Here’s How to Focus on Your Writing

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Over the weekend, I was working on a book project. I've been working on it for almost a year and desperately need to finish it. But when I sat down to work on it, suddenly everything became more interesting than the writing on the screen in front of me. It was hard to focus on writing and not the millions of distractions at my fingertips.

focus on writing

I stared at the wood table for too long before picking up my phone and texting back everyone I hadn't in the last six months. I stared out the window, got a refill on my coffee, and then finally wrote maybe thirty words.

5 Things You Need to Focus On Writing

If you're struggling to finish all of your writing projects, you're not alone. I almost always get questions about how I focus long enough to actually accomplish all of the writing I need to get done. So for the sake of all our writing careers, I'm going to try to answer that in today's post.

1. You Need Real Paper

Computers are incredible. They have made our lives so much easier, but when it comes to focusing, paper is necessary.

When we write, our minds have a million thoughts running through them. How do I want to organize this chapter? What are my main points? Have I already introduced this character? I've found that real paper and a real pen give me more power to answer all these questions and allows me to better focus on the writing when I do turn to my laptop.

Oh, and paper is important for doodling. (Because Pamela taught us that doodling kills writer's block.)

2. You Need Time

The best way to focus is to give yourself a lot of time. My favorite article about this is written by Cal Newport, which explains the concept of Deep Work. There is a great benefit to taking two or three hours with zero distractions to get work done.

We focus best when we know we have an entire morning or afternoon to dive into a project. When you write, you delve into another world. You need an extended period of time to refresh yourself with where you left off and where you want to go.

3. You Need Deadlines

Deadlines and I have a serious love/hate relationship. Without them, I get nothing done, but with them, I'm often miserable. However, at the end of the day I need to pay rent and buy food, so deadlines it is.

Don't just set deadlines for weeks and months in advance; set deadlines for what you will accomplish before lunch. You will focus better knowing exactly what you need to do before you get out of your chair.

4. You Need a Pattern

Before I established a pattern in my writing life I was lucky to roll out of bed before 10 am. I worked when I felt like it and didn't accomplish a lot. But when I did finally establish a pattern, my whole writing life changed.

Establishing a pattern will help you write more consistently. There's even research that proves famous writers' sleeping habits lead to productivity and more focus. (I'm in.) Either way, we are creatures of habit and focus when we are consistent in our lives.

5. You Need a Place

You're a creative, which means sitting in a cubicle will probably kill you. I wrote a post a while back about the importance of finding your place to write. Finding a place you know you can focus on writing is the key to getting the writing done.

Focusing Takes Practice

Although I always picture myself typing away furiously, crafting word after word into beautiful sentences, it never looks like that. About sixty percent of my time is spent staring out windows, counting the clouds, and wondering if these books will write themselves.

What have you found that helps you focus on writing? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes right now to delve into your writing projects. Try taking out a sheet of paper, giving yourself more time, and setting frequent deadlines. Try developing a pattern and finding a place that allows you to focus on writing. Let us know how it goes in the comments below!

Happy focusing!

Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book . She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.

On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.

She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.

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59 Comments

  1. Steve Schaefer

    RICHMOND, VA. — CALLING ON AUTHORS FROM AROUND THE WORLD

    Author James Schaefer is calling on authors from around the world to join the Replenishment Project and submit short stories (1,000-4,000 words in length) about how the 800+ background characters in his new science fiction story of alien conquest would be rounded up by local, state, and federal authorities, once their identities was release by the news media.

    Interested authors would retain ownership of their short stories, which Schaefer would post as ancillary material on his website (www.replenishmentstory.com).

    “As in any epic story like Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings or Rowling’s, Harry Potter, there are thousands of background characters involved in the plot that never get mentioned. My hope is that new writers looking for exposure will accept my offer and add life to these necessary, but often forgotten characters.”

    Information about the general locations of these background characters can be found on the Abductees page of Schaefer’s website and should include the teen’s name, optional supporting characters (e.g. family & friends). The short stories should describe and make use of goods and services available in the selected area and conclude with the capture of the selected teen or a clever substitute; as the aliens will accept nothing less than the total demanded.

    Schaefer’s mission statement, “No Pay, but Great Play” reflects his philosophy about his latest project and his hopes of attracting new writers.

