How do you keep from getting distracted while writing?
January 26, 2004 11:24 PM   Subscribe

Question for all you writers out there: how do you keep from getting distracted? What's your technique to get into the zone, focus, and let the verbiage just flow? Any and all help would be appreciated.
posted by wanderingmind to Work & Money (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It helps to have a deadline, preferably tomorrow, which will result in you not being paid if it is missed.
posted by kindall at 11:33 PM on January 26, 2004

One idea - set a specific time every day (or every other day or whatever) where you sit down and write. The only things you're allowed to do during this time (half hour - hour may work best at first) is either stare off into space or write. Nothing else. And you have to come up with at least a few pages, good or bad. Getting into the 'zone' is probably more a training of the mind than just inspiration. After a while, you'll be really conscious of the process of getting in the zone and be able to do it on command, without the 'appointments'. (in theory)
posted by thunder at 11:37 PM on January 26, 2004

Swear off metafilter. This site hurts my writing productivity more than anything else in the world. However, it does help me get in the writing groove, once I make a post here it's easy to whip out a random story for A1 of the day's paper. :-) On a serious note: If you can find a way to give yourself real deadlines, after a while, writers block isn't that big a deal. I know when stories are due, and I know I have to do them. The way to put it all together just comes to me at the last minute, I can't really explain it. Of course, writing fiction - that might be harder. :-(
posted by Happydaz at 11:40 PM on January 26, 2004

I use ritual, in particular, a cup of Jarrah and a writers shirt with a badass collar.
posted by holloway at 11:42 PM on January 26, 2004

posted by interrobang at 12:15 AM on January 27, 2004

...but seriously - though I don't consider myself to be a real writer - I've found that setting a daily word-count as a goal works for me. I worked myself up to 2,000 words per day and kept it up for awhile, and it was very fulfilling.

Writing - like anything worthwhile - takes constant practice.
posted by interrobang at 12:18 AM on January 27, 2004

I don't know that I qualify as a writer, but I find that when distractions get to be too much, it is best (for me) to schedule a certain amount of time in which to deal with them (without feeling guilty), followed by a certain amount to time in which to write/work.

And I think it's important to figure out at what time(s) of day you are best able to write, ignoring, to the extent possible/feasible, other people's preconceptions of a work schedule. I work best late at night (which is probably why I'm writing this at 4:50 a.m.) -- once I accepted that this doesn't make me a bad person, things got a lot better. I don't get much sleep, but I get a lot done at night and am more calm while doing it.
posted by sueinnyc at 1:52 AM on January 27, 2004

I wrote for a few books by forcing myself into isolation nightly. I would walk up to the local college's library, stake out a nice chair near a power outlet, and write for three hours on weekdays, and 8 hours on sunday. The library didn't have wireless and I didn't know anyone there so it was basically like being in the middle of nowhere, but I had a comfy chair and a warm place to concentrate.

Deadlines also helped. It was hard to muster up any motivation if I had weeks before a section was due, but if it was due in a few days I could write like the wind.
posted by mathowie at 1:52 AM on January 27, 2004

I think most things have been covered, but there are a couple of other tricks you can use to force yourself to write.

1. Make sure that your writing place is not the same as your playing place. This can be pretty tough when you do everything on the computer, so having a separate user on your PC which has a different coloured desktop & has been configured to only allow you to write is a good thing.

2. Make sure your writing area is tidy. Nothing seems to disorganise my mind more than a messed up desk.

3. a ten minute flurry of automatic writing at the beginning of any session is a good warm up excercise.
posted by seanyboy at 1:53 AM on January 27, 2004

On aw psychological level, I always find that rooms with higher ceilings make me able to concentrate less.

I may be crazy, though.
posted by armoured-ant at 3:17 AM on January 27, 2004

I unplug my connection to the internet. The little browser icon is just sitting there in the corner, asking to be used.
posted by sebas at 5:06 AM on January 27, 2004

1. Take the laptop out of internet range.

2. Leave my house so there are no cats or significant others to distract me, either on purpose or by accident. I like the downtown branch of the library.

3. Have a deadline.

4. I always pack water and an apple or something like that when I go so, say, fifteen minutes into it I'm not thinking, "Hey... I'm kind of hungry... I think I'll go to the coffee shop..."

