Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Adopt a different writing persona

April 19th, 2011 by

This is a first in GITS history: Another Dumb Little Writing Trick That Work, only this one isn’t my idea, but from some actual scientists:

We value creativity and are often justifiably proud of our most creative acts. Solving a difficult problem at work is a major achievement. Writing a song or creating a novel work of art is an amazing feat. If you wander the aisles of your local bookstore, you find lots of books that promise to unleash your inner creative genius.

So, when a research finding comes along that suggests an easy way to improve your creativity, you should sit up and listen.

A paper by Evan Polman and Kyle Emich in the April 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides just this kind of straightforward demonstration.

One of the factors that often prevents people from doing something really creative is their existing knowledge. If you are writing a song, it is hard to come up with something that is very different from what other people have written, because you are reminded of melodies that you have heard before. If you are solving a problem at work, there is a tendency to focus on solutions that people have used in the past to solve similar problems.

So how do you break away from the influence of the past?

Polman and Emich make use of construal level theory. This theory, developed by Yaacov Trope, Nira Liberman and their colleagues, suggests that we think about things that are near to us in space or time in specific terms, but we think about things that are far from us in space or time in more abstract terms. For example, when thinking about a trip you might take to Paris next summer, you might focus on how much fun it would be or how great it would be to sit in a café and watch the world go by. When thinking about a trip to Paris you are going to take next week, though, you focus on what you are going to wear, how you are going to exchange money and what you will do when you encounter Parisians who speak no English.

Polman and Emich reason that if you are trying to think creatively, then generating some distance between you and the problem you are solving might enhance your creativity.

The simple trick?

When you are in a situation where you need to escape the curse of your own specific knowledge, pretend that you are being creative on behalf of someone else. That will help you think about the problem more abstractly and avoid simply repeating the solutions you already know about.

I think there is an additional dynamic at play: If we approach a creative task from someone else’s mindset, we minimize whatever pressure we typically bring to bear on ourselves. In other words, if we are really hard on ourselves to produce something good, we would – presumably – be less hard on the persona we adopt as someone else.

For writers, this trick should come pretty easily because when we write characters, we do so from their vantage point, we get into their heads.

So the next time you start to develop a story idea or even write pages, why not adopt a different persona? Not you, but someone else responsible for being creative. That just might be the trick to freeing up your creativity.

For more of the article, go here.

This has been another installment of Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work.

7 thoughts on “Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Adopt a different writing persona

  1. Matt Shields says:

    I love this. I'm thinking it could help with the 'write what you know' dilemma which is:

    Two of screenplays I've written are about the subject matter I know best yet are my most boring. I think because I know too much and can't let go of the minutiae.

  2. Gregaria says:

    Along the same lines, I find that problem-solving for others is easier than problem-solving for myself. I don't know what it is, but often I can't think of a solution to a dilemma until someone else asks me to help them with it. Then I have all kinds of ideas. I don't know why that is, exactly, but it seems to be the case.

  3. GooseRats says:

    One of my favorite lines from Mamet's "Heist" also applies to writing:

    "I tried to imagine a fellow smarter than myself. Then I tried to think what he'd do?"

  4. This is very much like the idea that I have been encouraging for years, working with screenwriting students. The dialogic of dramatic screen storytelling that requires the writer to alter his/her psychical distance to story by operating from different vantage points or perspectives, one of which is “audience”, which is an act of the imagination. Read about it at http://www.wheresthedrama.com/audience.htm

  5. iheathen says:

    this is similar to something you just taught me through the scene-writing challenge. I found that with writing the prompt scenes, I wasn’t personally invested in them, as they weren’t my idea, they were a project – and as such for some reason I could just knock them out very easily, whereas story ideas I have come up with on my own, I labor over them for months if not years and can’t write a single page of actual screenplay for them because I’m overthinking the whole thing.

    I’m now trying to turn the scene prompts into a way to outline the stories, and bang out scenes from there. Will see if it works!

  6. “So the next time you start to develop a story idea or even write pages, why not adopt a different persona? Not you, but someone else responsible for being creative. That just might be the trick to freeing up your creativity.”

    For ME, a big plus here is that it will be somebody else who writes something that sucks. So there’s less pressure that way, too.


    1. Scott says:

      Right you are, Justin. Hey, wherever these dumb writing tricks help, great!

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