The Science Behind Writing Drunk and Editing Sober (Infographic)

Posted 01 Jun 2017, by

Brendan Brown

Ernest Hemingway’s famous advice was to “write drunk, edit sober”. Alcohol and writing certainly have a reputation as bedfellows, with famed authors David Foster Wallace, Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote, and Hemingway himself, being heavy drinkers.

In truth, Hemingway probably never said that famous line which has been attributed to him for all these years. It was probably derived from a 1964 Peter De Vries novel called, Reuben, Reuben where his main character said:

“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion.”

But the question remains—is it true? Should you write drunk, and edit your work sober? We delve into the science behind this in the infographic below.

Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Is it a good idea, then, to “write drunk” and “edit sober”?

There have been, after all, a number of famous writers who were known to fond of a drink, such as Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Edgar Allan Poe, and Dylan Thomas. It is debatable whether these writers actually took the time to sober up when they needed to edit.

However, thinking outside of the box, as creativity often requires, can certainly help in the craft of writing, and some studies have shown that having a blood alcohol level of around 0.07% may actually help with tasks such as problem solving and creative projects.

Therefore, approximately two or three drinks may help with that novel you are working on. However, consumption of alcohol above that amount will hinder your writing efforts, and you would be worse off. Technically, no one should be writing while completely drunk. Or editing either. And definitely not driving. Paracelsus, founder of toxicology and  16th century Swiss German physician, alchemist, and astrologer, famously stated that “The dose makes the poison”.

Let’s examine what occurs in your body when alcohol enters your system. Alcohol is a depressant, and once it enters your body, it affects areas of your brain such as the cerebral cortex (which is responsible for thought and information processing), limbic system (associated with emotion and memory), and cerebellum (affecting movement, balance, muscle coordination). These areas of the brain are more incapacitated when there is a higher dose of alcohol in the system. Because blood vessels are dilated by alcohol and more blood is flowing, blood pressure must be maintained by an increased heart rate. This is why your heart beats faster when you ingest alcohol. Approximately 90% of alcohol is expelled from the body through its metabolization in the liver. The rest leaves through urine or via exhalation by the lungs.

You may want to keep your occasions for drinks to a minimum. A new study has found that even moderate drinking could acquire cumulative damage over time in areas of the brain associated with memory and cognitive function. You could be impairing your memory and cognitive abilities permanently, which would ultimately not help with either writing or editing. I highly doubt that Edgar Allan Poe was a good writer because of his alcoholism and the damage that it entailed. He was a good writer in spite of being an alcoholic.

While some tasks like writing can benefit from a slight lessening of the inhibitions, editing is certainly not one of them. This is because editing necessitates a good working memory, high concentration, and attention to detail, so alcohol and the activity of editing do not mix well.

You wouldn’t, for instance, fill out your tax return while drunk. Similarly, missing a run-on sentence, leaving spelling errors, or misplacing a comma can have embarrassing consequences later on. Nonetheless, editing, even while sober, can be taxing, and even the best writers can benefit from professional proofreading services.

If editing happens to be the task at hand, try drinking some coffee. The caffeine in your coffee can kick in within ten minutes. It may help to sharpen your discerning eye for proper grammar and punctuation, for about two hours.

The science of caffeine is well known. The caffeine molecule binds to adenosine receptors in the neural membrane, blocking these receptors from binding to its usual ligand, which is, of course, adenosine. In the absence of caffeine, these adenosine receptors bind to adenosine, a nervous system modulator, which results in an inhibition of neural activity. Sleepiness and relaxation is promoted. When caffeine is around, adenosine receptors are engaged by caffeine instead of adenosine, and this leads to an increase in neural activity. Wakefulness is promoted, and production of the hormone adrenalin is elevated. Adrenalin is a “flight or fight” hormone and is responsible for the greater intensity in attention and energy induced by the caffeine in your coffee. It also explains the jittery feeling some may get when they drink caffeinated beverages.

Some students may be familiar with cramming for exams the night before an exam with a large cup of coffee to hold vigil. Dissertations and doctorate defences may keep you up all night, but you can always receive help with editing and proofreading of your theses or dissertation.

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