The Secret to Writing Better: Heart & Head
Before we begin, have you read the other articles on the secrets to writing better? You should. Especially since this is part 3, and who begins with part 3?!?! Alright, let’s get into some real dumb advice by simplifying all writing, no matter the medium, into just two basic parts.All writing is crafted into existence based on two things, and two things only. If you can understand these two things, and utilize them correctly, you can write anything — faster and further.
I’ve used these two things as a way to express specific “mindsets” in order to focus my writer’s brain and emotions toward the right target, in the right way, at the right time.
It’s a process designed to help the writer exist as individual personas, or different parts of one’s self, with the personas reflecting the different mindsets needed to not only write effectively across mediums but to add depth to any writing project.
Simply, it’s to become two completely different writers.
Now, don’t over-complicate it in your mind — don’t overthink it. It’s much simpler than it seems. You, as a writer, are already made up of two halves. One is the Heart, and the other is the Head. One side is filled with emotion and energy. The other is based on, and delivers, sheer logic. One feels, the other thinks. Each excels at specific writing tasks, so they’re yours to call upon when needed.
Heart writing is the writing that you can’t plan or schedule. It’s the emotional stuff that sneaks up on you like song lyrics while you’re driving, or a brilliant movie concept while drinking with friends, or like a poem in the middle of the night. It’s the writing that happens entirely by accident when you weren’t thinking all that much. It’s chaotic and magical. However, it can be ignited and inspired. It can be let loose on the page when you need it.
Meanwhile, Writing with Head is something planned. It’s the exact number of pages you say you’ll do tomorrow at 9 AM, at your desk, with a hot coffee, and a shawl sweater, but not if one of those things is altered in any way.
It’s about control and structure.
The great secret to writing is to not accept that structure, and form, and writing styles are concrete and unbreakable — that you can only write certain things at certain times in certain ways, or through outline. Nor is it to accept that words are something you wait for — magic floating in the air, gifted to you from the gods. The trick is not to be, or rely on, one or the other — it’s to be and rely on both.
To conquer all types of writing at any time, day or night, at home or at work, is to simply use some really dumb techniques that teach you how to turn on the two sides of your writing brain so you can write what you want, what you need, whenever without feeling like you’re making an overt, complicated effort.
Without overthinking it, the Heart and the Head can be envisioned as two parts of one whole, like the Chinese principal of yin and yang. They’re seemingly opposite forces, each representing something individual and specific, yet they work together to create something greater — something powerful and Earth-moving — while also showing glimpses of one another in themselves.
Believe it or not, in every great rom-com writer, there’s a careful, logical strategist who adores the structure of their screenplays. In every great writer of high school textbooks, there’s a poet who writes only in unrelenting passion and emotion. Your Heart and Head are a symbiotic flow of thought, feeling, and all-around energy that you can harness to write. Together, it’s a great, natural, unstoppable power, and it’s already inside you, just waiting to be recognized and let loose.These two sides of your writer’s self are order and chaos, with Head being order and Heart being chaos. It’s a symbiotic, cyclical relationship, with one always leading to the other. Because, as a creative, when you have order, you want to create chaos, and when you have chaos, you want to create order.
However, there is a time and place for each to exist and operate, and so when you must write there, you must stay there, avoiding temptation from the other. When you have one, the other seems appealing, comfortable, intriguing, and sexy. The question becomes, when to use which side of your writer’s mind?
Consider your Heart and Head a rotating effort of chaos and control. One feeds the other and they continuously flow onward, coiling round and round. When chaos and imagination aren’t working for you, add control, structure, and routine. When control leaves you stuck, incorporate chaos into it to spark new ideas, breaking you lose so you’re free to explore what’s possible.
Oftentimes, when too much time is spent with order, you need chaos to spark further creativity. With too much chaos, you need order to actually create something digestible and understandable. When you begin with chaos, you create wildly, crafting more and more thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. When you follow that with order, you can structure it, cutting it down and forming it into something valuable. But, if you lead with order, you have nothing to build with. And, if you end with chaos, you end up never finishing, because there’s always more more more ideas to pack in and you can’t stop long enough to figure out where it goes and how.
