Write With Your Eyes Closed

by James Scott Bell

I’ve written before about the pulp writer W. T. Ballard. He was a friend of my parents, and I only wish I’d been aware enough to arrange a sit-down with him to talk writing. Alas, he died in 1980 while I was still trying to become the next Brando.

Fortunately, there’s an entertaining interview with Ballard from 1976 which fills that gap.

Also fortunately, when I started my writing journey, I was able to get some guidance from his sister-in-law, Sue Dwiggins Worsely, who was in the movie biz. She gave me a lot of encouragement, and also a box of Ballard’s paperback originals. Included in the box was a collection of his Bill Lennox stories, which were immensely popular in Black Mask, the legendary pulp magazine. The intro has a short reminiscence Ballard wrote about his pulp days.

One incident he recounted was the first time he met Erle Stanley Gardner. Gardner, of course, was the creator of Perry Mason, and one of the most prolific pulpsters of all time. In part that’s because he dictated his books into an old-fashioned Dictaphone and had a team of secretaries to do the transcribing. Gardner invited Ballard to come to his apartment in Hollywood and they’d go out to dinner.

West Coast Black Mask writers, 1936. Raymond Chandler, standing second from left. Dashiell Hammett, standing right. W. T. Ballard, seated, middle.

When Ballard got there, one of the secretaries greeted him at the door and asked him to have a seat, telling him that Mr. Gardner still had two chapters to finish.

“I began to burn,” Ballard wrote. “He had made the six o’clock date, I had rushed to be there on time, and now he expected me to cool my heels while he did two chapters. I wondered how long he’d be at it.”

Then Ballard heard Gardner’s booming voice through a curtained arch. He went over and “I got my first look at Erle Gardner. He sat on a couch, bent over his knees, a Dictaphone horn cupped in both hands, talking so fast that I could not follow the words. Ten minutes later he came out. I don’t know how long those chapters were but I’m sure they were spoken faster than any two others on record by any other writer.”

I rather imagine that Gardner had his eyes closed as he dictated.

Which reminded me of a note I made early in my writing journey. Back then I’d scribble a reminder every time I came across a technique I learned or discovered. I’d write on cards, scraps of paper, napkins, whatever was handy. I still have those notes in a big envelope, sitting on the bookshelf in my office. One of my early notes was, Write with your eyes closed.

What I’d discovered was this: if you close your eyes and let a scene start playing like a movie in your mind, you see things you never would if you look at your words as you type. Instead, you visualize and record the details, like a careful journalist.

I use this technique primarily to deepen descriptive elements of a setting or character.

There are three complicated steps to follow. Let’s see if I can break them down for you:

  1. Close your eyes
  2. Visualize.
  3. Type.

If any of that is confusing, feel free to ask me questions in the comments.

There’s a second benefit to writing with your eyes closed—it keeps you from stopping in the middle of a sentence or paragraph to make a correction. When you are creating you should do all you can to stay in “flow.” Every time you stop and backspace to fix a spelling error, or pause to wonder if you like the sentence you just typed, you’re frustrating flow. You’re putting a kink in the hose of your imagination.

So lower the lids over your orbs, at least some of the time, as you clack the keyboard.

Do you ever write with your eyes closed?
Do you do some form of visualization before you write a scene?
Do you look at the words on the screen as you type?

61 thoughts on “Write With Your Eyes Closed

  1. Good morning, Jim. Thanks for the interesting advice. I went from disbelief to thinking “why not try it” after reading a few paragraphs. It makes sense. Kind of. It actually isn’t as hard as it sounds. I just did it. It was my first time ever and I only had a few typos which Grammarly quickly pointed out. It’s my first laugh of the day. I am going to try it on some extended writing in a bit.

    Have a great remainder of the weekend.

    • Congrats, Joe, on giving it a try. It’s a bit of a paradigm shift but, as you say, not that difficult in practice. Typos are always a part of it, but fixable…if you catch them in time (a church paper years ago had a little item that said, “Our youth group enjoyed a great weed at camp…”)

  2. Great post, Jim. Thanks for the links. Interesting ideas. I’ve never tried writing with my eyes closed. And I do look at the words on the screen as I type. If I were to try this, I would have to turn off Scrivener’s overactive spell corrector. It has some crazy ideas of what I’m trying to type.

    My visualization technique is to type in a recliner, legs up, semi-reclined. I read in Writers Digest years ago that some writer (I can’t remember who) used this technique and felt it helped his creativity. The other part of visualization for me is to type an expanded outline on google docs before I type the scene on Scrivener.

    I do tend to write lean. I like your idea for seeing more detail. I’ll turn off the spell corrector and try the blind technique. Maybe it will also teach me to type more efficiently.

    Have a great day!

    • It’s good for small bites, too, Steve, like for adding detail. You can do that quickly, too, just writing down what you see, and then weaving that into the story as you see fit.

