Focussing on Writing
Like many others, I find that my life is rich and full and busy. There are an unlimited number of choices and opportunities when trying to decide how to spend time. The writing life can sometimes be lost in the excitement and chaos of our everyday existence. Focussing on one’s writing can be a challenge for people who haven’t established the habits of a writing life. Although I do not profess to be an expert on such things, I have thought about how to balance my own writing practice amongst the other demands of a busy life for some years, and I think it has led to some helpful techniques. I share these with you in the hope that there is something useful here.
Concentration matters. In order to “get in the zone” you have to be able to sustain your concentration for a reasonable period. The only way you can hold all the pieces of your writing in your head — the characters, the language, the action, and the flow — is if you concentrate. In order to concentrate, you need to do create a space where all distractions are minimized. This may mean shutting the door, turning off your phone, and telling everyone to leave you alone for a set period of time. It may also mean closeting yourself away in a space where you will not be distracted by a window, a television, or the sounds of your family attempting to kill one another. You may even need to investigate wearing noise cancelling headphones. And finally, it may mean writing at a time of day when you are least likely to be interrupted such as early in the morning, or late at night.
Preparation matters. Prepare your space. Keep everything handy that you might want during your writing time. That may mean a bottle of water, a thesaurus, a reference book, a laptop, pads of lined paper, post-it notes, coloured pens, or butterscotch candies. Whatever it is you might require to keep you working, make sure it’s at hand so you don’t have an excuse to leave your space.
Time matters. You can absolutely discipline yourself to write in short, effective, increments of time. I did this for years when I was working full-time and writing in small, stolen blocks of time. But deep reflection and editing, critical review of your previous writing, and research and planning happen more easily in longer stretches of work, ideally two to four hours of time without distraction. Extended periods of time will help you move your writing project successfully forward. I know this can be a challenge in a life filled with competing priorities but it really will make a difference to your work.
Goals matter. Set yourself a writing goal and work to meet it. Charles Dickens famously wrote between 5,000 and 10,000 words a day. Hemingway wrote between 500 – 1,000 words a day. Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day. Michael Crummey writes 500 words a day. It doesn’t matter what your goal is – what matters is that you have a goal. I set myself project deadlines. For instance, a typical deadline I am working with now is, I will finish first draft of this short story by the end of the week. Having a goal will not only give you a sense of accomplishment but will also keep your work purposeful and directional.
Pre-thinking matters. In my experience, inspiration and fresh ideas come from many sources. Meditation, a brisk walk, a visit to an art gallery, a quiet table in a crowded coffee shop, any number of such things can be helpful. The important thing is to keep your writing project in mind throughout your day. While working in the kitchen, for instance, I may describe to myself how one of my characters bakes cookies or has a love-hate relationship with food. While driving, I may have a conversation with one of my characters about the nature of marriage or politics. This pre-thinking is a kind of planning that helps me develop character, plot and tension. When I do sit down to write, the pre-thinking has percolated to the point that the writing often becomes easier.
Chunking matters. Writing, as you know, is not just about writing. Good writing involves research, editing, re-writing, fact-checking, editing, re-writing, and more editing. Disciplining myself to chunk my work means that I am fresh when I sit down to edit, or re-write. I never attempt to work on more than one task during one chunk of time. I find that I can be more rigorous about editing if I am focussed solely on the editing process.
Focussing takes practice. I wish that I could sit down and write beautifully crafted, evocative sentences that make you weep. Alas, experience has taught me that is highly unlikely. I need the discipline of a focussed writing life that includes concentration, preparation, time, goals, pre-thinking and chunking in order to turn out my best work. Writing is a craft and as such, practice and more practice and further practice are necessary.
I hope these tips are helpful to your own process. Please let me know!