As every one of us humans naturally possess these two parts within ourselves, each of us also has a dominant side, reflected in our different writing styles, preferred mediums, and processes. You’re either predominantly Heart or predominantly Head. This is why writing poetry appeals more to some (The Hearts) and writing historical novels based on heavy research appeals more to others (The Heads). Various inputs and influences can determine a shift from one to the other, but commonly, we lean toward one specifically.
When writing, there’s always a time for the logic of the Head and approaching your work carefully. Then there’s a time for you to unleash raw emotion with absolute Heart. In anything you write, you must apply both but at different stages of your writing process. While particular writing projects — from a simple company email to a blockbuster movie — require either the Heart or the Head to be more dominant in the work, anything good utilizes both by moving back and forth between the two halves as needed. By recognizing these two parts of yourself — the Heart and the Head — you can call upon one and then the other to write more simply, not overthinking or over-feeling.
For example, too often, when trying to write something emotional — something that a reader can connect with — we’re thinking strategically and logically, as in, “What will compel this reader to want to read this?” Or, “What will convert this audience to buy, or act?” In these moments, what we need to do is think less and feel more — utilizing the Heart, not the Head. We need to let the words and feelings flow naturally. We need to connect to the emotions of the reader through actual feeling, not through analysis. We cannot think our way to emotional connections, just as we cannot feel our way to logic and rationale.
So, to get to our goals, we need to utilize the correct part of our writer’s self at the correct time, utilizing both through our journey. We need to not just write a song but write one that’s both emotionally powerful and structurally sound. That’s something that’s truly worth singing about.
Utilizing both aspects of your mind and soul simply requires you to recognize that they exist. You’re neither a robot that is entirely logic and process, nor are you entirely Heart; a Disney princess, made only of curiosity, emotion, and imagination. You’re both of these and all of it, all jammed up into one. Your recognition of them, and your ability to already access them whether you realize it or not, is what makes you more adept at being a writer than others. Your knowledge and feeling that they’re inside of you is what brought you here to learn more about letting them out onto the page when you need them most.
Unless you’re writing something that needs it, like a poem filled with raw emotion or a technical document with raw fact and nothing else, you’ll want to merge the two parts of your writing and thinking into one complete whole. After-all, as you carry your reader through your words, like a story, you’ll need rising and falling emotions and thoughts over a period of time. You’ll need to use the two parts to push and pull them where you want them to go, pulling the right lever at the right time to hold and guide their interest. Too flowery and emotional and they may become repulsed. Too cold, corporate, and robotic, and they will become bored.
However, finding those precise moments when to use Heart of Head takes time, practice, luck, and confidence. There is no right answer or formula, or someone would have made a lot of money off of it consistently. Every great writer wrote garbage, so even the greats clearly don’t know the precise notes of emotion and logic, and when to play them exactly. Instead, I recommend thinking higher-level with these two parts of your writer’s brain. Don’t think of the small moments, but the entire writing process by employing one and then the other in your journey. One, and then the other, that’s it. First find inspiration and possibility with Heart, and then structure it with Head. Consider every idea and feeling you can muster, and then consider them all, forming and reforming through thought and logic. Heart, then Head. Give yourself time to play with words without limitations, and then follow that up with time of absolute limitations — time, structure, and focus.
Business leader, UX designer, and writer Mona Patel wrote a children’s book called The Thing About Swings, which is actually quite relevant for writers of any age. This is a book that’s disguised as a children’s book but is really about decision making and innovation for adults, “inspiring children of all ages to question, dream, and design a better world.” In it, the elephant thinks up a million ideas, always asking “What if?” but never doing anything about it. That elephant is all Heart — full of wonder, passion, and possibility.
