How Muscle Memory Affects Writing

by Meryl Evans | Category: Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 8 comments
Image credit: Michael Lorenzo

Image credit: Michael Lorenzo

If you’ve played a sport, you’ve probably done the same drills over and over until something felt like it would fall off. A tennis coach loved to tell us why he started every single practice with volley drills. To build  “muscle memory.” “What do tennis pros think about when on the court playing a match?” he asked.

“Nothing. Zero. Zip,” the entire team replied having heard this many times.

Training the Body and Brain

The pros drill and practice everything for hours to build muscle memory, to make it second nature. Walking, talking and eating. All those involve muscle memory. Muscle memory means doing tasks over and over so the brain just knows to do it.

You know how sometimes you can’t remember if you took your medicine or locked the door? You’ve done these so many times that they’re automatic. We all slip up at times, thus muscle memory makes it harder for us to recall whether we forgot.

A fellow tennis teammate told me about a match she played against a friend who ran marathons. When the match crossed the three hour mark, the marathoner couldn’t play anymore. She was used to working for three hours, her typical marathon time. She didn’t train her body to go beyond that.

Many of us adults haven’t practiced our math facts in years. So when we encounter one of those brain exercise games, we’re slow. But keep playing the game and we’ll get faster and more accurate. I’ve tested this theory a few times in reviewing a handful of brain games. It works.

Does your hand cramp when you try to write a lot? Most of us use the keyboard (that’s muscle memory, too), so we’re out of practice in writing anything more than a single thank you note. I handwrite thank you notes to my clients every year. I have to do them a few at a time to avoid muscle cramp.

Muscle Memory Applied to Writing

So what does that have to do with writing? Same thing. Writers practice, practice, practice. They get faster. They improve in word usage. They make their words flow better. They bump up word count to where thousands of words won’t faze them. Christina Katz points out the importance of repetition to develop muscle memory.

We use many of the same words in our writing, sometimes forgetting wonderful words that could turn a sentence into a lyrical one. So encourage yourself to review a handful of words every week by coming up with a weekly goal that won’t overwhelm you to the point that you paralyze yourself and stop trying.

But should we write until our eyes and fingers blister or sleep calls? Iain Broome says no. I agree with his statement: “Whichever side of the fence you sit, I think it’s really important to stop and question even the most common pieces of writing advice from time to time.”

Besides, if you write without purpose — you’re not likely to put out valuable content or truly exercise your muscle memory. It’s akin to leaning on your stair climber — you won’t benefit from the exercise when you do that.

When we write for a new publication for the first time, it feels awkward and slow. While our ability to write hasn’t changed, the publication’s style and audience is new to us. This happens when you try a different writing style or genre. Nonfiction writers who haven’t done fiction or poetry in years will struggle and need to practice. People who write short stuff like tips, lists and blog entries might feel overwhelmed trying to write a 2500-word essay.

How do you pump your writing muscle memory?


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