Writing and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) don’t get along very well. If you invited them both to a cocktail party, they’d stand on opposite sides of the room and the tension in the room would still be unbearable. However, plenty of writers, some very good, have ADD. For them, ADD can be a blessing and a curse. Because of the way it affects the brain, ADD can lead to more creative insights and perspectives, and it can help writers avoid cliché. At the same time, ADD can make it extraordinarily difficult to get those ideas down onto the page, which can lead to years of frustration, underachievement, and a belief that it is just not possible to write well with ADD.
Writing with ADD is difficult, but not impossible. I have ADD, and I’ve worked with many student writers who have it. By sharing what I’ve learned about ADD through my own experiences, I hope I can provide some sense of an understanding about what it is like to write with ADD and tips on how to mitigate some of the symptoms as they apply to writing.
ADD and the writer’s brain
To understand why writing with ADD is difficult, we need to know a little more about it on the neurological level. Writers need to use many different parts of their brains, constantly orchestrating the systems that control memory, language, and logic. The task puts a great burden on the executive functions in the brain, those systems that help control focus and concentration. ADD hinders these systems most acutely. To put it another way, if your brain were the island of Manhattan, your brain while writing would look like rush hour traffic. If you have ADD, your brain while writing looks like rush hour traffic with stoplights that don’t work like they are supposed to. The whole effect is that writing with ADD often feels like a 30-car pile up in a bad section of town.
In my personal experience, writing with ADD involves a lot of starts and stops. Sometimes the words just flow, but other times the ideas are there in my head, but I can’t work through them in a way that makes sense. I don’t know what to put where or whether an idea fits. As I try to hold those thoughts in my head, I have to work extra hard to tune out other distractions, which takes a good deal of mental energy. By the end of writing for a long period of time, I am usually mentally exhausted.
These effects compound over time. As a writer with ADD experiences less success and more frustration, it becomes harder to sit down and write. Some give up early and avoid writing entirely. However, the real tragedy is that many with ADD want to do more writing but can’t. Writing offers possibilities to sort through and order some of the racing thoughts in their head, perhaps to even share those thoughts with others, but they can’t sit down and capture them. In many aspects of life, people with ADD often experience a chronic sense of underachievement. With that comes thoughts unexpressed, potential unrealized, goals unfulfilled. For people with ADD, writing appears like it ought to be a path to fulfilling some of that potential, but actually doing the writing is incredibly difficult because their brains won’t respond to their will.
For me, writing has long held this combination of promise and peril. I felt like I had a part of me that teachers and peers never saw, and the idea that I could sit and compose those thoughts into a more coherent package was appealing because it offered the possibility of validation. But the act of actually completing that process was excruciatingly frustrating. I have tangible memories of assignments that I really wanted to complete and do well on, but when it came to the act of sitting down and putting pen to paper, I would get lost. Eventually, I would complete assignments, but I had to rely on anxiety and fear of failure to produce a product that I wasn’t proud of.
It did not take long for this fear and anxiety to have a permanent effect. In the eighth grade, I had an essay due every Monday morning, which meant that I ended up struggling to write essays every Sunday evening. Now, more than twenty years later, I still sometimes feel twinges of that anxiety on late Sunday afternoons.
I am not close to where I want to be as a writer, nor have I accomplished what I want to or explored all of the ideas I have. I fight with these negative self thoughts every time I write, and I still cannot control the anxious feelings that arise. My ADD was not diagnosed until I was in my thirties and done with all of my formal schooling
By that point, the damage to my sense of self confidence as a writer was fairly complete. I was a chronic underachiever. My test scores in school put me in the 99th percentile, but the results when I wanted to write anything down were never close to what I wanted to what I felt like I was capable of getting. Learning I have ADD helped me explain a lot of my past failures, but because I didn’t have that diagnosis until after I finished schooling, I lived for years with a sense that I was lazy and an underachiever. I wanted desperately to succeed which created so much anxiety that I couldn’t even eat during the weeks in graduate school that I had papers due. I literally made myself sick.
I have encountered enough other writers with ADD to know that I am not alone in these experiences. Many of them develop these same negative associations to writing. Navigating around them takes an understanding of ADD and a planned process to mitigate the symptoms while taking advantage of the opportunities fore creativity that ADD presents. These are the keys to my system.