I think that removing yourself from what distracts you the most (for me it's my home, and all of the household chores I'm leaving undone to write, and the occupants therein who can't be quiet enough not to distract me, especially if I want to be distracted) is the main key. That and not being able to get online.
posted by jennyb at 6:08 AM on January 27, 2004

More on procrastination, the official personality trait of the MetaFilter community, here.
posted by fuzz at 6:28 AM on January 27, 2004

I do what jennyb does, if I want to get stuff done I leave the office and go to the library. Otherwise I stop what m doing and do this instead.
posted by biffa at 6:54 AM on January 27, 2004

Distractions are unavoidable, and when one has snuck up on me, I start to Write Crap. Just throw words on the screen, don't think about them, don't edit typos, don't worry about punctutaiton, just type as fast as your fingers allow. Eventually I forget the distraction and the fact that I am writing crap, and I will be back in my zone.
posted by mischief at 7:46 AM on January 27, 2004

These are all great suggestions - you have to find what works for you. I struggle w/ the internet, especially, so I unplug the network cable - this keeps me on task, even though I could lean down and plug it back in, I know that I shouldn't.

Something else to consider - I think it has helped me tremendously to de-ritualize writing. If you put things like 1) must be in special writing place 2) must use special writing tool (computer, special pen, notebook) 3) must not have distractions - you'll never get down to actually writing. It helps to learn to write anywhere, anytime. Something I used to do when I wasn't working on a longer project (I work on that now) was the Harry Mathews inspired '20 lines a day even if its crap' suggested in one form or another by others - always write twenty lines a day to help learn to get into the writing frame-of-mind faster.
posted by drobot at 8:01 AM on January 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

Like other folks:

- Turn off/disconnect AirPort or equivalent mode of connection, unless you need to do a specific search on something directly germane to your writing.

- Especially try not to drift from those search results to, e.g., MetaFilter, the deadliest and most delicious time sink the Web has yet manifest.

- I find that the combination of being in a public place (coffeehouse) but wearing headphones, and thus carving out a zone of psychological privacy, seems to short-circuit my ADD in a way being at home does not. I'm not quite sure what the mechanism at work is, but both terms of the equation need to be there.

- Felicitiously enough given the above, a medium-to-heavy caffeine load seems to focus the mind wonderfully. YMMV.

- I'm sensitive to drobot's point about deritualizing writing, because you should after all be able to strike while the iron is hot, even if you've unfortunately left your special palladium-plated Mont Blanc in the Bentley (or some such thing). But historically I've found it useful to segregate one notebook, and a selection of pens and pencils, for "serious" writing. This isn't so much a factor now that I do 99.2% of my writing via PowerBook, but it can feel realllllly nice to ease your thoughts onto a creamy page with a good-quality pen.

Good luck, at any rate. Writers are as superstitious as any other group of professionals about what makes us tick, and sometimes I suspect we know even less about it than we think we do.
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:25 AM on January 27, 2004

I also try to be realistic about my writing. I am usually writing non-fiction and on deadline [so I have to be less creative and more analytical] and if I think the writing part of a project is going to take me three hours, I allocate six and take myself to the law school library nearby [silent as a tomb] with a lot of water, a Powerbar and some comfortable shoes and have at it. I also do a lot of the parts of the writing project at once. If I can't get into the groove of a story, I'll work on the bibliography or the spellchecking. If I can't focus on spellchecking, I'll do research and copy and paste a bunch of factoids about my topics into a separate document. This is sort of like screwing off on the Internet, but sort of helps me get my project done. I'll also move around in what I'm writing and split the job up into manageable tasks so if I get stuck on the second paragraph, I'm not SOL until inspiration hits again. The major point is being away from my house, my boyfriend, all the books I wants to read, the kitchen, my mail, the phone and the Internet and the rest takes care of itself better than I'd almost like to admit.
posted by jessamyn at 8:42 AM on January 27, 2004

maybe this is a cop-out answer, but i find gestation helps. i give myself a long period of time to just mentally collect details and roll an idea around in my head until i feel like i know it intimately. it's pretty basic, but knowing you have something to say in the first place is the best start. this is my attitude with papers and articles as well as creative writing.

there was a piece in the new yorker a couple years ago about how they teach students to write all the way up to university level (the whole carefully meted out approach, with prewriting of a sort, drafts, and breaks in between), and how the author never used the approach. there was one statement that stands out, i forget it exactly but it was something to the effect of "it's sacrilege but frankly, this piece you're reading right now was never drafted and then revised or heavily edited. i wrote it once, slowly and purposefully, and that's it."

so, i think how depends on who you are.

also: someone i greatly admire as a prolific but mindful writer has a routine of waking up very very early (in time to see the sun rise), making a pot of coffee, and writing for a few hours every day. he then goes to work around 9 or 10am...he says it's good for his writing and discipline aaand that it actually relaxes his mind for the workday (a similar phenomenon i think to the commentor above--after writing and organizing your mind in that fashion, "work" seems a breeze). he also naps at some point during the day, in case you were wondering how he manages to get up early. seems a good exercise, though i myself am not disciplined enough to use it. :I
posted by ifjuly at 8:56 AM on January 27, 2004

I've found a few things that are working for me, when I can be disciplined enough to follow them:

1. Write at the same time every day, in the same place, for some period of time.

2. Discover your invention process. Mine is kinesthetic and verbal. Even though I write on a computer, I have to have a big space where I'm moving around to create. That means I usually go to campus and hide in an empty classroom with a big blackboard, and then talk it out with someone, almost like I'm teaching a class. Then I write out some kind of loose outline.

