Have a Great Writing Session: Five Ways to Focus … and Five Ways to Refocus
Do you find it hard to concentrate when you’re writing?
Is it all too easy for your attention to wander – and for you to end up wasting time that should have been spent on your project at hand?
While I’m not a huge fan of “tips to help you stop procrastinating” – they can rather miss the underlying reasons why we procrastinate, especially when it comes to creative work – sometimes it is helpful to have a few go-to methods for gaining and regaining focus as you write.
The regaining there is important.
While it’s great to be able to sit down and focus at the start of a writing session, it’s even more critical to be able to re-gather your focus if you do get interrupted, or if you find yourself distracted.
In this post, then, we’re going to take a look at five things to do before or at the start of your writing session, and five things to try if you find yourself struggling to stay focused as you write.
Five Ways to Focus on Your Writing
#1: Decide On Your Writing Sessions in Advance
It’s brilliant to write when you’re feeling inspired – you may well find that these are the times when words flow easily and you’re enjoying your writing more than ever.
But for many writers, life is so busy that we don’t necessarily stop long enough to feel a sudden motivation to write. (Even if we do feel the impulse to write, there might be a dozen other things that need doing first.)
This is why it’s a great idea to block out time on your calendar to write. In terms of focus, it’s worth experimenting with short and long writing sessions – if practical – to see which suits you best.
Tip: Try “bookending” your writing sessions with other activities. Over the past few years, some of my most focused writing has been done in the half-hour between the kids’ teatime and bathtime!
#2: Try Different Rooms in your House
While I think it’s a great idea to get out of the house to write if you can, I know it’s not always practical. If you need or prefer to write at home, try writing in different rooms of your house: you might find that it’s far easier to focus in the spare bedroom than in the living room.
This can pose problems, of course, if you’ve got a desktop computer rather than a laptop (or a laptop with a particularly ailing power supply). Don’t let that stop you trying this at least some of the time, though. You could:
- Write on a tablet or mobile phone, using a Bluetooth keyboard.
- Consider buying a cheap or second-hand laptop that you use just for your writing. It might not be something you could purchase straight away, but could you save up $10 – $20 a week towards it? (And remember, your writing is worth it.)
- Writing with pen and paper – cheap, very portable, and impossible to crash! While most of my writing is done straight onto the computer these days, I still use paper for brainstorming and planning (and I think it can be a great way to focus more deeply).
Tip: It might be worth moving furniture around, or buying a small second-hand desk, if it makes it easier for you to write. Maybe you could pop a desk in the corner of a bedroom, or even in your garden shed, if it’s warm and waterproof enough.
#3: Try Different Writing Software
If you normally write in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, you might want to try out using a program designed for fiction writers, or one that allows for an easy “full screen” writing environment.
Some writers swear by Write or Die, an online writing environment that helps you focus by offering rewards for writing fast (or penalties for going too slowly or stopping altogether).
Tip: If typing itself is cumbersome or tiring for you in any way, look into the possibility of dictating your writing instead. Some prolific authors prefer to dictate than type – and dictation software gets better all the time. You can use Google’s free in-built dictation software if you write in Google Docs or Google Slides using the Chrome browser.
#4: Write Down What You Want to Achieve
If you start writing without any particular goal in mind, beyond “spend an hour writing”, it’s very easy to end up losing focus or spinning your wheels.
At the start of your writing session, spend a couple of minutes jotting down what you want to accomplish: something like “finish revising Chapter 10” or “write outlines for four new blog posts”. You might want to put this on a Post-it note stuck to your monitor, or on a big sheet of paper that you can easily see, to help you keep your goal in mind.
Tip: If you’re doing research online, it’s particularly helpful to write down exactly what you’re trying to do or discover. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to end up going down lots of interesting internet rabbit holes that don’t get you any closer to a finished piece.
#5: Keep External Distractions to a Minimum
When you write, you want to be alone with your thoughts: you don’t want a lot of other things intruding or distracting you.
Where possible, try to minimise any unwelcome or distracting input:
- If your neighbour’s intermittent drilling is setting your teeth on edge, try noise-cancelling headphones so that you can listen to your own music.
- If your chair is uncomfortable, add a cushion to support your back, or switch to a different chair or position for your writing. (Being uncomfortable isn’t only distracting, it could be setting you up for ongoing pain.)
- If your desk is full of papers, empty mugs, pens, letters, notebooks, packets of biscuits, and so on, you might find it’s easier to focus if you clear it up. (Full disclosure: those are just some of the things on my desk right now…) While some writers find it easy to ignore their physical surroundings, others find it much easier to focus when there’s little or no clutter in view.
Tip: There’s no reason to try to get rid of all external input – you don’t need to write in an empty room in monastic silence! Some writers like to have scented candles burning as they write; others find that the taste of a great coffee helps inspire them. Personally, I like to pop my earphones in and listen to the same half-dozen or so albums (mostly Metallica and Disturbed) as I write.