Contrary to that elephant is the skunk, who challenges every idea. “We don’t have the budget. We don’t have the time,” the skunk always responds. The skunk is the Head of the group. It cares only about how things will be done, and wants a plan that controls and binds the idea. If the skunk doesn’t have it, then it’s not a good idea, because it’s not clear and logical. It can’t imagine a way forward for the idea, while the elephant doesn’t care to think about such menial things like plans, process, or limitations of space and time.
Meanwhile, the orangutan stops dreaming and challenging and simply gets to work. There’s a time to be the elephant and lead with curiosity, wonder, and Heart. There’s a time to be the skunk, to slow things down, to use logic, to use your Head. And, there’s a time to be the orangutan, to be practical and imaginative, to apply both curiosity and logic, Heart & Head, but more important, to stop talking and just get things done — to just shut up and work. This is your effort — to not merely be a Heart or a Head, but to be both, and to stop thinking and ideating so much and just get to work.
Understanding the Heart
Diving deeper into these two parts of your writer’s self, the Heart, the Feeler, likes to experience the emotion of the project more. It tends to be more frantic and “all over the place,” and is less strategic, capable, or interested in developing a plan prior to “creating.
”Your Heart is also more romantic and driven by the ability to use their imagination and bring new, never-before-seen things to life. It thrives on diving in head first for some play time, and it’s far more comfortable with trial and error than the Head. When faced with a challenge, it drives the writer to be more open to seeking out information themselves. It sees that not having new ideas quickly, a lack of focus, and a feeling of being redundant as challenges, and portraying a lack of humanity as its greatest fear.
The Heart is easily distracted, which it only uses as an excuse to not write, especially when there are so many more possibilities to consider. In this endless brainstorm, everything is further research and useful, and therefore nothing ever gets done. The Heart is like a small child that’s distracted and mesmerized by the world around it, observing everything with wonder and curiosity. With this mindset, waiting for inspiration is an excuse not to write, and searching for inspiration is also an excuse not to write. That’s why focus and controlled output from the little bit of Head in this yin yang relationship within you are required to get the Heart to do any work.
The Hearts of the writing world are freewheeling and erratic, better being able to ideate and expand on thinking quickly. They’re known for creating new worlds, wonder, exploration, and possibility, not for formulas or reboots. To see someone writing with Heart is to see someone in love with words and ideas. It’s like a singer closing their eyes as they sing. Sometimes it can be annoying, but when it’s good, it’s damn good.
Freewriting, brainwriting, or flow of consciousness writing is a useful tool for letting your Heart speak without thought or inhibitions clouding it, because being “all over the place” is the very nature of that style of writing. There is no form, no structure, no purpose, no deadline — just a natural flow that’s connected to some part of you usually hidden and restricted by self-consciousness. The trick is to shut the world off, to not think, even for a few moments, in order to let yourself slip into a flow state where ideas flow naturally. And, most importantly, you must never, ever try to be perfect. Give yourself time to create, and know that it will likely be useless, because it very likely will be, and that is okay — this is all part of the process. Hold yourself to no standards, because if you do, you will never meet them.
Shutting off your inner critic and your need for a structured deliverable, on a structured timeline, is quite difficult for Heady writers. It will never be easy on your first, second, or possibly even the twentieth time, but simply put your pen to the paper, or whatever medium serves you best, and write without thinking. Just know your Heart is there, let your feelings flow, and see where they take you.
Understanding the Head
The Head, or the Thinker, likes to be more structured in the writing approach. It likes a process that defines how and when the work will be done, as well as a clear objective for how the work will be created, and then how it will exist throughout and following the journey. It likes a certain, trusted path to walk down based on experience. Trial and error is only achievable once this path has been thoroughly followed. This includes following writing schedules, a specific structure based on the project, a clear outline, and a firm, unbreakable deadline. It likes you to sit in the same chair to write, at the same time of day, with the same coffee. It sees maintaining self confidence, as well as understanding itself and the reader, as challenges, and sounding too “ooey-gooey emotional” as its greatest fear, because it worries about coming across as vulnerable.
