Why Johnny Can’t Write

The Ups and Downs of being a writer with ADHD.

Photo courtesy Canstock Photo

I remember sitting in my dorm room as I tried to finish my story. I was in my senior year in college and I was in the second semester of a journalism class at Michigan State that gives J-students real-world experience as reporters for newspapers and radio stations throughout Michigan.

It was always difficult, worked hard to make sure the story was correct. I had my notes out in front of me as typed, flipping the notepad back and forth to check over and over. It was so hard to remember what was said. Did I remember that quote correctly?

I loved writing a story and still do. But as I look back to that memory of me sitting in my dorm room on a spring day in 1991, I can remember how much of a chore it was to write. It took forever to write that story. Frankly, any story took forever to write.

Writing for me has always been a chore. But I wanted to write. Why couldn’t I write a simple news story? When I wrote, it was always hard to focus on the task at hand. When I was focused on the story, I had a hard time remembering what my interviewee said I was so scared I was going to get what they said was wrong. Never had I loved something that was also complete torture.

This is the most important thing to remember here. Writing isn’t something I hate, it’s something I love. I preach weekly and more often than not, I write out my sermon because I love it. But loving something doesn’t mean it comes with no cost and my love of writing comes with a huge price tag.

The reason it’s been such a chore to write is due to my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. ADHD can affect reading and writing. I don’t know if everyone with ADHD has this problem, but it seems like it is common. When we put pen to paper or type the keys on our computer, we don’t think of the various processes that need to take place and there are many:

“The technique involved in expressing oneself through writing is actually a quite complex, multi-step process. It requires the integration of several skills, including planning, analyzing, and organizing thoughts; prioritizing and sequencing information; remembering and implementing correct spelling, punctuation and grammar rules; as well as fine motor coordination.”

The best way for me to describe the difficulties of writing with ADHD has me going back to my childhood. I remember watching one of those variety shows of the day and someone starts spinning plates. For those old enough to remember, some guy would spin a plate on a pole and then they spin another plate and another and another. The trick is to try to keep all the plates spinning and the spinner is running back and forth to make sure all the plates keep spinning. But that only works so far. After a while, one plate starts to wobble and falls and crashes on the floor. The spinner tries to keep up, but it becomes hard and harder to keep the plates spinning and not crashing to the floor.

That is what it is to be a writer with ADHD. All of these skills are easy for neurotypicals, but for someone with ADHD? It’s all difficult. Planning? Not very easy. Analyzing and organizing? That’s hard to do when you’re distracted. Prioritizing and sequencing information is difficult because you have to decide what piece of information is important and what isn’t. Then there is the grammar. When you are distracted and trying to figure out what’s important, you will probably forget to check your spelling and grammar. Or, your ideas get ahead of your fingers and you might end up missing whole words. Which is like trying to keep all the plates spinning only to have them wobble and crash to the ground.

What do you do if you want to write? Here are a few suggestions that I’ve tried.

Outline your thoughts. The hardest part about writing is trying to begin. Why? Because you have too many thoughts buzzing around in your head that leave you not knowing where to begin. To deal with this, you need to organize things into an outline in some form. You don’t have to do it in any particular way, but you kind of sketch out some of the more salient points before you start writing the whole piece. This allows you to order your thoughts, which in turn helps you write a bit more smoothly.

Break things up. Since those of us with ADHD have shorter attention spans, it makes sense to break your project up into smaller pieces. Maybe work on it for an hour and then move on to something else. Don’t beat yourself up thinking you have to spend hours on end to finish a project when you stop focusing after say 30 minutes.

Find your “zones.” I will admit this is one that I haven’t practiced, mostly because I didn’t really think about it. But according to Dr. William Dodson, most people with ADHD have a five or six times during the day when they are “in the zone.” This means it is a time in the day when the impairments and lack of executive function vanish. It’s a good idea to find out when those times happen and then get to work. It might make sense to keep track of when these times happen and then try to work during those times.

Use a spellchecker. Because those of us with ADHD tend to misspell words or even miss whole words, it makes sense to use tools like the spellchecker on Microsoft Word or AI tools like Grammarly. You can also go old school by using a dictionary or thesaurus. You are going to misspell something, that’s going to happen. But if you use some of these tools, it gives you a chance to correct mistakes before you finish your writing for school or your job.

Speak your words. Another method I’ve used from time to time is speaking into a dictation tool. It makes writing a lot easier if you can speak what you are thinking instead of sitting in front of your laptop not knowing what to write. Speaking into a dictation tool and then looking at it, gives you a basis for the project. From there you can start editing and shaping the article. I’ve done it a few times and I love it.

Don’t write. One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that sometimes the best way to deal with the challenges of writing is to use another way to tell your story that doesn’t use writing. Let’s go back to the beginning of this essay. What I never told you is that for a number of years in college, I worked at the college radio station performing newscasts and stories. The same class where I was writing that news story, also had a broadcast component, where I created news stories for radio stations in Michigan. I was able to tell stories by creating them on the radio. Thirty years ago, I felt that to be a REAL journalist I had to write for newspapers. But the reality is that there is more than one way to tell a story. Writing is one way, but so is telling a tale orally….or visually.

As a pastor, I have to preach each Sunday. No surprise there, but in this year of the coronavirus, when we can’t meet in-person, I’ve become a video editor (they didn’t teach this in seminary). It’s got me thinking: what if I started telling stories via video instead of always writing?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since I’ve started watching videos made by Johnny Harris, a visual journalist whose work is found on Vox and the New York Times. Harris is dyslexic and in the following video tells how he learned to communicate in ways that worked with his differently wired brain instead of against it:

Unfortunately, it took me being in my early 50s to realize there are different ways to process and disseminate communication. But then, that’s why I’m writing this: so that someone younger than I am might learn some tricks in writing and even learn how to get your point across not writing words.

ADHD can be bothersome at times, but that’s usually because I’m working against my brain. I’m learning to accept my brain as it is and work with it.

Writing is still a chore and it always will be. But I’ve learned how to make it a little less annoying.

Written by

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism. https://www.dennislsanders.net/

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