8 Tips for Writing with Neuro / Cognitive Disability – Part One

Mind the gap

We Need Diverse Books from Own Voices, but writers with neuro / cognitive disabilities face the unique challenge of trying to tell stories while dealing with language and processing skills deficits.

When I was writing The Accident—a novel about brain injury—I developed a neurological disorder. How’s that for irony? Here are some of the things that helped me finish despite my new cog fog:

Use time wisely

There’s a widespread misconception that you’re either disabled, or you’re not. Additionally, people seem to think that having a diagnosis means knowing what to expect on any given day. But disabilities are variable, and the slightest change in circumstance can cause an enormous shift in symptoms. Moreover, if your disability is autoimmune in nature, you can be dysfunctional during a flare, yet perfectly “normal” otherwise.

Days when you simply cannot think are a write-off. That means you have to seize the days when you’re lucid and work really hard. You know how people advise new parents to sleep when the baby sleeps? Well, if you’re having a good brain day, you need to make the most of it because there’s no telling how long it will last!

Blue clock


Write by hand

I’ve been lucky in that my fine motor skills have never suffered because of my disability. However, I often have problems with screenwork, and even endured a period of throwing up every time I spent more than fifteen minutes at my computer.

When I’m cognitively impaired, I can’t think in a linear fashion. I write a solitary sentence, then lose my train of thought.

My first drafts regularly resemble spiderwebs. I scribble all over the page and use bubbles and arrows to make connections. If aphasia kicks in, I compensate for language gaps with sketches.

An added bonus of working on paper instead of a screen? I can’t accidentally delete something or close a file without saving, which is all too easy to do when your brain has decided to take a day off.

Woman writing on her knee outside


Work on vignettes

When I’m sick, I can’t see “The Big Picture”. So, instead of trying to plot and write The Accident from start to finish, I just wrote whatever section I could grasp at any given moment. Focusing on bite-size chunks of story kept me from getting completely lost in the novel at large, and the writing process felt familiar from poetry, where I’m used to poems spiralling out from a starting image.

Developing your own set of writing habits is important. The brain is an organ, but it behaves like a muscle. Athletes rely on muscle memory to help them shoot hoops and kick goals, and the same strategy can help disabled writers; figure out how your brain works best and turn that into your signature technique.

Green frames


Make it visual

On a particularly disabled day, I struggle to follow a half-hour sit-com, never mind keep all the characters and plot lines of an unfinished manuscript straight in my head. When I was working on The Accident, I often spread my vignettes out on the floor like puzzle pieces to help me visualize my thoughts, effectively providing me with a map so I could work out where I was going.

I determined the overall structure of my poetry manuscript, Girls on Land, the same way. And on a smaller scale, I still do this with individual poems, cutting them up into stanzas and physically shuffling them until they feel right.

This is also a great way to realize when a poem or vignette is surplus to a manuscript’s requirements and should be cut.

Puzzle map


I hope this post has been helpful. Please stay tuned for Part Two!

—Nicole Melanson

4 thoughts on “8 Tips for Writing with Neuro / Cognitive Disability – Part One

  1. Pingback: 8 Tips for Writing with Neuro / Cognitive Disability – Part Two | Nicole Melanson

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