Writing and Working Memory

"Writing is the process of constructing a thought too big for working memory." ~Melanie Grunow Sobocinski

I’ve wondered over the years: WHY is writing SO difficult? Why can’t I (or my clients) just THINK about the writing project? What does writing do that other forms of thought can’t?

My initial thoughts are so less sophisticated than a finished piece of writing. Even something as seemingly simple and informal as this blog post takes several drafts. For me, the big a-ha was realizing that because our brains have a limited capacity to manipulate information at any one time, writing has to be a multi-step process.

In other words, writing is the process of constructing a thought too big for working memory.


This insight has several useful corollaries:

  • The critical first step is to empty working memory!
  • Thoughts are just mental clutter until I capture them in writing.
  • Thoughts on paper can be sorted, analyzed, added to, and rearranged.
  • Thoughts don’t get more sophisticated by running in circles inside my head. They have to get out on paper to be able to expand.
  • Thoughts need to be captured at every stage of a writing project: while reading, researching, and experimenting. I may not even know what direction I’m headed, but the more I write, the sooner I discover it.
  • Thoughts will mostly come out onto the page half-formed.
  • Thoughts come quickly at first, then slow down or even stop entirely. Instead of panicking when that happens, I switch tasks within the project to allow my working memory to refill. I read and take notes on a relevant resource, organize and edit text, or take a walk to encourage the creative juices to flow.
  • Off-topic thoughts, worries, or anxieties will block my writing progress every time. The most effective counter-technique is mindfulness: I label the intruder (or write it down in a separate location for later action), then refocus on the task at hand. Meditation trains the mind to come back more quickly.
  • Thoughts tended regularly grow bigger and stronger. The more often I revisit my external memory banks the more connections, complexity, and clarity can emerge.
  • Thoughts are weeded, pruned, and rearranged through the editing process.

I know I’m more compassionate with my multi-stage writing process, now that I have a clearer idea of what I’m doing.




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