How to Focus When You’re Writing

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Do you ever find yourself distracted when you’re writing?

I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who could honestly answer “no” to that question!

Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, checking the news headlines, browsing a few webcomics, answering emails, ordering that book from Amazon you’d forgotten about … there are so many distractions just a click away.

The good news is, there’s plenty you can do to help yourself to focus as you write.

I’ve split my suggestions into three different categories, so you can tackle whichever area you feel is holding you back the most (or whichever is easiest for you to change right now). They are:

  • How to make your writing environment work for you
  • What to do before you write
  • What to do while you’re writing

I’ve also included a bonus tip on something you can do after you write, to help you gradually focus better over time.

How to Make Your Writing Environment Work For You

#1: Get Away from Home

If you normally write at home, try writing in a local coffee shop (or library, etc) instead. This cuts out a ton of potential distractions … and a change of scene can make it much easier to be creative.

Some of my best, most focused, writing happens when I get away for an afternoon, evening and morning at a local hotel. There’s no laundry pile, no dishes, no kids, no TV, and the wifi there doesn’t work on my ailing laptop. I can write for hours!

Even if you can’t get away for very long, just an hour in a coffee shop might be enough to help you get past a creative block that you’ve been struggling with.

#2: Get Rid of Intrusive Noise

When I’m in the writing zone, I tune out pretty much everything (including my long-suffering husband). But getting into that zone in the first place can be tricky if there’s a lot of distracting noise going on.

In our house, “noise” is normally the kids playing / fighting / singing at the top of their lungs. Maybe that sounds all too familiar to you – or maybe the noise you’re trying to block out is construction work going on nearby, or your roommate watching yet another repeat of Friends. Whatever the noise, a pair of headphones will help (I like in-ear ones, because they’re cheap and act a bit like earplugs to muffle external noise).

It’s entirely up to you what you listen to: some writers like to focus with ambient sound from a site like Noisli.com; others like movie soundtracks; still others pick a particular artist, album or even song that fits with the mood of their work-in-progress. Do whatever works for you.

#3: Sit at a Desk or Table

If you normally write while sitting on the sofa, or even while lying in bed, try sitting at a table or desk instead – even if that means clearing some space or rearranging a room. You might find it makes a huge difference to your concentration levels.

As well as feeling more like a “work” space, a seat at a table or desk is likely to be better for your posture than hunching over with your laptop on your lap, or lying in bed with your laptop propped up on your knees. (If you do decide to stick with your sofa or bed, though, you might want to  look into something like a laptop bed tray to make it easier to write there.)

What To Do Before You Write

#4: Make a Plan

Whatever you’re about to write, you need a plan. That might be a few words scribbled on a sticky note, or it might be a detailed document outlining your whole book. But whatever your plan looks like, it’s a vital tool for keeping you on track and focused.

If you begin writing without a plan, it’s all too easy to lose focus. You don’t know where you’re going next – and as soon as you come to the natural end of one train of thought, you’ll probably find yourself getting distracted by something that has nothing to do with your writing at all.

#5: Set a Goal for Your Writing Session

What do you want to achieve during your writing session? If you’re writing, say, a blog post, you might simply want to work through your plan – but if you’re working on part of a longer project, you may need to come up with a specific goal.

For instance, if you’re writing a novel, your goal might be “write the first 1,000 words of chapter 10” or “write the scene with Jo confronting Dwayne”.

If you find that setting goals can be daunting or off-putting rather than helpful, you might want to set a “minimum” goal and a “stretch” goal – that might be “write 200 words” as the minimum and “write 1,000 words” as your stretch goal. Even if you only achieve the minimum, you can still give yourself a pat on the back.

#6: Decide How Long You’ll Focus For

You don’t necessarily need to work with 100% focus for the whole of your writing session. You might decide to focus for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. (Those particular time intervals are part of the Pomodoro technique, which you might find helpful.) Set a timer to keep you on track as you write.

While the timer is running, your job is to only write – you can’t check emails, go on Facebook, and so on. It might feel surprisingly hard at first to stay focused in this way, but you’ll soon find it becomes more natural.

If you’re fighting a long-entrenched distractibility habit, you might want to use an app like Freedom.to to help you – you can block specific websites, or even the whole internet, for a period of time.

What to Do While You Write

#7: Keep a “Distractions” Notebook to Hand

One simple tool that I find very helpful is a notebook, diary or even scrap of paper where I can jot down distractions. These are often things I need to remember to do (“Order Le Guin book” is on my list right now, because as I was drafting this post, I remembered that the science fiction book group I attend is meeting in a couple of weeks…)

You can use a distractions list not only for “to do” items, though, but also for impulses that crop up. Stuff like “see what’s new on xkcd” or “look up next season of Lucifer” can go on your list, too! Once you get to a break, you can delve into some of those distractions, guilt-free.

#8: Don’t Stop to Look Things Up

How often are you writing a blog post (or a scene of your novel, or a chapter of your book) – only to realise that you need to look up a name or a fact or a link?

And how often do you stop, look it up … and end up spending the next half an hour in an internet rabbit-hole?

I do this more often than I’d care to admit! But as much as possible, I try to not look things up when I’m writing. Instead, I put a [note to self] in square brackets in my draft, so I can come back and insert the name/fact/link/etc later on.

Here’s an example from the draft of this very post:

#9: Don’t Edit While You’re Writing

I know you’ve been told this one already, but it’s a piece of advice that always bears repeating: don’t edit while you’re writing.

Is it okay to occasionally backspace and fix a typo, or restart a sentence that somehow came out wrong? Sure. (Though some “don’t-edit” purists might disagree with me!) However, if you draft a paragraph, change three sentences, draft another paragraph, cut everything you’ve written so far and start again … you’re not going to get far.

If you change your mind about something as you’re writing, just pop the section you’re unsure about into italics. Make a quick note about what you’re thinking about changing (e.g. “remove John from this scene”) and then proceed as if you’d already made that change.

That way, you don’t lose momentum – and you don’t waste time editing something that you might later decide to change yet again.

What to Do After You Write

#10: Record How Your Writing Session Went

If you’ve never tried keeping a writing journal before, give it a go. You could have a document on your computer where you jot down how you got on, you could make an entry in your diary, you could use a notebook … whatever works for you.

Each time you finish a writing session, take a minute or two to note what went well and what didn’t quite work out. For instance, “started well but got distracted half-way by answering an email from Jenny” or “took ages to get going but really got into the flow after a few paragraphs”.

If you keep up your journal for a few weeks, you’ll find that you can spot patterns – and that you become more aware of what does (and doesn’t) work for you.

 

All writers can focus, and often, being distractible is simply a bad habit. How could you make your next writing session a great one? Pick one idea – or more! – from the list above, and let us know in the comments how you get on.

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