a difficult art form is that it requires both left and right brain thinking in balance (imaginative vs logical/verbal skills). I think the same is true of heart and head. The 19th century Romantics would probably have leant to the heart side of the balance, modernists to the head side, but both produced fantastic art.

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