  3. Interesting post.
    Do you ever write with your eyes closed? No.
    Do you do some form of visualization before you write a scene? Yes
    Do you look at the words on the screen as you type? Yes
    I’ve found if I can’t see what I’m writing, I flounder. I NEED to fix as I go. I don’t know why, but I can’t work without seeing the immediate output. I can’t imagine writing with a voice recognition system, either. I ‘head write’ all the time, but I have to see the words appear on the screen.
    Happy Sunday.

  4. Good morning, Jim. Thank you for giving me something to think about. I don’t remember ever deliberately closing my eyes when typing, but I must unfocus or look away while I’m typing because I often go back to look at a sentence or paragraph and have to correct the typos.

    I definitely visualize a scene before I type. I wonder how anyone could write a scene without visualizing it.

    I tried dictation once, but it didn’t work well. It sounds crazy, but somehow the act of typing seems to nudge my brain into creative mode. That and another cup of Peets French Roast.

    • I’m with you on the Peets, Kay (my fave is Major Dickason’s Blend) and also on the voice recognition. I feel my writing is more, I don’t know, solid when it’s typed. We all admire Erle Gardner’s output, but truth be told his style was really clunky (though that didn’t seem to hurt sales!) Sheesh!

  5. How anyone can dictate is beyond me. I’ve tried it, and I can’t visualize and speak at the same time. Totally ruins my flow. I think best with my fingers moving. But I do stop from time to time to lean back, close my eyes, and let the scene play out in my mind. Though I doubt I could type while doing it.

    Btw, you were right about Montgomery and Stafford. Impressive.

  6. Happy Sunday, Jim. Thanks for relating the story of how W.T. Ballard met Earle Stanley Gardner. I’m betting Gardner did dictate with his eyes closed.

    I have written with my eyes closed, for exactly the reasons you mentioned. I had a writing mentor who writes with his eyes closed–he actually wears a sleep mask while he types to prevent himself from looking at the screen. He suggested it in class.

    While composing this reply I pulled up some old exercises I’d done in his classes, in flow state, eyes closed and discovered, despite the raw quality, they had a certain power and narrative drive. It really does keep you from fiddling with the prose, which can really slow me down.

    I’ve used it on and off since, but not in some time. I’m going to revisit it. It’s worth the typos to be able to stay in flow state, and that’s something I really want to do.

    Thanks for the post and the suggestion!

  7. Jim, I’m typing this comment with my eyes closed to see how creative it makes me.Interesting shirft of foucus. Instaed of concentrating on the world son the screen, I find I’m payin g attentio what my fingers are doing. Mentor Dennis Foley suggested a varaition of your technigque: Turn orr your screenwhicle typing.

    I visualize while walking annd/or exercising. Often I come back to earth, not remembering where I’ve walked. Only do that in my own familiar neighborhood.

    Eyes open now. I meant turn OFF your screen.

  8. Here’s my dirty little secret: I can’t touch type. I don’t even use all of my fingers, thanks to a bad injury to my left hand when I was 12 years old. Having learned to type on a manual Smith Corona–and working on one for many years–I also beat the crap out of the keys. As I type this on my daily-use laptop, the left-hand Shift key and the space bar are both cracked through the middle.

    So, the eyes stay open, but I watch my fingers instead of the screen. Except I don’t think I really do. While I look at my hands, I’m not seeing them. I see the movie in my head.

    I understand very little of what I do.

  9. A while ago I was really stuck on getting the voice of a character. It wasn’t long after I read your first remarks on writing with eyes closed. When I tried the technique, I totally surprised myself and found the words flowing. I liked the character who appeared, and I liked where the story led much better than the direction I had planned. I don’t type with closed eyes for all creative typing, but I notice that when I do, my shoulders are relaxed and I feel more at ease. It’s a great technique to try.

  10. One of the first things I do when I wake up in the morning is writing, typing on my laptop until I’m ready to go and prepare for work (cos I have a day job). The morning writing is always fun and I love my progress, though I often go back to clean up the errors before continuing. And I noticed it slows me down from achieving my morning goal most times. I trained as a copytypist, so it’s in my blood to edit as I type.

    But as I read your post Jim, I considered it something I’ll like to give a try. And I intend to start tomorrow morning, typing about 30 minutes on an hour with my eyes closed. Although I must confess that I’ll still have to check my screen once in a while, not to correct errors, but to make sure my fingers are actually typing what my mind is dictating.

  11. I will try that. I’d be much more inclined to write with my eyes closed than to dictate. Watching while you write definitely invites the “Oh that sentence sucks,” type of drama. On the other hand, WHEN you finally get in the flow, even looking while you type that’s less of the problem.

    Or nowadays, many of us have two monitors hooked up, so maybe it would be good to stare at the blank Word doc on one monitor while typing into the other.

  12. I always thought that Heinlein based his writer character in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND on Asimov, but it must of been Gardner.

    Before I’d write a scene, I’d close my eyes, figure out exactly what I wanted to do with it, then visualize everything. Then I’d open my eyes and write. I’d only do it again during a scene when I was writing a fight.

  13. I do write with my eyes closed – in turning point scenes, black moments – highly emotional times. It tends to shut out what everything looks like by opening a channel to what it FEELS like. It allows me to get past the yada yada tearful descriptions to the stuff you know, but don’t read often.