Managing the storm
The brain works much faster than the fingers can type. Ideas do not occur linearly in the order that is best for the reader to understand them. Writers need to manage this storm of ideas, capture the best points, and order them on the page. Again, this places a burden on the executive functions to maintain focus and stay on track. When your mind jumps from one idea to the next without being able to get them down on the page, each lost thought compounds the frustration. I find that the key to managing this storm is to know it will come and put a plan in place to capture as many of these thoughts without having to worry about the order and structure of ideas.
Weaving the net
The first step is to develop a plan of action prior to writing. This looks like an outline mixed with a to do list. When I construct a plan of action, I like to put down the parts that I know will go into the essay. I don’t worry about order, and I don’t worry about trying to make it complete. I just want to construct a type of to do list for the rest of the essay. As an example, here’s what a plan of action might look like for this post:
Describe problems with ADD and writing
Describe how brain processes writing
Relate personal story
Describe storm of information
Describe how to organize before hand to capture information
I try to start off each item with an action verb. The key here is that I want to have a list of many mini-tasks that I can isolate and focus on. It happens that these items are roughly in order of how I want to include them in the post, but the nice part of having this action list is that you don’t have to know the order of things. If you can get them down on the page, you can more easily experiment with the order once they are full blocks of text.
This plan of action is something that grows as the paper does. If I have a thought pop into my head about something that I want to include in the essay, I can easily put this into the list. I also like to keep this list on a separate sheet of paper where I can easily write down another task or set up another column with other tasks.
I translate this plan of action to the text by opening up multiple word processor documents on my computer, in some cases one for each item on my plan of action. In each document, I write the task that I need to complete within it. Then I write in whichever document I feel like I have the most to say in. When I have an idea that fits another document, I can quickly jump to that document and jot it down. Instead of writing one long essay, my task here is to write many short informal essays that I can later combined together into one essay.
I also open up two other blank documents. One of the documents is a catching ground for related ideas that I can’t fit into the essay yet. For example, for this post, I thought I might include something about the debate on whether ADD is overdiagnosed or even a real disorder, but I wasn’t sure if or where it fit. I wrote that portion of the essay in my catch-all document. By having another document for possibly related ideas, I can jot down those ideas in that document and then pull them in if they are seem to fit or discard them later. The other document is the equivalent of the mental trash bin. I use this bin as a place to write down other thoughts that are popping into my head but aren’t related to the essay. The brain works a bit like a computer. When an idea pops into the brain and disappears, it often doesn’t really go away. Emotions stick around even after the thought that triggered the feeling is forgotten. This creates a sort of constant low-level anxiety. Repressing negative thoughts takes up mental energy, which means that the brain has fewer resources to use in composing the essay. Writing them down helps me free up those other resources.
So for example, if I have an idea about some other project or I remember something that I need to do or research that I need to complete, I will open up the mental trash bin and write it down in there so that I can get it off my mind. I also use this document as a place to clear my mind when doubts or anxiety pop up. In those cases, I will just sit down and write whatever thoughts pop into my head about how I am feeling. This method of writing down all of the anxieties works to sort of download them so that I don’t have to deal with them until later.
Regular word processors work okay for writing with these many windows open, but I have more recently started experimenting with using Scrivener, which has a side bar that allows for easy switching between documents and also lets you organize research and other material from the project in a very clean visual environment. I have not completely mastered the program yet to talk about how easy it is to combined different elements or potential drawbacks, but it has enough promise that I wanted to include it here.
Focus on the process
Most writing is conversational; the writer composes ideas to evoke some response or series of thoughts in someone else. In most conversations, you can know how things are going by the body language and responses of your partner. However, when writing, your partner is some imaginary person who will read your words at some point in the future without you there to offer clarification. For most of the writing we do while learning to write, that conversation partner is not a partner at all. It’s some teacher who will be judging our word choice and grammar along with our ideas. Anyone in that scenario would be a bit anxious about the end results, but at least for me, overly focusing on this end point creates an overwhelming sense of dread that distracts from my actual ability to compose the essay. That can create a self fulfilling prophecy since it sabotages the attention and effort that is necessary to create a solid end product.
Writing goes more smoothly when focusing just on getting words down on the page and not worrying about grammar or the quality of phrasing until later. That requires ignoring the self critical voice that keeps popping in and making objections. I don’t have any particular method that works to overcome all of those objections, but it helps to meet that voice by saying to myself that writing is a process and that it is better to push forward and fix it later rather than to spin my wheels and never get anything down. I also use something I call the high score method, which helps me turn the actual act of composing into a game focused on simply producing words on the page.
