Writing in flow is not a Markov process

Writers follow the flow. But if you don’t keep track of the destination, the flow will lead you astray. Let me explain, using the mathematical concept of a Markov process.

What is a Markov Process?

You’re familiar with Markov processes, even if you don’t realize it. A Markov process is one in which the likely outcome of each step depends on what happened in the previous step or steps.

To visualize a Markov process, imagine that you are walking in an open field. You have two possible states: walking forward, or stopping. Here’s a possible set of rules for your walk:

  • If walking forward, 90% probability to take one step forward, 10% probability of stopping.
  • If stopped, equal probability of turning left, turning right, turning around, or staying facing forward. Then take one step in the (possibly) new direction.

If you follow these rules, you will end up traversing the field, occasionally changing direction. An observer would see you moving in what seems like a natural way.

Where would you end up? There’s no way to know. You’re not moving in a particular direction — you’re just moving according to your internal rules, based on what you just did.

You can see the results of a Markov process with your smartphone. Smartphones have predictive text now — they can make a guess at what your next word will be, based on what words you just typed and your past history of writing. It’s fun to see what you get if you start with your name and “is,” followed by selecting the middle word in the onscreen keyboard — the phone’s guess of the most likely next word. Here’s what I got on my phone:

Josh is the one that got the ball back on his head when I heard you were just having a prob in your state of our country that was supposed not for the first half to be home about a week from Friday and moving to a TOC and then drive the bus and get a new spine.

You can see the problem with a Markov process applied to writing. There’s a certain logic to this text — “got the ball back” makes sense, as does “I heard you were just having a prob[lem]'” and “a week from Friday.” But as a whole, it’s nonsense. It has logic. It just has no meaning.

What this means for how you write

Effective writers often get into a flow state. That means that the words that you are writing form in your head, then effortlessy end up on the page in front of you. Words seem to be flowing directly from some ethereal place. Writers talk about being animated by a muse and just writing naturally.

Flow is awesome for writing quality. But without the discipline of meaning, flow can actually get you in trouble.

As you write each sentence, the next sentence seems to follow. As you complete a paragraph, ideas suggest themselves for the next paragraph. You just keep marching forward, or turning, but always, you keep moving. The text streams out from your fingertips.

But where are you going?

Writing effectively is not just an exercise in free association. It is not a Markov process. Your job is not just to keep the words flowing out — it is to take the reader somewhere useful. At the end of a session characterized by flow, have you generated something useful, or just a cohesive, but ultimately useless, block of prose?

To make sure you harness the flow, you need your prose to have an objective and a structure.

Before you start actually writing, you want to know who your readers are and what your objective is. You need a target sentence, like “This piece will help people understand how to measure the effectiveness of content marketing” or “This sentence will persuade people that climate change is real, and is caused by humans.”

Having created that target, you want to plan out a structure. What will come first? What will come next, what sections will the writing include, and what proof points or examples will be in those sections?”

If you perform this planning exercise before you start writing, then your can harness your flow properly. You will not be wandering aimlessly in a field. You will be following a map to a destination.

And if your mind insists on going on a digression, you can ask yourself, “Is this helping to accomplish my objective?” If it isn’t, put that text aside for now, and continue writing in a more productive direction.

Free association is fun. It’s a Markov process that your mind enjoys. But professional writing is more than that — it’s creating text that accomplishes an objective. Keeping that objective clear as you write will help you turn flow into useful prose instead of random ramblings.

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