3. Write crap. Lots of crap. Just let the crap flow in the hopes that eventually something decent will result. I have to write a lot of crap before I can write something that I like.

Good luck!
posted by answergrape at 8:58 AM on January 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

I'm very kinaesthetic as well, but have a hard time finding a room with space and no internet connection. I also need natural light for some reason.

Diane Rehm did an interview with the author of The Midnight Disease that talks writing and neurology/brain chemistry. I found it insightful.

A writer's support group might be helpful.

There'a a great article out there, "habits of productive scholarly writers" that is helpful. Peter Elbow's Writing with Power is pretty good and easy to find.

Despite all this I am a pretty unproductive writer--working on a dissastertation, and have a lot of anxiety coupled with a less-than-responsive adviser. Anyway, I'm off to the library.
posted by mecran01 at 9:12 AM on January 27, 2004

I took a writing class last fall, and received from my intsructor one of the best pieces of writing advice I've ever heard.

When you're ready to write, just sit down and begin writing whatever it is you're thinking about. Let everything flow out in a natural way, regardless of quality. Don't worry about content, don't worry about punctuation, don't worry about grammar, don't worry about anything. Just write.

Within a short time, you'll find that you've actually hit some sort of groove, latched onto some sort of theme, and whatever it is your writing will begin to coalesce into something real, something you can use. Just discard the stuff you wrote at the start to "prime the pump", edit the body of your text, and there you are! Real writing!

This has worked like a charm for me for months now, even in situations in which it might have otherwise been difficult to concentrate on writing. It may not work for you, but it's worth a try.
posted by jdroth at 9:22 AM on January 27, 2004

Headphones with trance music playing if there are distractions (read: other people) around. If I'm alone, I just turn on the radio, sometimes 2 radios, set to different stations, in other rooms. A deadline does help the motivation factor, no doubt about it. And I try to stay off Metafilter. ;)
posted by Lynsey at 9:56 AM on January 27, 2004

I believe many writers would benefit from getting up very early instead of staying up very late. A lot of us think of ourselves as night people, and like the idea of typing away at 4 a.m. But late nights have no real end in sight, and come only after a day of tasks is out of the way. Morning sessions are hard at first, but after a while they become a way of imposing an artificial deadline on yourself -- "I can't do chores, see people, live my ordinary life until I get this done," insead of, "Now that I've done chores, seen people and lived my ordinary life, it's time to write."

I also find that having habits helps most of the time -- always writing on a particular machine, in a particular place, etc. Then when the habits don't work, I throw them out the window. Intead of my laptop, I break out the paper and pencil. Instead of my office, I head to the library or the park. A little jolt is sometimes what it takes.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:48 AM on January 27, 2004

Just to chime in one more time to clarify - if it helps you to have rituals (writing in a nice notebook, or at your desk) then that's good, I just think that many writers let those rituals become barriers - not being able to write unless specific conditions are present - for example, saying 'I can't write, because I'm not at my writing desk' or 'I can't write because I don't have a computer with me.'

Also, I agree - the morning is a great time to write (although I have a lot of trouble doing it more then a few times a week, if that - mostly on weekends.)
posted by drobot at 11:37 AM on January 27, 2004

If you're like me and enjoy listening to music while you work, make sure it isn't something you know. When I have serious writing to do I keep away from music that is familiar, or else I unconsciously start following along and before I know it I'm singing out loud and my train of thought becomes a smouldering wreckage.
posted by Monster_Zero at 12:03 PM on January 27, 2004

echo >> /etc/hosts
posted by Space Coyote at 2:10 PM on January 27, 2004

Come to think of it, I should add '' to that little list.. seeing as I'm here right now..

*kicks self*
posted by Space Coyote at 2:11 PM on January 27, 2004

Setting myself a minimum numbers to write per week helps me. There's lots of good advice above, but the most important thing is to experiment and find out what works for you. More things to try here (warning: self-link).
posted by rjs at 12:17 AM on January 28, 2004

("a minimum numbers" = "a minimum number of words". I should learn to pay attention during preview.)
posted by rjs at 12:18 AM on January 28, 2004

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