Essential writing skills: keeping focus as you write

It’s often difficult to keep the focus going as you write. Apart from the creative muse running dry there’s the relentless call of – well, everything. Noises outside, social media, The Internet and all the rest.

None of it is helped by the fact that these days we’re conditioned to have an attention span of around – OOOH, POSSUM! – fifteen seconds.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...
Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

That’s one of the down-sides of the internet where, according to the figures I’ve seen, the average user flips between media around 27 times an hour. That’s a little over two minutes per interaction – Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, texting, messages and so on. We are conditioned to have an endless hunger for new, an endless quest for instantly gratifying entertainment.  All of it shallow, transient and brief. And even brief sometimes isn’t brief enough. I’ve seen stats for YouTube videos in which, typically, viewers last about 90-100 seconds into a four-minute video before flipping off to something else.

It’s not limited to the web either. TV scripting usually demands an ‘action moment’ every eight seconds or so – a hook – as a device for capturing channel surfers. That’s had its impact on the pace and rhythm of the stories which, by earlier standards, can best be described as frenetic.

We live in a world where instant fun, instant gratification and constant novelty is expected, where any one thing can capture us for seconds or at best a couple of minutes at a time. A world of derp, not to put too fine a point on it. That stands in diametric opposition to the sustained single-thread concentration demanded of reading – and, more especially, of writing. But that conditioning is insidious, especially because we usually write on the very same tool we use to get that massive wealth of content flowing past us.

So how do we get around it?

There is only one answer. Ignore the distractions. Switch off the internet. Turn off your phone. Take yourself away from screens, except the one you’re working on. Or switch off the computer altogether, sit down with pen and paper, and get going for a solid planning session as a first step to writing.

Most of us have to wedge writing in around other things, and that can be turned to an advantage too. If you schedule your writing time – even a thirty-minute burst – it can sometimes be possible to also orchestrate it so there are no interruptions.

The very best writers do it. Jonathan Franzen apparently writes on a laptop disconnected from the internet, sitting in a room facing a blank wall. No distractions; just the inner voice.

It really is the only way to go.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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11 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: keeping focus as you write

  1. You’re dead on with this post. I know so many people who call themselves writers, but they never have the patience to stick through an entire first draft. They either get bored or frustrated and just give up before they even really get started. It’s definitely a testament to how a culture of instant gratification has affected writers. Thanks for posting!

    1. Thanks. Yes, writing demands persistence and focus. Commodities that today’s tech world conditions out of us. But I think that the passion, enthusiasm and joy that authors bring to the task go a long way towards breaking away from it.

  2. I’ve installed the application that I use for writing on my computer and *write* offline. That way there is no temptation to take a quick Twitter break–which ends up never being quick–or succumbing to another internet distraction.

    Great topic. You’ve touched on an issue that is influencing how the next generations think, since they are growing up with smartphones in their hands (at very young ages).

    1. Thanks – yes, there’s a whole generation growing up for whom all this is entirely normal. And I think those of us brought in in the twentieth century (ahem…) are being led down the same path. Keeping offline when writing is a great way to avoid the temptation.

  3. I’m sure I’m not the only one born with an implanted genetic time management device (not that I always listen to it). It used to kick in after exactly 2.75 hours of Saturday morning cartoons – without warning my stomach would get that low guilt ache of wasting not just time, but life. Going outside to play was the only remedy. But gawd, what does it say about adults, and more specifically the world we have created, that we must force ourselves, kicking and screaming, to disconnect from life and stare at a blank wall… just to give space and sound to our words.

    Personally, I still find “going outside to play” the only real way to reboot my system. Though it’s not without its hazards. And yes, I really did fall into the Bow River on my office lunchbreak one day while dabbling on the shore… which is the sort of thing one’s boss will only forgive once!

    Note: Found myself taking actual notes on your youtube/script stats (really fascinating, if horrifying stuff!) …because procrastination is like an indoor/outdoor swimming pool… the scenery might change, even the season, but if you float through life you’ll just end up unpublished and pruny. Perish the thought 😉

    1. Playtime is SO important and it’s amazing how it can ‘re-boot’, I suspect in ways we don’t necessarily always realise, too – there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes re-setting. I have to batch my time for a lot of stuff, including social media – and try to stick to that, because the time-tentacles draw me in otherwise – but every so often I’ll fire up a game on the PC (I have a couple of favourites) for a bit of mindless down-time… And I’ll go for walks, though for me, too, that has hazards – I’ll forget where I am and sometimes amble across a road without looking, accidentally, for instance. Oops. I must admit I haven’t yet fallen into a river though! 🙂

  4. I have never been really tempted to look at social media while writing. Although I don’t know the real reason for this, I suspect it has something to do with writing to deadline (initially) for I knew I could not if I was going to make the deadline. That’s not a factor as much these days but it seems to have become a fairly decent writing ethic. Also, I allow myself to read a blog post or check other social media, often as a way to help me re-frame a difficult point. I write best in two hour blocks so I know that if I stay the course, there will be time for internet browsing, which I really love to do. Oh, and I also face a blank wall when I write; for that matter, it is the same when I meditate. Good post, Matthew!

    1. I batch my social media, time-wise – and I try to keep it to that time. Sometimes it means I get behind in my blog reading – even though I prioritise the important ones (yours, for instance – seriously!). But keeping it contained seems to be the only way I can get everything done in a day, including writing which (of late) has been more promotion and editing. That’s just the way it goes, of course – it’s all ‘writing’ in the sense of being stuff that has to be done to bring the written material to publication and to its audience, so to me is just as valid as the act of composition.

  5. A agree Matthew. This is true for building websites too. Switch off other stuff. It’s just a shame that when it’s all switched back on again, there is even more work piling up, and less time to write.

    1. Websites soak up astonishing time to maintain. I have to hard-code mine manually in HTML, something I try to avoid as much as possible but which still has to be done from time to time.

      1. I don’t use code, just templates and customise them to the point where some are almost unrecognisable in their former style and layout. I love building my own sites though, so satisfying when complete.

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