Focus on Writing: A Guide for Disciplined Writing
The question of how to maintain your focus on writing projects is something even the most veteran of writers deal with. Many of them have advice for how to overcome this issue, but there just isn’t a one-size-fits-all method on how to focus on writing. With that said, reining in your muse isn’t as difficult as many might think. More often than not, effective writing discipline is developed internally by the writers themselves, and although there are some external methods of maintaining your focus on writing, without a solid internal backbone, they’re unlikely to do much good.
So we’ve scoured the internet and polled writers in search of numerous tips for every flavor of writer.
Distractions are going to come regardless of what you’re doing. The phone might ring. There might be a car accident outside your office window. Your dog might have an accident all over your significant other’s favorite tea towel. Aliens might abduct your children and return them to you altered in some fashion.
In short, there’s no real way to prevent all distractions, but there are ways to mitigate most distractions and focus on writing.
Write in Private
Make sure wherever you’re writing is your safe zone. Hang a sign on the door alerting or otherwise notifying those you live with that you are working, and that non-emergency interruptions will not be tolerated. Close it. Lock yourself in. Place a blanket fort strategically in front of your door and dig a foxhole.
Turn Off Your Devices
In our constantly-connected online world, we can receive a message from anyone at any time over platforms like Twitter or Facebook, not to mention text messages or phone calls. Set your phone on Airplane mode if you still have need of some of your apps, but it’s worth turning them off outright.
Listen to Music
This isn’t the time to rock out to the latest release by Everlast, but music is very good at drowning out outside noise and distractions effectively. Everyone’s taste is a little different, but common genres among writers are movie scores, ambient and classical music. Avoid music with lyrics or heavy beats as they can be counterproductive. Find something that is pleasing to the ear, but won’t interrupt your writing flow.
Plan for Distractions
Despite your best efforts, there will be distractions. Have a proactive plan in place to deal with salesmen, car accidents, alien abductions and flash floods. As long as you and everyone else in your home haven’t lost any limbs, wrap it up quickly and get back to your focus on writing.
Your Writing Environment is a Product of Your Effort
Having a comfortable, stress-free environment to write in is key. If you’re able to write in a messy office or workspace environment, it’s unlikely that you can write because of it, but rather in spite of it. There is a maxim for a happy life that goes something like: Make one room in your house as perfect as possible. This should be the room you write in. Make it a point of pride to maximize comfort and minimize stress within this room. Try to decorate using calming earth tones rather than the bright neon signs or blacklight-reactive posters you loved so much in your younger days. Ensure it’s not too warm in the summer, and not too cold in the winter. Reduce your clutter. Maybe buy a houseplant or burn some incense to ensure the room isn’t stale. The way your environment is produced has a profound effect on your focus on writing.
Focus on Writing Hacks
There are a number of methods which may seem counterintuitive to one writer, but to another may be the answer they’ve been looking for to maximize writing time, flow and word counts.
Small Word Count Goals
Keep your daily word count goals small and manageable, and you’re far less likely to falter before you even begin. Most writers can easily manage 500 words within 15 minutes, and if you go beyond that goal, you can rest easy knowing you went above and beyond. In contrast, goals of 2000 – 4000 could take up a good chunk of your day, and the feeling of letting yourself down could last for days, if not weeks, affecting your motivation to pick it back up when you left off.
Raise the Stakes
A little competitive writing never hurt anyone. Writing apps like WordWar.io allow you to race other writers to your wordcount. Whether you win or lose, you’ve at the very least gotten closer to your word count goals.
Enlist the help of a friend or family member. State to them your goal of getting five thousand words a week down, and raise the stakes by putting something on the line such as money or a favor owed if you fail to meet your goals for the week. Focus on writing while your friend stays on your case.
It’s easy to get hung up on the more minute details of writing. It’s especially damaging to writers who are in the midst of a flow. Getting stuck on some details, or having to reference notes or to ensure you’re writing a consistent tale can completely disrupt us when we’re in the zone. It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t be afraid to skip ahead and come back to what you’re writing later. Simply tag the part you’re stuck on with something unique and easily searchable. Some writers use Fix Later in square brackets. For more shorthand methods, others use the letters TK or QZ, as there aren’t many words which feature those letters next to each other.
I know too many writers who are smokers of some fashion. Whether it’s tobacco, the increasingly legalized green stuff, or some sort of favorite snack or pastime, consider holding it off until you’ve met your word count goals. It largely depends on how you conceptualize it, so you could alternatively look at it as treating yourself with a reward upon successfully reaching your short-term goals.
