Why People With ADHD Write Such Long Posts (and Also Have Trouble Reading Them)
Why People With ADHD Write Such Long Posts (and Also Have Trouble Reading Them)
Some people with ADHD have difficulty reading long things.
They especially dislike long posts about ADHD.
I get it. I’ve looked at seemingly endless dense paragraphs of text on my screen and felt my eyes glaze over.
And It’s maddening to be unable to access content for and about you.
But did you know – most of the writers are neurodivergent themselves? In fact, most of them have ADHD.
Here’s the problem: people with ADHD often need to read short things, yet also have difficulty writing them.
It’s a situation of “conflicting access needs.” Conflicting access needs means that the conditions one person needs for accessibility are incompatible with what another person needs.
Readers with ADHD and writers with ADHD are often a match made in Hell.
So, what’s a writer with ADHD to do?
Removing Rambling Is Not Enough
A blogger’s arsenal is full of tools to avoid unreadable rambling.
I keep most sentences short and to the point.
I separate out digressions, label them as such, and usually make them into footnotes.
I use headers to organize and label my ideas.
I use lists and bullet points whenever possible.
And of course, I use short paragraphs interspersed with lots of white space.
But however clear and organized my posts may be, they’re always long.
Why it’s Hard to Write Something Short When You Have ADHD
One thing I like about having ADHD is that at any given moment, my thoughts can go in many different directions. It makes brainstorming easier.
Yet ADHD makes it hard to navigate through all these thoughts, decide which are worth sharing, and express the right amount of them in the right order.
The drawing below expresses it perfectly:
How can the same way of thinking lead to both over-explaining or being totally inarticulate?
Some people say too little and under-explain because they’re overwhelmed by the whole process. I think that can happen especially often to autistic people.
I have the opposite problem.
The image below compares a so-called “normal” train of thought (on the left) to an “ADHD train of thought” on the right. If I could draw my own thoughts, they would look much like the ADHD train of thought in the picture.
The “Normal Train of Thought” is a roughly straight line, with a few short branches that represent “a few minor distractions.”
The “ADHD Train of Thought” looks like a web or galaxy. There is no linear path to be seen – or there are many, depending on your point of view. Lines of thought connect both closely related ideas and far-flung ones, with a few hubs the person returns to periodically. These many interconnected branches are labeled “distractions, ideas, worries, and past failures.”
I am a writer with ADHD trying to make a linear argument from one specific point to another. Like this, for example:
There are many potential paths I could take through this network to get from the point on the top left to the one on the bottom right (both marked with yellow stars).
In case you’re curious, the shortest, most direct path is shown below.
Notice that there are several branches along the way. At every branch, I must carefully choose whether to go down that branch or ignore it.
With so many branches, that’s a lot of decisions to make. Sometimes the whole process is overwhelming.
No wonder I, and other people with ADHD, feel so overwhelmed all the time. We’re making choices about what to think, say, and write that most people don’t have to make at all.
By the way, the more you know, the more nonlinear your knowledge base becomes – the more it looks like a web instead of a line or a tree. That’s what researchers find when they investigate the thought process of people who have rich vocabularies or know a lot about a specific topic. The more you know, the more densely interconnected the web, and the more it looks like the drawing of the ADHD train of thought.
Smarter, more knowledgeable people have more pathways through more points. So, their thoughts can go in more different directions. Their thought process can potentially be much more nonlinear. To take the shortest, most direct path, you need extra executive functioning to prevent you from taking all those tangents. Smart people with ADHD lack that executive function.
In other words, ADHD people think in nonlinear, associative ways. That affects the way we write.
For me, “how do I write a short post about x?” is like saying, “how do I get from New York to California while skipping most of the interesting cities and tourist attractions in between?”
(By the way, this entire description of ADHD thinking wasn’t originally part of the post. In true ADHD fashion, it grew out of describing the image comparing “normal” to ADHD trains of thought).
How A Post Gets Long
Here’s how my writing process looks:
- I know what I want my post to say. For example, “Neurodivergent people are often misunderstood.” I start making that point.
