It is no secret that ADHDers often have trouble with writing. But, as with most aspects of ADHD there is an element of counterintuitiveness with this struggle. Because this writing affliction strikes our population equally regardless of how well spoken and articulate we are. If you don’t understand how we’re wired, it will seem very strange that so many of us can speak clearly and articulately but when it comes to expressing our thoughts in writing we seem to lose our minds, get anxious, and can’t keep a linear train of thought. So what’s this all about?
Since I have gone through this type of struggle myself and come out the other side, I’ve felt uniquely qualified to deconstruct my writing process in order to understand how I went from anxious, convoluted, and avoidant to confident, linear, and effective. As such, I’ve deconstructed my writing process to be able to teach it to other, similarly wired ADHDers. This is what I’ve learned about us… and writing in general.
In order to write something good we have to do three things. We have to create content: ideas. We have to create structure: make it linear and understandable. And, we have to create language, craft the right words. Generally speaking, we as ADHDers, are pretty good at the first and the third things. But we struggle mightily with the structure part. Since organization is a core executive function and most of us struggle with executive functions in one way or another, this is a catch point. And, any topic of sufficient depth or complexity will require another key executive function, working memory, which is the ability to hold things in one’s mind and manipulate them.
So, if you are sitting with a blank piece of paper or at a computer with nothing written and the cursor blinking at you, trying to hold all of your thoughts in your mind, move them around, organize them, have them come out in a meaningful order, while simultaneously creating language… and you have ADHD and executive function challenges… Good Luck! But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a good or even a great writer. It just means you need a compensation strategy that works for how you are wired.
What I figured out over the years is that two totally unrelated systems that I was taught about six years apart in school, that did work for me at all by themselves, worked great when I mashed them together. And in today’s world, the end result of that mashing can be done digitally with mind mapping software that saves time and gets great results.
For me it started with what my third grade teacher called a spider-gram. I think most would recognize it as a circle in the middle of the page with the main idea, then lines going out from that main idea to supporting ideas in smaller circles around the page. This was great for getting my ideas out. But it didn’t really help me organize those ideas into a linear format. About six years, and many painful writing assignments later, I was introduced to the Harvard style outline. Many of you would be familiar with that as the standard style of taking notes where the biggest ideas are right up against the left margin, possibly with a Roman numeral. Smaller ideas are indented with letters, smaller ideas further indented with numbers perhaps, and so on. A great way to capture information and take notes. Very structured. But, if I could get stuff to come out of my brain like that, I wouldn’t need an outline. I’d just write the paper.
So, what I figured out at some point in late high school or early college, (I can’t quite remember,) was that if you Voltron these two things together it works brilliantly. The first stage, the spider-gram is the first step of writing, creating the ideas. I usually don’t even fill in the connecting lines until I’m done making all the bubbles. I just want to “throw up” all my ideas as fast as I can before I forget them. Then I go back and cross out the duplicates, make the connections, nest the smaller ideas inside the bigger ones, and so one.
Then I move on to the second step of writing. And, this is the most important point of all. This is where I isolate the part that is hardest for me/us, the structure. Back in the day, pre mind mapping software, I would go through the spider-gram and number all the “big idea” bubbles and put them in order. And at this point I’d have a really good idea of whether or not there were any holes in the proving of my thesis/point and it would be easy to fill in the needed extra bubbles. And, as if to prove the fact that I couldn’t do this without the “outline,” there was not a single time I did this that I rolled through this process and numbered the bubbles in order correctly. Invariably, I would end up realizing that I missed a key one and would have to renumber two or three times. But renumbering takes a minute. Rewriting multiple paragraphs or reworking the whole paper in the editing process could take hours… and attention that we don’t have.
So, still back in the day, I would take this numbered spider-gram and translate it into a Harvard style outline. Content: done. Structure: done. All I had to do was sit at the computer and express myself in words, creating language – a thing I enjoy – while rolling down my outline. In. Order. That is when writing became easy for me.
Fast forward to the 2010’s and mind maps and brain frames are all the rage in educational circles. But I think they are often misused. Teachers are so desperate to give kids a structure that they don’t understand separation of the steps and why that’s so important. They start by giving their students a very structured and, frankly, limiting “brain frame.” That doesn’t always help without the brainstorming process first.
But, also with the 2010’s came an explosion of mind mapping software. You can get super fancy and spend lots of money on team friendly software or you can use free open source stuff. My recommendation is to go to the middle ground. I have found that the expensive stuff is great, but not worth the money and has bells and whistles that I don’t need. And the free stuff is too much of a pain in the ass to use. Because we know, if it’s not easy to use, we won’t use it. I use MindMiester, the Chrome extension. I also recommend Mindomo. They both let you do a few maps for free. Then the yearly fees are very reasonable. They both have stuff that I find annoying but they work well enough to get it done for what I’m talking about here.
And, what I’m talking about here is modern efficiency! Instead of having to do the old school two step process, with the software, you can really cut it down to a quick one-and-a-half steps. You make your bubbles. I suggest starting with all “floating topics”.” Just like it was handwritten. Connect them after. Then you can drag them, move them, edit, next add, delete, link quotes, put in a turn of phrase you want to use in the final paper, and even footnote. That becomes the equivalent of your Harvard style outline without having to number anything or copy anything over. Just fill in any holes and Bob’s your uncle!
You work from that reorganized and fortified mind map and that paper will flow out of your brain like nothing before. You’ll be able to do it easier, earlier, with less anxiety. It will be better. It will be faster, even taking into account the time you spent on the mind map. You won’t need to run on adrenaline to get it done. And the editing process will be almost nonexistent. You’ll be looking for typos and small improvements. You won’t need to rework massive sections of the paper. (As a side note, this is why I don’t really believe in assigning 1st drafts. I think that if you do the prep work right, by the time you start writing, it should be pretty close to a final draft.)
The last thing I’ll say is that this is also a prime example of an external structure that we can internalize with time. Yes, I still use mind maps when I am writing something super complex, really long, or that I’m very emotional about. But, for the most part, I have internalized the ability to organize my thoughts for short to medium sized projects… like my blog posts. I do make a big deal about my disclaimer at the bottom of my posts. I know that I could go back and reread this post that is now over two pages single spaced and find some ways to make it better, more linear, tighter. But I also know that I’ve taught myself to be a good enough writer through the method mentioned above that this will be pretty darn good. It will be good enough that my ideas/ my content will shine through without any small mistakes of structure getting in the way. Not only am I really proud of that. But I think it should be an example that anyone can get here. Develop the tool. You will always have it in your toolbox when needed, and you may need it less and less over time. That sounds like a win/win to me.
On a personal note, I was down with the flu for a week then got my booster and we are rolling into the holidays. So, this is likely my only post for several weeks in December. I’ll catch you all again in 2022. But I do want to thank my small but loyal group of readers. The occasional new subscriber and positive feedback I get from my thoughts, advice, musings and whatnot, help sustain me through the year. 2021 has been rough. But it was definitely better than 2020. Here’s to hoping 2022 is even better.
Standard Disclaimer: In an effort to foil my own perfectionist tendencies, I do not edit my posts much… if at all. Please excuse and typ0s, Miss Steaks, grammatical errors, awkward phrasing. I focus on getting my content out. In my humble opinion, an imperfect post posted is infinitely better than a perfect post conceptualized but unfinished.