In the YouTube ad for her writing MasterClass, Joyce Carol Oates says, “The great enemy of writing isn’t your own lack of talent; it’s being interrupted by other people. Constant interruptions are the destruction of the imagination.” Yeah, that’s true, but if you’ve ever struggled to find a block of time to devote to your writing, or if while you’re working you can’t maintain your focus, then you know people aren’t the only problem. In this article I enumerate what I consider to be the top 5 writing distractions, and how to defeat them.
Top 5 Writing Distractions
- Family. Members of your immediate and extended family are undeniably the biggest source of interruption of creative flow. While you can’t shouldn’t disown your spouse or your children, with communication you may be able to negotiate some undisturbed time. Your family’s needs come first, but under certain circumstances their requirements may need to be delayed, such as when you’re under a deadline, or you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, or you must get down a critical wording before it escapes your memory. Your family deserves your undivided attention, so be sure you’re providing at least some on a daily basis. But, realistically, as an artistic person, even if you’re not earning money at it yet, your craft also needs focused, undisturbed time. Perhaps you can schedule writing hours (or minutes) during which you post a sign that says, “Writer at work. Do not disturb until 4:00 PM.” You’re still available for emergencies, but spell out what constitutes an emergency: blood, flames, etc. “I’m bored” is not an emergency and will result in extra assigned chores. Ditto for “I can’t find my purple socks,” “He’s breathing on me,” or “How soon is dinner?” Come on, people, be reasonable. (If your beloved family members are behaving like jerks, you have my permission to read them this paragraph in an authoritative voice.)
- The phone. If you can, turn your ringer off during writing time and let your calls go to voice mail. Why lose your train of thought to someone who wants to buy your house for cheap, or someone pretending to be the government wanting to suspend your social security number as soon as you tell them what it is? Don’t stop writing to listen to a robocall about a time share or a presidential candidate. Don’t squander your writing time catching up with the friend who hasn’t called you in two years.
- Household tasks. If you’re lucky enough to have private work space in your home, sometimes it’s a mixed blessing, because during lulls you remember the piles of unwashed laundry and the dirty floors and the unfiled tax return just around the corner. If your work space has a door, close it. Commit to working your allotted time; the chores will still be there when you’re done writing for the day. That’s easy enough when the words are flowing, but as soon as you hit a dry patch, you think about all the other things you could be accomplishing. So, from time to time, shake things up by going somewhere else to write. If the weather is nice, try writing in the backyard or at the park. Or bow to the cliché and go to a coffee shop or to the library. Just don’t get caught up in people-watching. Counter-corollary: sometimes doing something mindless (like ironing, or polishing windows) allows you to daydream and frees your imagination, giving you new ideas to add to your work-in-progress. Be ready to abandon your task and go back to writing while the idea is fresh.
- Writing tasks. We all know that writing isn’t just churning out manuscripts. There’s brainstorming, researching, outlining, rewriting, editing, marketing. And you want to network with other writers, with agents, editors, beta readers, and reviewers. You also need to maintain a vibrant presence on social media and grow your email newsletter list. It almost seems that in order to do all these things well, you pretty much do them instead of writing. But you can’t. So you have to schedule them. It’s the only way to balance your time. Prioritize what you need to do. You must write every day. Some days you can’t get started writing until you do some research, so go research — but beware of chasing tangents. Sometimes your research will uncover interesting information that may have no bearing whatsoever on what you’re writing, but you feel compelled to go deeper. Sometimes there may be a payoff in a brilliant plot twist or an entirely new direction, but usually getting off track will just waste time that you could have been spending more productively. Put a limit on how much time you devote to those other writing-related tasks, and then write.
- Dissatisfaction with the way your project is going. Your first draft is not going to be brilliant. That’s okay — first drafts are about getting ideas down; you develop them in more detail in the subsequent drafts. But when your third or fourth draft still seems rough, it’s easy to feel discouraged and focus instead on disappointment and dreams unmet. How do you satisfy your inner critic and get back to work again? It helps to have an insightful critique partner, someone who will read your essay or chapter and act as a sounding board for your concerns. (How do you find a critique partner?) He can make suggestions about changes or additions or rephrasing that will help you take your manuscript to the next level.
Now it’s your turn. What are your biggest distractions when you’re writing? How do you counteract them? Share in the comments below.