Steps to improve your Writing

What if it were true that by going on walks you could improve your creativity? What if someone told you that by walking you would become a better writer? Would you walk more often, for longer, or in different places? Or just put it all down to some new age piffle? Well this idea does have legs. Many great writers are or were practitioners and research confirms it.


Writers who walked

Among the great writers of the past, who were also walkers, we can name Virginia Woolf, who frequently paced the streets of London as well as walking in the countryside around Monk’s House in Sussex. Several of her characters walk in London: Mrs Dalloway of course, and Helen at the start of The Voyage Out walks with her husband towards the Docks. Virginia Woolf published six articles in Good Housekeeping in 1932 called The London Scene.

273 VW London scene

Dickens was a great walker, again in the streets of London. WG Sebald walked in Europe and East Anglia. The Rings of Saturn (1995) is structured around a walk in Suffolk. Wordsworth was a great walker, yes wandering lonely as he did.

In 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson bought a donkey, Modestine, and together they walked in the Cevennes area of South France. He walked without purpose, although he was suffering from a broken heart. He explained his attitude in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes:

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Writers and the walking metaphor

To conjure up the process of writing the metaphor of a path, walking, a journey is frequently used. Annie Dillard, in A Writer’s Life is creative with her ideas.

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow or this time next year.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports and dispatch bulletins. (3)

Annie Dillard’s observations of the natural world are breath-taking. If you enjoy that kind of thing read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which the author describes as a non-fiction narrative. You can find her own website here. Her collection of essays, The Abundance (2016), is nearing the top of my tbr pile.

Robert Macfarlane’s in The Old Ways (2012) explores some similarities between writing and walking, likening the creation of a path to writing in the landscape. He follows the paths of animals in the snow, or ancient ways such as the Icknield Way and the footsteps of Edward Thomas and other walkers. The Wild Places (2007) he records other adventures in the British Isles. Another book nearing the top of my tbr pile is Landmarks (2015). I have given away several copies of Holloway (2013), which is a joy of a book.

273 Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit has lived the connections between writing and walking. Writer, historian and activist she wrote Wanderlust: a history of walking (2001). Brain Pickings captures the explorations of this book in her beautifully observed blogpost: Wanderlust. And the title of In The Faraway Nearby (2014) describes what can happen with your imagination when you walk.

The Research

Stanford University researchers have published an article called Give your Ideas some Legs: the positive effects of walking on creative thinking. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L Schwartz conducted several experiments from which they made their case, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity. (1142)

And by the way, it’s worth knowing that you get the best effects from walking outside and that it wont help improve your creativity if you walk with your face in your Twitter stream or with earphones linking you to a stream of sound. I can’t imagine why you would want to accompany your walk with other than natural sounds anyway.

273 signpost

There may be a chemical explanation for the connection, or a psychological one, or simply a common-sense explanation that by walking your mind is freed of other considerations. Or perhaps it helps because walking organises the world around you, including any writing projects.

Walk on

So I walk on, hoping it encourages my writing. Walking certainly encourages my reading as you can see from this post. I am hoping to explore more writing-walking connections in the next few months, beginning with an account of my participation in a community walk/write project next month.


Related posts

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes in June on Bookword.

Why Walking Helps Us Think, by Ferris Jabr, in The New Yorker in September 2014.

The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking, by Finlo Rohrer, on the BBC news magazine in May 2014

On the Creative Penn blog, nine lessons learned about writing from walking 100km in a weekend. Makes sense.

Elizabeth Marro writes about walking and writing on Book by Women blog, step by step, word by word.

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Filed under Books, Reading, words, Writing, Writing and Walking

12 Responses to Steps to improve your Writing

  1. Thanks for this, Caroline. As a compulsive walker, I’ve always known it helped my writing, but interesting to find it’s been tested experimentally. I find the rhythm of walking induces a sense of reverie in which thoughts flow easily.
    Kate Evans did a blog series on walking and writing on Mslexia last year on a similar theme

    • Caroline

      Thanks Anne. I rarely think about much specifically when I walk, but it seems to remove cluttering thoughts so that i can settle to write when I return.
      I must look up the Mslexia blog you mention.
      ps I can see you avatar here.

  2. Brilliant blog Caroline. I relate to R L Stevenson’s comments that he travels for the sake of the travelling. I enjoy travel the most when the travelling itself is part of the equation, not just the destination. I also love walking (and all of the writers you’ve mentioned here). I find any activity which keeps the body active and the mind free is conducive to writing, so walking is good (and I agree, no artificial noise, no internet) but also ironing and cooking. I remember once seeing an programme about the musical explosion in Detroit and many of the musicians worked in factories on production lines where they would be in a similar position, tied but mind-free. There must be something in it.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment. I haven’t tried either ironing or cooking as alternatives, although I quite enjoy both from time to time. Nor working on an assembly line!

      I think there is something in it and I have been looking for a way to link writing and walking for some time. In my next post on the topic (early September) there is a very direct link.

  3. Very interesting post, Caroline, and encouraging to me as a “senior citizen.” There are so many benefits to walking already. I always try to think of ideas for short stories as I walk and a good one will almost always come to me. Thanks for substantiating this benefit.

  4. I definitely find walking helps with creativity and sanity. When I couldn’t walk much for about a year I found it really difficult.

  5. Eileen

    Yes, another lovely post – and a great signpost. I love to walk and I fill my head with my stories – I have created loads of short stories when walking. And recently on my Inklings course I learned from one of the participants that it is really useful to start writing immediately after one’s daily walk. Sometimes I write during the walk if I find a suitable resting place. Walking is great to release energy and not only creates wonder in the moment but can inspire writing afterwards. Great to take one out of depression too. So good, good, good.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this Eileen, and for the advice about writing soon after walking. I have been thinking about all the wonderful things I discover – about history, companions’ lives, wildlife, reading recommendations – when I walk. Yesterday Jane and I walked the River Otter. It’s appropriately named. We talked about great books about nature. And we came across an anonymous obelisk – a bit of a contradiction: an anonymous bloody great stone pointy thing! I did some research after. All this I enjoy as well as the healthful feelings of walking in good air.
      Caroline xx

  6. Thank you, and I agree that walking has untangled many plots. I also appreciate that you refer to books with scenes and metaphors of walking, with characters sorting out their lives.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for these comments and also for the links. The connection became even more clear to me during Lockdowns. Hope your writing is going well.

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