Five Ways to Refocus on Your Writing
It’s very normal to find yourself losing focus during a writing session – and this doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or your writing.
It could be partly habitual: perhaps you normally write for a bit, but then you let your attention wander. It could be because you struggle to focus after an interruption, or because you have a lot on your mind (emails to send, things to do around the house) and you keep thinking about those when you’re supposed to be writing.
Not all of these five tips will work for every writer – but give some of them a try and hopefully you’ll find something that’s helpful for you:
#1: Write Down Distractions on a Piece of Paper
If you’ve got a fairly busy life (and most writers do), you’ve probably got quite a lot on your mind as you write.
As I draft this blog post, I’m thinking about a lot of other things I need to get done: find a present for a friend’s birthday, mow the lawn, tidy up the bathrooms, remember to get the laundry out of the dryer, take a bag full of cardboard for “junk modelling” to school tomorrow… and that’s just the start!
These types of thoughts and distractions can really derail you from writing: either you stop what you’re doing to take care of them, or you have to try to remember them while you write (tying up precious brain power). A good way round this is to keep a piece of paper to hand where you can quickly jot down anything that suddenly pops into your mind, so you can deal with it later.
Tip: I have a page-a-day planner – the Inspire Now journal – where I record appointments, my work for the week, things I need to remember to buy, and so on. I keep it on my desk as I write (it’s right next to my keyboard as I type this) and it’s a great place to record things safely so I know I won’t forget them.
#2: Set a Timer or a Stopwatch As You Write
Sometimes, if I’m struggling to focus, I set a timer for 15 – 30 minutes (depending on what I’m working on and how long I have) to encourage me to work solidly for a set, short period of time. You may want to give this a go: you might be surprised just how much you can write in 15 minutes when you’re fully focused.
An alternative approach, and one that I’ve been using more often recently, is to instead set a stopwatch. That way, you’re timing how long it takes you to complete a particular task. You might find that a more helpful approach, particularly if you’re unsure how long something’s likely to take.
Tip: Some writers find timers quite pressuring, and I certainly wouldn’t want to use them all the time – it’s nice to be able to write without feeling pressured by the clock! They’re often a useful tool to use for a writing warm-up at the start of a session, though, and they can be a good way to “reset” your focus part way through.
#3: Take a Deliberate Break from Your Desk
If you’ve been writing for a while and your focus is really starting to drift, that’s a good sign that you need a proper break. So take one! Get away from your desk, make yourself a cuppa, walk around the house, fold the laundry, and just let your attention drift for 10 minutes or so.
After that, you can come back to your writing and treat it like a new session. You might want to review or rewrite your goals, and you might find it helpful to use some of the other techniques (like moving to a different room) to help break you out of any procrastination or wheel-spinning that you’d drifted into.
Tip: Some writers find it works best to plan for specific breaks at set points – if you have two hours to write, for instance, you might decide to write for 50 minutes, take a 20 minute break, then write for another 50 minutes.
#4: Take a Few Deep Breaths
While I’m not much good at meditation (though I know it has a ton of benefits), I do think there’s a lot of power in simply stopping to consciously breathe from time to time.
If you’re feeling stressed by your writing and everything you’ve got on your plate, or if you find yourself reading webcomics or scrolling Facebook aimlessly and unintentionally – then pausing to take a few deep breaths could help you focus again.
Tip: This is a good point to look at what you wrote down about what you’re trying to achieve or what you want to accomplish by the end of your writing session. You might even want to “visualise” the outcome: picture what it will look like to have this chapter or piece finished, and how you’ll feel about it.
#5: Get Something to Eat or Drink
If you’re mildly dehydrated, it’s going to be harder to focus. And if your stomach is growling, you’re going to struggle too. Get a glass of water and a snack (you might well want to take a proper break from your desk to eat, too).
Hopefully, once you come back to your writing, you’ll be feeling more physically able to concentrate on the task at hand.
Tip: It’s a good idea to have water / tea / coffee / whatever you like to drink to hand while you’re writing, so you don’t have to break off a session to go and get a drink. While I like to eat chocolate or other snacks while I’m writing, I find it always stops me focusing properly (I guess I just can’t concentrate on both writing and eating at the same time). If that’s the same for you, maybe have a snack or light meal before you start writing rather than during your writing time.
What helps you to focus – or refocus – when you’re writing? Whether it’s one of the ideas I’ve shared above or something different, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Want help overcoming procrastination?
Over the next three weeks, I’ve got more posts (and newsletter pieces) planned about why writers procrastinate, how to focus (and refocus), how to know when procrastination might be due to a problem with your writing, and more.
Make sure you’re on the newsletter list so you get the Monday blog posts and the short Thursday newsletters straight to your inbox.
If you missed them, you can catch up with earlier instalments in the series here:
#2: What’s Really Behind Your Procrastination? (newsletter)
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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