Despite its flaws, the Thinkers are purposeful and precise, better being able to hit a target from afar. As a Thinker, you know, can predict, and can explain things clearly and purposefully with great detail. When activated, the Thinker likes to be in charge and to be present, aware of everything. It’s like an old man giving you perfect directions, because he remembers the good old days before GPS, and he therefore knows every landmark and turn along the way.
To elevate or call upon the Head, whether because you prefer it or find it most difficult to utilize, give yourself structure and never break it, ever. Choose a small writing project and give yourself guidelines, a timeline, rules, and order, and then follow that path. Create a writing space and tell yourself exactly what you will write there and by when, and say it out loud to confirm it. Sit down and follow your plan perfectly, step by step, literally focusing on only one thing at a time.
As you write, the Heart inside you will want to play with everything and will quickly become bored with focusing so much on one little thing at a time. It will want to explore what happens next, and it will want to reference a song you kinda remember, or it will want to go Google that weird thing you kinda remember from when you were a kid, and it will want to be more, and do more. And in that moment, you will see that your Head is all that keeps you on track. It’s why people have movie ideas but have never finished a screenplay — they write with all Heart and not enough Head. They lack structure and order in their writing; not necessarily in their screenplay, but in the act of writing it.
Meanwhile, the Head can lead you to suffer from anxiety and depression and a lack of confidence due to its tendency to overthink, to be overly practical, and to form cognitive distortions. For example, “If I write this, people will see me, and if they see me they will judge me, and if they judge me I will fail. Then I won’t have a job, or money, or friends, so that’s why I should just not write it, or anything, ever.” Or, it considers the possibility of a career, or lack thereof, as a writer in most industries and says, “Why bother? It’s not likely to happen anyway.” So, while the Heart can be a woo-woo weirdo, the Head can be a real drag.
Your 3 Rooms
Legend has it that the incomparable innovator Walt Disney used a similar thinking technique to the Heart and the Head as the creative process for himself, as well as his animation teams. It was called Disney’s Three Rooms.
Both inside our heads as well as actual physical manifestations in their office, the Three Rooms helped you focus your mind at a given time and then more effectively and efficiently turn your dreams into reality. These Three Rooms were said to have reflected the three Walts. There was the Dreamer, the Realist, and the Critic, and you never knew which Walt would be joining you.
Much like the Heart, the Dreamer allowed for absolute creativity and imagination. It was where the work began and where ideas flourished. This was not a room for negativity, or opposition, or critique. There was no place for all that when everyone’s minds and hearts were wide open, always considering the possibility of new and wonderful things. Here, anything was possible, and that’s why it gave animators the freedom to craft experiences and stories that would change the world.
Similar to the Head, the Realist brought structure and deep, mindful, logical consideration into the work now that it existed. While the Dreamer was fueled by divergent thinking with the mind focused on the many possible considerations and possibilities, the Realist transforms the thinking by embracing convergent thinking to the creation process. In this mindset, and sometimes physical location, risk-taking and originality are replaced by data, experience, and logic. Here, we can take wild, free, fun ideas and edit them into a structure or form that is practical and achievable. Simply, this is where order is given to ideas. (Heart, and then Head)The Critic is the final and most annoying room. This is where we have to be honest with ourselves, each other, and the work, and where we sometimes have to kill our babies, as in getting rid of the ideas that we do so dearly love, but which we know will not succeed. This is the time when logic still reigns supreme but emotion is still incredibly important.
It’s not simply, “This will not work.” It’s also strongly, “This will not resonate with people.” In this room we’ll decide if this Disney animation is truly what will make the kiddos of the world dance and sing, and at times cry. Or, if it’s just doomed to fail.
And, like the Heart and the Head making a greater whole, each of these three creative mindsets must work alongside another “room” at some point or they become ineffective. For example, the work created by the Dreamer will often be unstructured and unachievable without the Realist. It will be only pixie dust; fantasy and therefore not practical. But, by incorporating the Realist, the wonderful ideas crafted by the Dreamer can be molded into something incredible and valuable — something worth sharing.