Some companies use this concept in customer service. They like to promise less than they are prepared to deliver which sets low expectations for their service and then come back with something that exceeds those expectations. The idea is that at the very least you will meet those standards and if you exceed them you look better because you have gone beyond what you’ve been bound to. I don’t necessarily believe that’s a great model for doing business with others, but I do use it when making promises to myself about my writing so that I am better able to focus on the process.
When I sit down to write, I know that I easily get overwhelmed by what I want to accomplish, which triggers that anxiety cycle and makes it harder to focus on what I need to do. To avoid this anxiety cycle, when I try to sit down, I make my first goal something that I know I will be able to reach, like “I will write for five minutes.” When I sit down and accomplish that, I feel better about myself, and then I can make a new goal. A small goal lets me get started on projects sooner than I otherwise would have been able to because it seems achievable.
I also promote the idea of starting essays at times when I expect that I won’ t be able to get much writing done at all. With students who have trouble getting started with things, I always say that the best time to begin an essay is fifteen minutes before they are going to meet friends for dinner. The value of this is that those fifteen minutes are already marked down as wasted time. If you sit down to write, you can’t really expect much, but if you do compose an action list or jot down ideas or get a paragraph started, then you have a place to begin when you get back and you have the positive feeling of having exceeded your own expectations. Achieving many small victories like this, even ones that you manipulate for yourself can have a powerful effect on motivation and the belief that you can actually complete the essay.
Telling yourself the best story
ADD and other learning disabilities can too easily lead to learned helplessness, the attitude where you feel powerless to do anything to achieve better learning outcomes because of past disappointments. When you feel powerless, you don’t act to improve your circumstances.
Learned helplessness depends a lot on how you explain the reasons for why something bad happened to you. In general, you want to avoid explanations that explain behavior as permanent, pervasive, and personal, which are called “the three P’s.” Permanent explanations are those that see a failure as an indication of something that will go on forever (or at the very least a long time.) Pervasive explanations are those that explain failure as part of a larger pattern within your life. Personal explanations see the cause of problems as evidence of something wrong with themselves, particularly things that they cannot change. An explanation for not doing well on an essay that says “I am a bad writer who chronically procrastinates and because of this will never accomplish my goals” is permanent (chronically, never), personal (I am), and pervasive (connecting this incident to other incidents in the past and future.)
Revising these narratives into something that brings a cause for optimism can go a long way towards helping you to develop into a more persistent and resilient writer. In this case, you’d explain negative marks on an essay by looking at the specific circumstances and presenting an explanation that shows where room for improvement exists. Instead of saying that I’m a bad writer, I should say, “I received a lower mark on this essay than I wanted, but this has been a hard class for me, and I have to work harder to understand the material. My instructor liked some of the things I had to say, but he marked me down for content from the class that I misunderstood and for not following the assignment. I could get more help from a tutor to help me understand the material, go to his office hours to clarify what he expects, and make a plan to start sooner on the next paper.” This explanation avoids making the failure a sign of a permanent trait and sees the failure as specific to this situation. It appears to be personal in some ways, recognizing what I did wrong, but it also sees what I can do to improve. I need to stress that these suggestions are not simply power of positive thinking mumbo jumbo nor are they attempts simply to avoid responsibility or pass the buck. They come from research findings of the psychologist Martin Seligman among others. These general concepts are discussed in more length in Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, which offers a more in-depth way to apply these ideas to lots of situations.
For the writer with ADD, this type of positive self-talk is crucial to dealing with the negative thoughts, doubts, and anxieties that inevitably will pop into your head while writing. It might even help to create a card with the three p’s on it and put it nearby while writing. The mental energy that thinking positively saves allows you to put more resources to improving the essay.
The most important part
Five years removed from a diagnosis of ADD, I have been able to use this system to accomplish a lot of writing and get more people to notice me for my writing, but I still haven’t started some of the larger writing projects that I care about. The prospect of failure and proving to myself that I am not capable of completing them sneaks into my head, even when I know that these explanations are exactly what I am supposed to avoid. I’m proof then that the particular elements of this system do not work on their own. The system works over time if you practice it, but the most important point to the whole system is reacting to set backs with self compassion and optimism and persistence. In those terms, I try to see each failure or disappointment as an opportunity to react better than I would have before I started writing in this way. I hope other writers with ADD can do the same.
I know that this is a topic that many struggle with. I encourage others to leave their own tips here for others to benefit from.