- I think, “people are going to wonder why neurodivergent people are misunderstood so often and so much more than other people. I’d better explain that.”
- So I add several sections. Each gives a reason why neurodivergent people are misunderstood.
- I keep thinking of more reasons as I write. My train of thought branches, and the branches have branches, and so on.
Meanwhile, as the sections themselves get longer:
- I ask myself, “Is this statement clear? Maybe I should give an example.” I add an example.
- I imagine a reader saying, “Oh really? What’s the evidence?” I add some evidence.
- I think, “maybe images will make this idea clearer,” and add an image or two.
- I worry, “oh no! I say neurodivergent at the beginning, but most of the time I’m actually talking about autism. Are readers going to understand who I’m talking about?” I add a footnote to explain.
Sometimes I look at a lengthy section and realize it could be a separate blog post.
- I start out writing that one reason why neurodivergent people are misunderstood is that we look like we feel one emotion when we’re actually experiencing another. I remove that section and turn it into its own blog post.
Finally, I reach my conclusion.
I’ve created an 8 page text document or a 10 minute read on Medium.
It’s time to shorten the post.
Why It’s Hard to Use Editing to Shorten Your Work When You Have ADHD
Like many people with ADHD, I have difficulty making decisions.
Each time I try to remove text, executive dysfunction and self-doubt team up against me. I think:
- I can’t remove that. Without it, they won’t understand what I mean.
- I can’t remove that or someone might get angry with me.
- I can’t remove that fact then I’ll be making an assertion without evidence, and people won’t believe me.
- I can’t remove that personal story or this post will be boring.
- I can’t remove that hedge, because then I’ll be overstating my point.
It’s the writer’s version of how neurodivergent people anxiously try to prevent any possible misunderstanding, without really knowing what will work.
I try to alleviate my anxiety – and give myself raw material to use later – by putting the text I remove in a separate document called the “cutting room floor.”
I Apologize For the Long Posts…
For me, writing is easy and usually painless. If I have an idea and enough mental energy, I can sit down and tap out a readable, grammatically correct 5-10 page article in an hour or two.
Doing the final edits is also pretty quick and easy.
But writing something short often means hours of rewriting, agonizing over every word, phrase, and idea. With the time and energy it takes to make one piece shorter, I could write several new ones.
It’s not worth making that effort for a rant on a personal (Tumblr) blog. It is worthwhile when writing an educational blog post on behalf of someone else.
I’m told most people have the opposite strengths and weaknesses in writing. For them, getting words on paper is the hard part. Others agonize over eking out enough words to reach a word limit while I agonize over finding enough words to remove to meet it. For others, writing seems to be harder than editing.
When people complain about a long post, I think they assume it’s easier to write a short post than a long one.
For some of us, the opposite is true.
So, if you have difficulty reading long things, please know that no one is trying to shut you out.
Understand that some of us are trying to shove a houseful of ideas into a carry-on bag. Learning that skill takes time, effort, and practice.
Please be patient with us.
Do you over-explain or under-explain? Is it easier for you to write short or long? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
About the Author
Emily M. is a writer fascinated by the infinite variety of human minds. She grew up inexplicably different and was diagnosed as an adult with several forms of neurodivergence, including ADHD and an auditory discrimination disability. Feeling as if she were living life without a user's manual, she set out to create her own. In the process, she met other neurodivergent people on similar quests. She began working with them, advocating for inclusion, accessibility, and autism acceptance. Seeking to understand how neurodiverse minds work, she became a cognitive neuroscience researcher.
Her favorite research topic: what do children learn from their intense, passionate interests? Wanting to help neurodivergent people more directly, she trained as a speech/language therapist. Ultimately, she turned to writing, combining research with personal experience to explain autism and ADHD and champion acceptance – because everyone is happier when they are seen and accepted for who they are. She envisions a world where neurodiverse people have equal opportunities for education, loving relationships, and meaningful work.
She also blogs about autism and ADHD research at Mosaic of Minds. You can chat with her on Twitter: @mosaicofminds