However, while the Dreamer and the Realist make a great team, the Dreamer and Critic would only fight, and the Realist and the Critic would have very little to work with without the Dreamer’s ideas. That’s why the foundation of the Dreamer and Realist, or the Heart and the Head, are critical to the creative process.In addition to providing an ever-shifting mindset for you, the writer, the Heart and the Head can also be your step-by-step process, much like Disney’s physical rooms. The subsequent sections of this book will introduce more extremely dumb tips & techniques for utilizing these two halves of yourself as an approach to tackling any writing project by being one and then the other. In this approach, the Heart will allow you to write freely and openly — a Dreamer and wild brainstormer that helps you prepare yourself with words and ideas. Then, the Head will help you create structure, balance intent, and be a Realist. In two simple steps, you stop constantly trying to write or create in your head, and you just take a backseat to things within you that already exist by merely recognizing their existence and specific, timely role.
Finally, once you’ve taken the two steps, these two halves and their dumb tips & tricks will work together to create a self-critic — much like the third room — that will allow you to properly review your work once it’s actually done, and not before as you try to write it. It’s the Heart + the Head = the Human. So, as you dive into your next bit of writing, no matter what it is, work from the Heart and the Head, and appeal to the human on the other side.
How to Use Your Heart and your Head.
Use both your emotions and your logic, not just one or the other. Consider what the reader wants, and then what they need, or vice versa. Ask yourself what would be amazing, and then what is practical. If one way isn’t working, try using the other.
Never follow the simple, yet common, advice of writers to merely open a vein and bleed. Surely, to write with Blood is a major part of writing. It is in fact pure Heart. But, that is not enough. To actually write successfully, one must embrace not just their raw passion but also their structured mind — both the Heart and the Head, together. You can’t just open a vein and bleed, you must then do something with the Blood. You have to put it to work and translate it for the reader.Another way to think about it: Think of the Heart as a chef. They’re artists and while they do use recipes, they’ll also improvise with what they have. They follow their senses and try new things — a bit more spice here, a splash of salt there. They’re one with the kitchen — connected to it in a way that can’t be explained. They explore the space, open their hearts, take inspiration from the natural world, and let the food guide them, not the recipe.
Meanwhile, a baker is the Head. The recipe must be followed because the product is more susceptible to failure without the precise structure it provides. A loaf of bread or a cupcake only have so much room for variance. Certainly, the baker can apply some Heart — some inspired creativity — but at its core, the baker is guided by structure, not freedom of the moment. But, together, the mindset of the chef and baker can create magical, memorable meals.
When you use them both as you write, structure, and edit, the combined self, the Human, full of both emotion and logic, will better critique and review your work. This will free you from cold, corporate, robotic language, and it will ground your emotional, dreamy, imaginative ideas. You will be more readable for all, while also being more targeted for your specific audience.When instructing writers on writing with Heart, I have them break their writing time in half. The first part is theirs to explore, to feel out the project. The second half is mine, in that they have that amount of time to actually get the work done for me. However, the two can not clearly overlap — they can not and should not start writing during the first block of time. They must ignore that fast-approaching deadline and instead trust in themselves that the work will get done eventually. They must give themselves the time to explore, and just stop thinking so much.
I recommend listening to music that reminds them of the work, or going for walks. I pull quotes that are similar in nature, and talk a lot about what the writing could look like later. This time is merely for finding the Heart of the project, and connecting to it in some emotional way, but not actually doing any writing. They have to feel it, not plan it. Head-driven writers find this exploration time to be wasteful and scary. But, regardless if you’re a Heart or a Head, what I find is that when they accomplish the first part, the second comes more easily than they could have ever imagined. If they spent the first amount of time feeling the work more, they no longer have to think. Somehow, they know exactly what to write, as if the words are flowing straight through them from somewhere else — somewhere magical, maybe.
Looking to write more dumb? Reach out to the Digital Surgeons team of writers about Writing Workshops, or get the little dumb book Write Dumb: Writing Better by Thinking Less, written by DS Creative Director James Dowd.