Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why Our Writing Improves As We Age

At age 56, I'm not yet a senior. But I'm starting to become constantly surprised by how young other people are — doctors, CEOs, even heads of government (the president of Kosovo is only 38, the president of Finland is 42 and even Barack Obama, at 52, is younger than me.)

Frankly, it's alarming. Best-case scenario (assuming I live to 90 — which may well be a cheeky assumption) is that my life is already 62 per cent over.

But there's a tiny bit of good news hiding in the weeds. I have become a better writer.

This is not just because of how hard I've worked at it. It's also because of age.

Aging may bring creaky backs, arthritis and blocked arteries but it also improves our brains. And that increases our ability to write. Here's why:

  1. Our brains never stop growing: Experts used to think that our brain cells simply died as they became older. Now they understand that we build new neural pathways throughout our lifetimes. This is because our brains are pliant — scientists call this neuroplasticity — and capable of dealing with many challenging events. For example, I have survived two stroke with no lingering side effects except, perhaps, for a small deficit with my memory and horrible handwriting. More famously, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor has survived a much more serious stroke and written and lectured about it.
  2. We develop better systems for doing things: I've always been well organized but after the stroke that affected my memory, I became hyper-vigilant. I write everything down. I have a daily to-do list. I don't waste valuable brain space remembering things my computer can track (for example: I use 1password for safely tracking my multitude of passwords). I even have systems for writing that allow me to produce a five-day-per-week blog with no stress. When I was young, I didn't need systems. But I could never have written a book. Well, I finished my first book a few years ago. Now, I'm working on my second.
  3. We gain more experience: With age comes experience. Do you remember how difficult it was to learn to read? Or to count? (I can still clearly remember learning to count at age 4 or so and struggling to nail down the numbers between 14 and 20.) There are all sorts of things you don't have to learn anymore! This frees up time for other tasks, such as learning to play the piano, or writing. My own mother became a visual artist after the age of 65.
  4. We have more knowledge: Even if you've never gone beyond grade 12, you've experienced the school of real life. With every book you've read, movie you've seen, person you've spoken to, you've gained valuable information you can use in your writing. Furthermore you'll have gained the self-knowledge that helps you better manage your own writing time.
  5. We have more sophisticated vocabularies: Inevitably, our vocabularies grow as we age. We can't help it! We see words more often and, with enough exposure, we remember them. Laconic means concise. Flibbertigibbet is a flighty or whimsical person. To evince means to show clearly. Knowing words like these helps make us more precise writers.
  6. Our left and right hemispheres talk better to each other: I didn't know this until I did the research for this column, but, as we age, our logical left-brain — "the editor" — becomes better able to communicate with our more creative right-brain — "the writer." Brain scans show that young people often use only one side for a specific task while middle-aged and older adults are more likely to use both hemispheres at once. (Research by Cheryl Grady from the University of Toronto is particularly interesting on this point.)
  7. We're better able to manage our own emotions: Writing requires our knowledge and experience and systems but mainly it requires our guts. The hardest thing every writer faces is the certain knowledge that what we're writing is terrible. The sentences are too long-winded. The syntax is screwy. The ideas are weak. And yet, still, we write. 

Aging may affect our memories but it doesn't affect our ability to write. If anything it makes it easier.

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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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Comments from our users:

Friday June 13th 2014, 7:05 AM
Comment by: Robert E M.
Thanks for the encouragement. I'm an 81 year old starting to write my first novel. Hearing peoples reactions when I mention this writing is mostly negative. Your article and past blogs got me confidently started. I hope I finish before I buy the farm. At the very least I will contribute piles of notes to recycle.
Friday June 13th 2014, 8:12 AM
Comment by: Betty P.
Thanks. Maybe this explains why I am just finishing my first novel as my 60's begin. We also get braver as we get older. At some point it becomes a "why not" thing. All the rich textures of people and places, experiences and thoughts, they are all there, ripe for our brain picking.
Friday June 13th 2014, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Venita F. (Palatine, IL)
My favorite benefit of aging (I'm 65) is to be able to bid adieu to angst. It nearly crippled me in my youth. Now I can flick it away like a spider. And laugh!
Friday June 13th 2014, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
My father started his first novel when he was in his late 70s. (He died at age 84, having finished a rough draft.) The novel was never published by it made him crazy-happy. For that reason alone, it was worth it! Love your spider analogy, Venita!
Friday June 13th 2014, 12:32 PM
Comment by: Judy L. (Bellevue, WA)
Although many articles in Visual Thesaurus do help me get a grip and put changing usage in historical perspective, as I get older I seem to become more cranky about maintaining old rules emblazoned the way I learned them. Is Obama younger than me or younger than I?
Friday June 13th 2014, 12:55 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I have discovered anthropology and archeology (through reading novels), and enjoy learning about the lives of the many who lived before. This drives my mind in new and different directions constantly.