Quit While You’re Ahead
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’re probably intimately familiar with the zone. It’s that time when you’re so psychologically absorbed in your writing that you could easily work your way through several scenes, several thousand words, and not even notice the passage of time. This is a great state to be in as a writer. However, it’s also a good time to stop. This may seem entirely counter-productive to many, but consider it like this: If you stop writing while you’re in the zone, you tend to think about writing more. Even if you sleep and come back to it the next day, many times you find that the state you were in didn’t just drop off, it merely got put on hold. As a bonus, when you come back to it, you have a much clearer picture about where you’re going and you’re far less likely to write yourself into a corner.
Eat the Elephant
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. It’s easy to say you’re going to write 180,000 words in a few months. It’s a far different beast to actually do it. But if you break down your goals into smaller bite-sized chunks, you’ll increase your chances of seeing reaching that longer-term goal. It’s important, however, to keep that goal manageable. 500-1000 words a day will see you reach your goal in six months. 1000-2000 a day will see it finished in three. Don’t sweat the long-term deadlines. Focus instead on the short term.
Author, Inspire Thyself
Let’s face it. If you constantly sit around and wait for inspiration before you put your pen to paper, you’ll die long before you ever finish your first draft. Inspiration is at a premium in the days of easy distractions. However, it’s entirely possible to take matters of your inspiration into your own hands. Find out what it is that inspires you. Perhaps some thoughtful lyrics, or a quote from a famous person or fictional character. Write it down and place it in a commonplace book. Some choose to use a notebook or binder. I keep a small box full of index cards organized by topic next to my computer. Whenever I come across an inspirational quote, song lyrics, or information relevant to what I’m writing, I jot it down on an index card and file it away for later. As an added bonus, whenever you get a really great idea and have no use for it yet, you can also place it in your commonplace book for future reference! Inspire yourself, and you’ll find it’s a cinch to focus on writing.
Use Schedules (Or Don’t)
Writers come in all shapes and sizes. There are those of us who work best with strict routines and schedules, and there are those of us that are more productive when we have flexibility in our time management. I’ve met writers that plan their days out perfectly, allowing themselves a precise amount of time every day to write… and then stare at the screen blankly until it’s time to do something else. For those writers, I suggest mixing up the schedule. There’s no reason you can’t write earlier or later in the day and switch tasks around. But for the writers who thrive on having chaotic, busy schedules, I suggest trying the opposite: Have a set time of the day that you write.
A well-formed prompt is a writer’s best friend. It helps us get started when we may not necessarily know how. At the end of any writing session, a great trick to get you started the next day is to write down a few prompts for what you’d like to write next. It helps us remember where we left off, and gives us a much firmer grasp on where we’re going.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve started writing something using the words, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” It’s usually followed by random surface thoughts and other nonsensical things, but usually what emerges before too long is at least a few hundred words of usable prose. Stream-of-consciousness writing is a tried and true method of getting the creative juices flowing. And better yet, they don’t have to reflect your own thoughts, but rather that of a character. Even if it’s not immediately useful, you usually know within a few sentences that it will fit in somewhere.
Do not edit while you’re writing. It’s a sure-fire way to get hung up and rarely be able to move past areas you’re stuck on. Editing comes after the draft. Consider finishing your scene before editing, and stay on top of yourself! If you catch yourself editing prematurely, move back to your most recently finished sentence and continue. There’s a time to worry about things like grammar, pacing and flow, and there’s a time to worry about finishing your draft. A good editor will pick up most errors you make, and a good writer will fix them in the first-to-second revision. This way, you can focus on writing.
Clear Your Mind
Let go of external concerns. Looming bill payments? Important business meeting? Health concerns? Let them go, at least temporarily. A good writer won’t let their writing time interfere with their personal lives, and with some practice, it’s relatively easy to compartmentalize the everyday stresses of modern life in order to focus on writing. Meditation isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but not all meditation requires yoga and odd humming noises. Some people meditate by listening to death metal. The important thing is to clear your mind of external influence and internal concerns and focus entirely on the task you’ve set for yourself.
Anthropomorphize Your Writing
Consider writing as though you’re talking to someone. This can help you get started when you’re unsure how to begin and get you into the zone. Perhaps it’s an imaginary friend from childhood, a religious figure or maybe a real person you think would love the story you’re telling. Regardless of who it is, if you act as though you’re writing a letter to a real person, it can often spur us into action and help us focus on writing.
Got any advice to share on how to keep focused and disciplined on writing? Share them in the comments.