    Reply
    • Writer

      I know this is weird but I find that by being surrounded by white with an paper and pencil, with a table and chair, in front of you, I find it easier to write because I believe the white is a canvas to paint on and it’s asking for creativity so it is more like a possessive need to have something other than white. Or we will go insane. Similar to the white room punishment. That’s my personal way that makes me write, but it’s kinda weird to have a white room in the house so I just listen to music out in public where I know no one and start writing by thinking of who they are and what they do.

      Reply
  2. S.Ramalingam

    Ultimately it requires a fierce determination to focus on your writing and complete the project that you have already begun.What others call it an indomitable Will power to carry on your passion to write.After all where there is a Will there is a way.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      I agree! Unfortunately, right now the will is lacking, but the client is calling…haha I need to summon that fierce determination! Thanks for that reminder! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Read Kimberly Jayne

    Excellent advice. I like all five of these tips. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Glad these helped you! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Amanda J Evans

    Some great tips here. I find the use of timers amazing. If I give myself a certain amount of time to complete something, distraction goes out the window. I will often set a timer for an hour and then just see how much I can get done. It’s surprising how fast the time goes and how much I get done. Another way that I have found very beneficial is to get out of the house. I used to drive to the school an hour before I would have to collect my children and bring my laptop. With no internet and no distractions I ended up getting more writing done during that hour than I would at home. I love that you mentioned paper in your article. I wrote over 25,000 words of my first novel in notebooks. Again I used to just get in the car and drive to a car park and write. If I am going for an appointment instead of browsing facebook on my phone I bring a notebook and write.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Amanda,
      I love all the examples you mentioned! Just today I forced myself to leave my regular office and got SO much more work done!! Glad you liked these tips! 🙂

      Reply
      • Amanda J Evans

        Thanks Kelly, I took a notebook and pen with me this morning going to the hairdressers and I managed to write a short story, 2 poems, and the outline for a new blog post. Amazing what you can get done with no distractions.

        Reply
        • Debra johnson

          Amanda I to like the idea of taking a writing project to an appointment, example would be a doctor’s appointment. Because I have to wait to be called and since I am dropped off well ahead of time there is plenty of time to get some writing in. Not to mention the time
          I wait to be picked up.

          Reply
  5. SWIFT Movement

    Thank you for this post! I am working on the launch of my newsletter and I know I need to set a block time aside to get my first article written. My brain needed this pick me up!

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Time blocking is where it’s at! I desperately need to plan or I will never get anything done! Good luck on that newsletter!

      Reply
      • SWIFT Movement

        Time blocking! I know that will help me tremendously. Thank you!

        Reply
  6. Aiman MR

    I use the pomodoro technique where i set myself to work for 25 minutes and 5 minutes of rest afterwards. i repeat the same process and it helps me to be more organised. sometimes you need to stand up and take a short walk.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Aiman,
      I’ve never heard of that technique! I’m going to try that!

      Reply
  7. Michael Vanderosen

    Great Reminders Kellie …Thanks… They go up on my wall tomorrow! :-))

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Michael,
      I needed these reminders desperately! Glad they helped both of us! 🙂 Now back to work!

      Reply
  8. Hattie

    I’m procrastinating from getting my book finished by reading this post…!!
    But as usual all very useful tips…..thanks..Hattie

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Hattie,
      Ha, I procrastinated by writing the post 😉 Maybe tomorrow we’ll get back to work 😉

      Reply
  9. manilamac

    First of all, my complements on your graphic, with its anachronistic inclusion of film canisters! (Given your subject, here’s hoping that few of your readers will mistake them for bottles of Adderall.) I would like to add a couple of my own tricks of the trade:

    1) With pen & notebook I escape to a public place to avoid all my usual distractions & make notes—right page, characters & their actions—left page for motivations, complications &c…for each successive chapter. I find that eventually turns into an almost irresistible desire to go home to my keyboard.

    2) Anytime I’m actually writing, I assign cleaning the cat box to the mandatory top slot of my procrastination list.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Haha, these are great additions! I love that you force your first procrastination task to be cleaning the litter box, that would certainly keep me on task!

      Reply
  10. Parker

    I have an idea for a short story but get stuck and can’t move from one scene to the next and definitely my end is really out of place. I try to do an outline and I still can’t move my story. Can you have a dead storyline?

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Parker,
      That’s a really good question. I’m going to think about it more. Maybe you need a break from it, write what comes naturally. Try going back to the story in a week maybe?
      Let me know how it goes!

      Reply
  11. LaCresha Lawson

    I absolutely agree. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      LaCresha,
      Glad you found these to be true for you too!

