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Writers Talk About Writing

Can't Write? Can't Draw? Here's Why You Should Doodle.

My mother became an artist at the age of 65. She took up chalk pastels and almost immediately started producing beautiful, saleable work. (See a photo of one of my favourite pieces of hers, on my blog.)

Sadly, this talent skipped a generation. My daughter, Alison, likes to draw and paint and is rather good at both. But I can’t do either. My drawings look like something a 6-year-old might produce. Square houses with triangle shaped roofs. Stick figures with triangles for dresses or two rectangles for pants. Until recently, I’d even felt shame for my doodling, which has always seemed pathetic and banal to me.

But I’m embarrassed no longer. In fact, I’ve become a pro-doodling zealot after reading the book The Doodle Revolution by Sunni Brown. If you’re a writer or a student or a business executive or a….well, anyone, really… you should doodle.

Doodling is not dilly-dallying or wasting time. It’s not meaningless or doing something of little value or substance. Most of all, it’s not doing nothing.

Here are five reasons why we should all should doodle:

  1. It improves our memory. A 2009 study conducted by Professor Jackie Andrade found that doodlers recalled facts significantly better than non-doodlers. In the study, participants had to listen to a (supremely boring) message about an upcoming party and then write down the names of all the people who were able to attend the party. Researchers asked half of the participants to fill in the squares and circles on a piece of paper while listening. They told the other half to listen to the message and write down the names, no doodling allowed.  Those who doodled during the tape recalled 7.5 pieces of information (out of 16 total) on average, some 29% more than the average of 5.8 recalled by the control group.
  2. It helps us pay attention and focus better. People often think that doodlers are daydreamers but, in fact, the opposite is true. Daydreaming demands a lot of the brain's processing power. Begin thinking about your dream house, for example, and you might start pondering that new kitchen you really want. Before you know it you’re down the rabbit hole with a fancy gas stove, a Sub-Zero fridge and hand-made Italian tiling. In other words, you’re thoroughly distracted. Doodling actually shuts down these distractions and keeps us more focused on the task at hand. That’s because when we doodle we don't daydream. And we save our brain’s "executive functioning" for the really important stuff.
  3. It’s pleasurable. When we’re stressed, most of us have nervous habits we fall back upon. Perhaps we bite our nails, drink too much wine, crack our knuckles, or talk too much. These habits might calm us but they seldom make us feel any better. Doodling, however, harms no one, not even ourselves. It’s something we can do without thinking and with the right tools — just paper and coloured pens or pencils — is even fun and relaxing.
  4. It gets us unstuck. I frequently suggest that writers walk more often. It’s one of the best ways I know of breaking through writing-related log-jams and having fresh ideas. Turns out doodling can do some of the same thing. Cartoonist Lynda Barry says that when she’s stuck she knows it’s time to start moving her hands. Doodling, she argues, helps us endure. “It’s almost microscopic,” she says, “but without it, time feels like a cheese grater, and in doodling, it’s a little more bearable. If you start to think about the arts as a way of transforming time or transforming your experience, then it gets interesting, instead of being ‘this is a nice picture’ or ‘this is a picture that sucks’.”
  5. It helps us see the forest as well as the trees. Rather than relying on words, doodles allow us to hit the sweet spot in our brains where we are paying close attention but not overthinking. Sometimes when we’re too focused, we overthink.  When doodling, however, we don’t pay as much attention to the small details.  Instead, we tend to focus on fundamental ideas — otherwise known as the big picture.

If none of this convinces you, let me tell you about some of the famous doodlers of history: Steve Jobs. John Keats. Albert Einstein. Nikola Tesla. Leonardo da Vinci. And just about every American president ever. Yes, really!

But to get the benefits of doodling, you need to keep a couple of principles in mind.

Doodling is not about drawing; it’s about thinking. Or, more precisely, leaving your brain time to think. Doodling is what I’d call a “mindless” activity. You shouldn’t have to work hard at it. It’s simply something to keep your hands busy while your brain works. For this reason, don’t try to make your doodles pretty or beautiful. Instead, simply focus on keeping your pencil-holding hand moving.

Remember this trick when you’re mindmapping. If your mind ever goes blank or you don’t know what to write next, do some doodling. This simple act will help your brain to come up with fresh ideas.

You don’t need to be an artist to doodle. In fact, there is likely a style of doodling that comes naturally to you. Here are some examples:

  • Word doodles: you write or print a word and then re-trace it many times.
  • Abstract doodles: you make geometric patterns that don’t result in a recognizable object or form. (This is what I naturally tend to do.)
  • Nature doodles: you draw flowers, trees, mountains, suns, stars, moons. Picture doodles: you draw recognizable images such as pencils, cups, tables, cars.
  • People and face doodles: drawn to the human form, you like to do cartoon-type images of real or imaginary people.

Like many non-artists, I had always attributed more value to the more recognizable images. This is incorrect! Doodling is not about making something look like “the real thing.” It’s about freeing your brain to think. Just as we’re all naturally inclined to write in a certain way (and can train ourselves to write in different ways) we’re also inclined to doodle in certain ways. Start with whatever style of doodling feels most natural to you and go from there. It doesn’t matter if you can’t draw. Surely you can retrace a word many times. Or do an abstract doodle, right?

If you’re ever in the unlikely situation where you need to share your doodles with others (let’s say you need them for a meeting), do them with a yellow highlighter first. When you’re happy with the result, retrace with a black Sharpie. When you photocopy the image, the yellow highlighter will disappear. (Neat trick, huh?)

One of the reasons doodling gets such a bad rap is that many teachers (and bosses) take offense to it. They think the student or employee is distracted or failing to pay enough attention. Ironically, the doodler may well be the most engaged person in the room.

But for writers, doodling should be a no-brainer. It will relax you, help you think more effectively and increase your focus. Not only that, but it’s really easy to do.

Why are you waiting? Start doodling!


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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