    Thanks for the great blog.

  14. I don’t write with my eyes close in the literal sense. But I imagine the story as if it’s some kind of blockbuster movie that’s being edited in my head. As I write, I try to hold on those images so I can stay focus.

    I had always written like I was imagining my scenes as if they were a movie. On one hand, it was great to do this. But years ago, I did not know how to construct those images into something useable. It was kind of hinderance for the most pay, but reading Superstructure really helped me with that and I could link up my ideas in a more constructive way.

    Just finished Romeo’s Town. Shame-shame for the cliffhanger. Guess I’ll be reading the next one. Great book and looking forward to the next one.

    • Ha! Cliffhanger shame is how we make our money!

      I trained as a screenwriter and film buff, so I’ve always written the cinematically. The key, of course, as you indicate, is to put those scenes into a coherent structure for the reader. It’s so satisfying when those two things come together.

  15. Fascinating!
    I write and watch the words as they appear and then correcting and editing as I go, but I shall try this! It sounds intriguing, though I fear my OCD of not allowing spelling errors as I write, may have a field day, lol x

  16. I do not type with my eyes closed. It sounds both interesting and promising. Worth a try. I do visualize before I start. I do not look at the screen as I type but I do check it often and I generally correct before preceding.

    Thanks for the strategy.

  17. Interesting post. I never could dictate—a boss once many years ago insisted all executives dictate their memos, etc while commuting. Fortunately I injured no other motorists in the making of that disaster.

    I read yesterday about a technique similar to closing your eyes where the font color is changed to white so you can’t see what you’re writing. I have never tried either but I think today I may try writing with my eyes closed, though I’m with Mr. Gilstrap but for a different reason. I never learned to touch type either and mostly I only use about 7 fingers. They go every which way including across the center line. Still, I’ve managed to 7-finger my way to about 80 or 90 words a minute on a good day when everything flows.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Douglas, I shudder to think about that commuting strategy! Sheesh, we have enough trouble these days with texting-driving drivers.

      There have been many two-finger typists over the years. They HAVE to look at the keyboard. You have an advantage with 7!

  18. The woman in the mirror tormented her. She stepped back and turned off the light.

    The woman in the mirror was now a frightening shadow, right index finger outstretched, pinning her to guilt.

    She turned the light back on, now seeing those piercing, black eyes, unlit.

    She gasped. The woman in the mirror was herself, but decades older, wrinkled face sagging and dry, sparse gray hair. Hands trembling at her sides.

    That’s what she would look like years hence, if she didn’t stop this madness now.

    She turned, throwing one last glance back at the mirror, losing her breath because the her in the mirror had not moved.

    She shut her eyes and left the room, heading to the stairs and dinner with her husband and four children.

    I wrote the above with my eyes closed. Cool! I must confess, though, I tweaked it after I opened my eyes.

    I’ve been trying to come up with a “more tense” opening to my WIP, and I think I’ll try writing it with my eyes closed. This was fun. I “saw” her looking in the mirror, scared at what she might become if she didn’t “stop this madness now”. Thanks for letting me play around here.

    Never walk away from these halls without learnin’ something from y’all! 🙂

  19. Thanks for this, Jim.

    Very cool idea. I think it would work well in combination with the “Freewrite “ drafting e-typewriter, or it’s sleeker update, the “Traveler.” Both are designed to encourage continuous typing by making editing difficult. What you draft syncs to Dropbox and its kin, and you edit on your computer. Combine with a sleep mask as one of your commentators suggests and you are ready to roll.

    I’ve found with dictation that thoroughly visualizing the scene first helps a ton. I suspect it would help with writing eyes closed too.

    Loved the Black Mask interview! Thanks for the link.


    • Good lead on the (rather pricey) Traveler, Gary. I still have my old reliable AlphaSmart Neo. That baby keeps on ticking!(Or should I say, clicking?)

      Glad you enjoyed the Black Mask interview. I love hearing stories of those days.

  20. I’ve never tried typing with my eyes closed. I’ll try it next time.

    I always see the movie in my head and write down what happens.

    I’ve always been in awe of the old pulp writers. They didn’t fret over having an MFA. They just got the job done.

  21. I do a similar thing, pre-writing. I sit in a dark room, no visual distractions, and play out the scene in my head. I’ll speak dialogue to hear how it sounds, or move around a little to be sure of where characters should be. It helps me imagine how the character I’ve built would react to this or that being said, or done. In that time it’s like I am that character, I’ve put myself in their head and react as they would. Sounds crazy, but it works for me.

  22. For me, this was an eye opener. I had never considered what I do as writing with my eyes closed, but it is. Every evening, I sit in a chair in the corner in the dark and, using a voice recorder, I talk to myself about my characters, worlds, and their stories. Most of my ideas emerge in these sessions. Those words can’t be transcribed because they embody the chaos of brainstorming, but they are the essence of everything I write. I’m going to do it even more now.

Comments are closed.