It's a great thing.

I cannot imagine stopping learning. That seems so sad.

I'm not sure how the parts of my brain are working better as I had no trouble learning numbers or letters, nor early basic math or reading. Just happened amid 60 classmates.

I was never a stellar student, but now, faced with the freedom to choose, and the experience of having taught, I'm off to the races -- or the digs.
Friday June 13th 2014, 2:01 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Judy, here is what I found about younger than I vs younger than me:

The structural ambiguity arises from the homonym "than" sometimes serving as a conjunction as in "younger than I am" and sometimes serving as a preposition coupled with the comparative of an adjective. In a nutshell, both are grammatically valid, and prescriptively admissible with sound, reproductive use in natural speech with the majority of speakers preferring the "than me" construction.
Friday June 13th 2014, 2:46 PM
Comment by: David W.
Robert E M.

One of the minor thrills of my life was interviewing the novelist James Michener. One of the things he said that I'll always remember was that "If you believe something's right for you, don't EVER worry about what other people think. What they think is not important, but doing what you really want to do IS important."
Besides, if you finish your novel the naysayers will still be around. And if you write a very fine story, which is easier said than done, of course, you'll still have people who'll say negative things -- "Why didn't you give your hero short,dark hair?" or "Why did Aunt Petunia have die in the end?" Etc.
Truman Capote once wrote a book titled, The Dogs Bark. His title was a shortened version of the old Arab saying, "The dogs bark, but the caravan passes on." The caravan was what was important, but the dogs clearly were not. Dogs have barked since they evolved millions of years ago. And that changed almost nothing. Ever.
Friday June 13th 2014, 3:22 PM
Comment by: Judy L. (Bellevue, WA)
Thank you, Daphne. My 8th grade English teacher - yikes! She would be 118 now - still lives in my head. Even with usage often trumping rules over time, I do hope "Him and me are going to the movie," won't become acceptable any time soon.
Sunday June 15th 2014, 5:55 PM
Comment by: G. Alfredo H.
No limits. The older the wiser...besides there is always room for improvement. One might be good at writing but still must work on technichal details.
Sunday June 15th 2014, 9:15 PM
Comment by: mac
i'm 79. i aced english because i was good at composition and got the idea i was a writer. in my 20's i was an on-again, off-again writer. (mostly off). got serious, attended writer workshops and at 32, wrote a novel. had an agent, had a few close calls about being accepted and then it happened. slid into the cult of writing short stories. along came the internet and i joined online groups. virtually met some good friends became a good short writer without substantial results but still plugging.
i think i want to quit it after a "mild" stroke but here i am, still at it. when i'm done my results fill me with a serenity and then i must start all over again. (why do we put ourselves through that?)
i can see no ending to this tale til they send me up the chimney.
did you know "itsy bitsy spider" is a template for writing fiction? itsy bitsy spider=we have a protagonist. went up the water spout=there's a mission. along came the rain=uh oh. and washed the spider out=an obstacle to be overcome. out came the sun and dried up all the rain=regardless what the deus ex machina crowd sez, this is not divine interference. itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again. our hero soldiers on.
did you know hemingway developed his minimalist style once he learned his wires back from the war in Spain were charged by the word count?
Monday June 16th 2014, 10:27 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Excellent piece. I hope my writing is improving. I feel that I have learned something about the art through decades of effort. The main thing I hope for is deeper, more sympathetic insight into life, into people.
Tuesday June 17th 2014, 4:33 AM
Comment by: Ginny A. (Tujunga, CA)
So there!
Tuesday June 17th 2014, 1:08 PM
Comment by: Victoria Avilan (Redondo Beach, CA)
Thank you Daphne. At the young age of 57, and having written three novels I hope to publish before I kick it, your words are very encouraging. I have great anxiety about not writing fast enough, not having enough time to write into fiction all that's in my head. I am angry at people who waste their time. Now, later in life, I'm starting to understand the first element of fiction––the importance of truth over mere facts.

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