My Neurodivergence and Writing by the Rules

29 June 2023 | Inclusive Journalism Cymru

I’m a terrible writer. Well, that’s what I used to think: I couldn’t write beautiful prose, couldn’t arrange my thoughts coherently and couldn’t adhere to what the rule books about writing tell you. Being autistic and having ADHD, my brain has a love/hate relationship with rules. One side of it loves the security of boundaries, the other would rather throw the rulebook out the window and stare after it wistfully. Anyway, I digress (which happens a lot). The problem with many writing rules and guidelines is that they’re hard to follow when your brain’s wired differently – a bit like trying to run Microsoft on a Mac laptop. For me, submitting my writing is an exhausting process which always leaves me feeling downtrodden and defeated. If the processes and guidance were more accessible, I’d feel more encouraged to share my work and I’m sure others would too (of course, I don’t want to speak on behalf of an entire community). More needs to be done to make submission processes more accessible for neurodivergent writers so that experiences are heard, acknowledged, and can make a difference.

In recent years, there’s been a positive step forwards in terms of amplifying neurodivergent voices. It’s inspiring for me as a writer to see people like Holly Bourne, Fern Brady and Ellie Middleton sharing their experiences. I admittedly have wondered, ‘How on Earth did they manage it?’, considering the barriers neurodivergent people face when submitting and having writing published. 

For me, executive dysfunction is one of those barriers, making writing frustrating and at times, inaccessible. Professor Amanda Kirby, neurodiversity campaigner and Honorary Professor at Cardiff University says that Executive Functioning is “the skills that allow us to prioritise our lives” and “lie outside the domain of some of our automatic processes”,  for example planning, setting priorities and organising thoughts – all pretty crucial elements to writing. In my writing practice, it presents itself through initiation (trouble getting started on a piece due to ideas never feeling ‘fully’ researched or good enough), major procrastination (leaving things until last minute so there’s pressure), not knowing the length of time something takes to complete (also known as ‘time-blindness’) and working memory struggles (organising my ideas and structuring them appropriately). Pieces I’ve submitted in the past have received feedback like “this wasn’t well thought out enough” or lacked “real human emotion” or “this is late” (like this piece was!). Comments like these reinforced my feeling of displacement among gifted wordsmiths. I just couldn’t break through the glass ceiling of my own challenges and play by the rules. 

"Being autistic and having ADHD, my brain has a love/hate relationship with rules."

Beth Rees


As many of you will know, rejection and writing go hand-in-hand. However, living with Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) creates another barrier to hurdle. Psychology Today says that people with RSD have “an emotional reaction to negative judgments, exclusion, or criticism beyond what most people feel”. My reaction to rejection was always extreme. I used to be ashamed that I reacted like the world had ended just because someone didn’t like my writing. These days, thanks to various writing groups and courses, rejection doesn’t cut as deep. What’s worse is getting no response at all. Some publications are great at setting out the process and what happens after submissions close. It’s so helpful putting an end date on the submission so I know not to dwell on it. No response, however, leaves me thinking that the work wasn’t even good enough for a response. This feeds the RSD beast, stopping me from sharing my writing in the future. I know publications are busy and get thousands of submissions but even a Michael McIntyre ‘send-to-all’ would be better than nothing whatsoever. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, just an acknowledgement that yes, your effort and writing is appreciated.

With 15 % of the UK population being neurodivergent, we should be taking advantage of this untapped potential and the unique perspectives on offer. Our neurodivergence means we process the world differently and our writing might not always conform to the rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth acknowledging.

At university, I remember being asked to write a personal statement to help with future job applications. I panicked because it sounded boring and definitely something to procrastinate on. A ‘thinking-outside-the-box’ moment came when I asked if I could write it as a poem because I was good at those. The tutor agreed and I ended up with my highest grade because I approached it from a different perspective in a way I wanted to. I could never use the statement I created because of the rules around what personal statements should look like and how when applying for writerly jobs, they said I needed to send a “proper statement”. In the end, I didn’t reply because to me, this seemed inaccessible and would cause more stress trying to write something in a format that I couldn’t do. It would be great for employers in journalism and the creative industry to see the potential in people who do things differently and showcase their creativity in a way that suits them.

 In terms of what the industry can do to be more accessible and inclusive to neurodivergent writers, being specific about the submission process would be greatly appreciated. This includes opening/closing dates, announcement timings, and whether those who are unsuccessful will be informed. Also, be clear with your instructions – what are you looking for? Are you really looking for a different point of view? Use plain language split into short paragraphs, and bullet points can make the information more digestible. As an ADHDer, I don’t always have the attention span to read reams of information. If it’s short and concise, I can paste it into a document and use it as a guideline to make sure I’m hitting all the specified points. Providing examples of previously published pieces is also very helpful so we can see what’s being asked of us. Finally, if you’re doing a callout for ‘underrepresented groups,’ does this include neurodivergent writers? If I look at the list and don’t see ‘neurodivergence’, I don’t submit because it’s not in black and white. Always ‘state the obvious’ so we can be sure that you want our perspectives.

I thought I was a terrible writer and some days I still do. However, I now understand that the rules and processes need to change to help neurodivergent writers like me know that our view of the world really matters.

You can follow Beth on Twitter, Instagram or visit her website.