To be a great writer, you have to be able to concentrate. Not only that but you have to be able to maintain focus for sustained periods. It’s not the only thing you’ll need but it’s a good start.
Get in the flow
Psychologists describe a powerful form of concentration called 'flow'. It happens when someone concentrates fully engaged on what they are doing. (See the Wikipedia definition.) When you are writing in like this, you can hold all the pieces of a story in your head and write fluently.
We all recognise this state. “Time flies when you’re having fun” is one version. Meditation is, perhaps, another version. If you play sports or video games and you find yourself ‘at one’ with what you’re doing, that’s another. All these mental states require concentration.
Multitasking doesn't work
Conversely, failure to concentrate can be very unproductive. In fact, multitasking makes us stupid. People who think they are good at multitasking aren’t, according to researchers at Stanford University (see also: original paper). That’s you and me, dear reader.
I’m writing this post to share some of the habits and techniques that have (sometimes) helped me to improve my own concentration. And yes, I know that some of them are contradictory. That’s the ‘sometimes’.
Anyway, I hope you find them useful. If you have any tips you would like to share, please leave a comment.
- Accept your distractions. You will get distracted. Your mind will wander. You won’t want to get started. Accept it. The trick is to stand back and notice your brain doing these things. When it happens, stand back from yourself. Notice the distraction. Name the monster. Gently remind yourself that you’re trying to concentrate and it will be easier to return your focus to your work.
- Use a concentration timer. I like using meditation timers when I write. A little bell every five minutes helps remind to put my focus back onto my writing if my mind has wandered. There is a free, online timer on my company website. You can use it time and pace a writing session.
- Go somewhere else. Do you write a bit more neatly when you get a new pen? Change can be beneficial, even if the effect is temporary. Sometimes a change of location (go to the park, Starbucks, the Kitchen – anywhere but here) or a change of method (use a quill, a pencil, a typewriter, a different word processor, Linux) can help.
- Stay where you are. I’m always getting up and going somewhere to get something or do something. To counter this tendency, I keep scrap paper (recycled A4 printer paper cut in half) by my desk and scribble reminders. Then back to the writing.
- Write at a different time. I write best if I get up early. (See How I trained myself to get up earlier in the morning.) Just changing your routine can be helpful.
- Write to a schedule. When I have a busy week with many deadlines, I block out time for my work in Microsoft Outlook. This helps me allocate time and measure progress on longer-term projects and ensure that I have enough time to do all the work I planned. Other people find it helpful to start writing at the same time every day.
- Morning pages. I have to admit that I haven’t tried Julia Cameron’s technique for unblocking your creativity but other people, including my wife, swear by it. It involves writing in a stream of consciousness first thing every day.
- Switch off distractions. Turn off your radio, TV, shut the door, close your email program, put your phone on mute, shut down your blog reader software, use a distraction-free word processor. Anything you can do to stop distractions before they happen, the better.
- Tame your muse. Your muse works for you, not the other way round. Think of it as a recalcitrant employee. Give it deadlines, tell it to show up for work at a fixed time every day, give it feedback and praise, define what you expect from it.
- Seek inspiration. Lots of people praise walking or running as a source of inspiration. The best advice I ever had was from my history tutor at Oxford – keep a notebook with you at all times because you never know when you will have a good idea.
- Quantify. Use word count to set goals – 500 words and then a break, for example. Track writing output over time in a spreadsheet. Use Joe’s Goals to keep track of habits in the long term. Some people, like me, are highly motivated by a sense of progress.
- Silence. External noise can break your concentration. Try noise cancelling headphones (I use Bose), music (see Music for working), silent PC (See: Tools for writing: Silent PCs) or ear plugs (See In praise of earplugs).
- Meditate to develop concentration and calmness. I find it helpful to meditate a little before I start work. It’s not easy for me but when I do it, I find it really helps. I sit in a quiet room, legs crossed and count my breaths. This guide may be a helpful place to start.
- Treats. I like tea (See Tools for writing: A nice cup of tea). Other people prefer cigarettes, Jaffa cakes or whatever. I would just be wary of too many sugary treats because they can cause a sugar crash later. You end up borrowing energy from yourself.
- Punishment. Try Write or Die. If you don’t keep writing, it starts deleting what you have already written!
- Shame. Instead of running a 26 mile marathon, aim to write 26,000 words and get your friends to sponsor you for charity. If you fail to do it, you won’t raise any money and you’ll feel bad. Nothing like social pressure to keep you at the keyboard.
- Buddy writing. Working with a friend, even over an open Skype line, can encourage concentration, providing you both have the same work habits. Somehow the peer pressure keeps you both working hard. It’s also an antidote to the potential loneliness of the long-distance writer.
- Chunking. Write for 45 minutes, take a 15 minute break. Repeat.
- Don’t worry. Editing is not writing. Don’t let your mental self-editor get in the way of your super-productive copywriter. Accept that your first draft might not be perfect. Leave notes to yourself in your text – fact-check, tidy up, rewrite, condense. The important thing is to keep writing.
- Use TK. This is a special case of ‘Don’t worry.’ If there’s something you don’t know, don’t stop to look it up. Just put TK in the text. It means ‘to come [later]’. For example, ‘When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in TK DATE, he didn’t expect to meet little green men.’ Fill in the blanks later. TK is easy to search for because it doesn’t occur often in everyday writing. (There are a few exceptions, such as the band Outkast.)
- Rock and river. Water is soft and rocks are hard but a river can defeat a rock with patience and constant effort over time. I think it’s the same with writing. A little every day beats a lot once a year. If you keep this in mind, concentrating for a short period every day becomes easier.
- Leave a hook to get you started. When you finish writing each day, try to leave a few notes in your text to help you get started the next day. This will make it easier to overcome inertia and re-engage with the work.