This installment in my how to write series focuses on how to write and stay focused amid life’s biggest distractions. Be sure to check the archives for more writing advice and tips and subscribe via email to get these tips straight to your inbox.
The writing life attracts two distinct types — those born with a gift and those with no other career choice. In the middle of that Venn diagram fall the faces of writing’s Mt. Rushmore – talented, destructive in one way or the other, unable to hold any other job and stupid and stubborn for even trying.
The idea of the nomadic writer, setting up a makeshift office wherever the story leads is ridiculously cliche. Almost every profession can set up shop wherever there is decent WiFi and buckets of coffee close at hand. But one of the perks of being paid for the pen is it affords a life of mobility. It doesn’t pay enough to live in most places, but it allows an author to work from everywhere.
Hang around the action and the stories will find the writer, floating in the thin air to be plucked and planted on a page to bloom right before the eyes of the reader. From Memorial until Labor Day, there’s no better location to observe and report than along the New Jersey coastline. The comedies, melodramas and one-man-shows playing out in the sand and seaside bars as abundant as the day trippers in line for a daily beach badge.
Early in the summer season, before schools let out and office grunts realize they’ve got vacation days to burn before the end of the year, I hit the beach with a notebook in hand to vomit out the first few pages of the next great novel that your mom is going to force you to read. The one everyone is raving about in her Yoga For Silver Foxes class.
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For years, I’ve tried to make any and every New Jersey beach my writing nook. It’s damn impossible. I’ve spent hours and months scribbling notes about random beach bums and Bennies, only to come up empty with anything other than observations about things no one would believe unless they could see. I’ve got four pages dedicated to a man with the most “outie” belly button imaginable. It looked just like a dick. His application of sunblock was near pornographic.
Another distraction, at least to this writer, is all of the reading going on. All those SPF and sausage sandwich stained hands wrapped around the best sellers they’ve been saving all winter to read on vacation piss me off. As an author, I’m glad the public still consumes novels and non-fiction in paper form. As an often struggling essayist, I’m bitter that the name on the cover isn’t mine.
Seven summers ago I finally found some success writing at the beach. I wasn’t technically on the beach, however, but instead holed up in a house mere blocks from the sand and surf. In one week, on an insane deadline from a publisher, I banged out 40,000 words and my first published book.
During that week I made every attempt to get some pages completed while sitting in a beach chair surrounded by people taking it easy. Each experiment was futile for there’s always a volleyball game in need of another player, a cold beer to chug before it gets skunked or a young woman who’s brand new bikini demands every set of eyeballs take notice.
Writing on, near or close enough to smell the beach brings too much stress to this freelancer-for-hire. I’d much rather stare at the photos of my favorite authors, portable typewriter at arm’s length, pounding away in front of sand and surf while I’m working inside my air-conditioned home office.
The distractions are minimal.
How To Write And Stay Focused
Distractions surround us all, and it’s not easy staying on task when you need to work for long hours at a time.
One reason humans are awful at ignoring distractions and keeping a laser focus on the task at hand is that schools don’t teach this skill. Do you remember a lesson at any level of education about focusing our attention on a single function?
So we’re on our own in figuring out how to write and stay focused.
There are specific writing tools created to help writers focus. I suggest using a few. These tips on how to write while surrounded by distractions deal with interruptions that occur in our surroundings and not on computer screens and cell phones.
Writing Tip #1: Train Your Brain- Since school failed us, it’s on individuals to learn a little bit of self-control. Because multitasking is the norm, the brain quickly adapts. The ability to focus must become a habit. Habits start small.
Practice giving your writing supreme focus for five minutes. Ignore everything else. Once you’ve mastered five minutes, try for 10 minutes. If you find your mind and eyes wandering, verbally mention it out loud. Nothing makes a person focus more than being yelled at by the voice inside their head.
Writing Tip #2: Write Yourself Reminders- Leave a small note on your desk, desktop or on your computer screen reminding you to focus. It can be a famous quote, a mantra or even a question like “why aren’t you doing your work?” The visual reminder will keep you on task.
Writing Tip #3: Visualize Yourself Focusing- Top level athletes are taught to visualize themselves succeeding in their specific field. Why can’t writers do the same? Visualize yourself sitting at a desk and focusing. If it helps, take a picture of yourself focusing and put it on your desk.
More Writing Tips On Staying Focused
Writing Tip #4: Don’t Seek Out Distractions- My long tale at the beginning of this article is a warning. Don’t go looking for distractions. Writing in a crowded coffee shop or on a busy beach seems charming, but you can’t expect the other people in the scenario to stay tight-lipped because you’ve got a couple of chapters to churn out. Stop hoping the world to stop for you.
Writing Tip #5: Give Off The Vibe That You Don’t Want To Be Bothered- Next, the easiest way to get people to leave you alone and to stay clear is to look busy. Stay deep in thought. Don’t take your eyes off the screen. Develop a scowl when you work. Look the part, and people will avoid you.
Writing Tip #6: Did You Ever Ask To Be Left Alone? – It sounds ridiculous, but an effective way to stay focused and be left alone is to come right out and ask. If you don’t want to seem like a jerk when family or coworkers ask for help in the middle of your writing session, warn them ahead of time. “I’m going to be writing. Please don’t bother me. I’ll be happy to help in a bit.”
Writing Tip #7: Set A Time Limit – Finally, since the people in your life are now offended at your request for solitude — HOW DARE YOU! — set a time limit. Stick to it. “I only need a half hour to finish. I’ll be available after writing.”
Ultimately, the burden of staying focused when writing is on your shoulders. It’s up to you to get up and move away from distractions, to limit the number of things screaming “LOOK AT ME!”, and to find time to write without the world needed your attention.
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