Yes, the process of writing can be frustrating. There can be days when it’s hard to come up with a fresh idea, to find the photo you need, to explain a grammar item clearly or design an activity to practise a set of vocabulary in a memorable way. But the struggle is worth it for the days when the writing flows and you are “in the zone”.

Definition

The Cambridge dictionary defines ‘in the zone’ as an idiom meaning “If you are in the zone, you are happy or excited because you are doing something very skilfully and easily.” For writers, being in the zone are those days when you start writing and suddenly you look up to realise a few hours have passed and you have complete materials for a whole lesson, a set of slides for a webinar or two pages of a coursebook.

Flow

Another way to refer to that feeling of being ‘in the zone’ is famously described in the book ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The book is about the pursuit of happiness and summarizes Csikszentmihalyi’s “decades of research on the positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life.”

Between boredom and anxiety

The middle section of the book is of particular interest to anyone working on creative tasks such as materials writers. The author explains that ‘flow’ is that think channel which lies between the boredom of work and anxiety in your work. Boredom occurs when when you are highly skilled, but the challenge is low. Anxiety occurs when the challenge is high but your skills are too low to meet those challenges.

Finding a balance

This view of boredom, anxiety and flow explains a lot about when we as writers are in the zone. I enjoy writing controlled practice activities such as a gap fills for a while but if I spend all day producing them for – say – a grammar app, then boredom starts to set in. Equally, if I am set the challenge of creating content for a context I am unfamiliar with, or for which I have not been briefed properly, I might feel some anxiety. Instead, I tend to experience flow and be ‘in the zone’  when I have a complete lesson to write. That’s because it requires a range of writing skills and offers different levels of challenge – a middle way. 

Other characteristics of flow

As well as finding that right balance between challenge and skill, Csikszentmihalyi identifies a variety of other characteristics of flow such as total concentration on a single task, clear goals, time speeding up and slowing down during the worktime, and a feeling of control over your task. 

The intrinsic reward

Finally, one stand-out characteristic for flow is that the experience itself is intrinsically rewarding. Csikszentmihalyi comments on this after having observed a painter at work. He noted how single-minded, focused and persistent they became. Then, upon finishing the painting, their interest ceased. I suspect that if he had observed many materials writers in flow or in the zone, his conclusion would have been the same. 

Ask yourself

Which writing tasks cause you boredom or anxiety? Which are the writing tasks when you get into the zone and encourage ‘flow’?

Reference

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1988) Flow Random House