      Reply
  12. Parker

    I can have an idea for a short story but I run into a brick wall when writing it. I outline the story in my mind and I can write over 3000 words but my scenes are not connected and I can’t write an ending. Is my idea a dead idea or is it that I am not focused. Right now I feel like short story writing is not where I need to concentrate my creative juices.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Sounds like you need to do some deep work and pull out some paper. Organizing and putting all the chapters and scenes together can be so hard! Let us know how it goes!

      Reply
    • Nina Hart

      Parker – I just took a fantastic online short story course with Richard Thomas at Litreactor.com He is starting up another 2 week course soon – it helped me a lot. I felt like you did before I started the course, and now things look very different…

      Reply
  13. cktygrett

    Love the tip about paper. I accidentally stumbled onto this in the middle of finishing a nonfiction manuscript. the kind of things I’ll say in ink don’t necessarily come through my keystrokes. incredibly encouraging.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      So good! Glad you found this to be true too! It’s so simple, yet can change so much!

      Reply
  14. I Don't Even Read

    Why does advice always sound better if it’s contradictory? Set deadlines more AND give yourself more time? Interesting, I’ll try it.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Ha, it is interesting, but they really do work together. Depends what you’re working on. 🙂

      Reply
  15. Harper Hodges

    Kellie,
    You are so wise. I keep telling my typist to get a good night’s sleep so she is not so crabby and tired the next day. She needs help focusing. Right now she is doing a good job keeping the seven litter boxes clean. But she really needs help focusing on her writing.
    I hope you get your project finished soon, so you have time to look at the clouds and take a nap in a sunbeam.
    All my best,
    xo
    Harper

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Harper,
      I hope your typist gets a good nights rest soon! And I am very much looking forward to that sunbeam!
      Kellie

      Reply
  16. sherpeace

    Kellie,
    I totally agree with these tips, but I think Number 1 has even more to it than you mention. I actually can NOT write my first draft on the PC. I have tried and I find myself censuring every word. When I write (cursive) on paper, it connects me to the right side of my brain, the creative side. If I had tried to type my debut novel’s first draft on my PC, I’d STILL be trying to finish it!
    Thanks so much for your tips!
    Sherrie
    Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
    http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P11Ch5chkAc

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      It’s crazy how much more we can write when we pull out the paper and really use the pen! I love it!
      Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  17. Liz

    A dedicated, consistent time and place. But I need to exercise (medical reasons, really).
    In a duplex with dau & son-in-law, grandkids finally moved out. So, my space is fixed. When the two o them leave in the morning, I write. For the most part I have until noon or 1pm before son-in-law gets off. I just got a treadmill, so I don’t have to worry about “going to the Y”. I write, when I need to think thru a scene or something, I walk. Dialogue seems to work better when I “practice” and I do a lot of talking while walking. I can usually fit in other times during the afternoons, but not on a reg basis. 9pm to midnight also works pretty well. No sales calls, family’s asleep, not much outside traffic noise … It’s amazing how much I can do when I get in my zone.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Liz,
      That’s so great that you have such a solid routine! Love it! Glad you get so much done, I might need to take some of your tips ;)!

      Reply
  18. Luigi Vampa

    Writing on real paper, including the fabulous, fantastic and often inexpensive index cards. You can use them in different colours, outlining and playing with them and this is not only used in screenwriting. Nabokov used them specially in his prep writing phase. I love them.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Ohh! Index cards! That is a great idea. Thanks Luigi!

      Reply
  19. LilianGardner

    Hello Kellie.
    I read your post with interest and actually gave myself a pat on the back because I’m kicking out disctractions just the way you suggest.
    I’ve a room with my desktop PC, stick to a set time for writing, (almost every day), have cut out playing games and such, and limited my tweets, emails, and other Internet ‘distractions’ until I have finished editing my novel.
    I find that sticking to a set time is a super way to go forward with my intent.
    Revision is fun because you don’t need to stare out of the window. The words are there, just waitng to be edited to improve the novel.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Lillian,
      I’m so glad you’re doing so well with the writing and editing! That’s so hard to establish those routines and limit distractions but it’s so worth it! Yay!

      Reply
  20. Precious

    I love these! I find that Pandora tuned into classical music helps me greatly. It puts me in a place of solitude. Ideas and productivity definitely increase!

    Reply
  21. dduggerbiocepts

    Kelly,

    Your Item 4: “There’s even research that proves famous writers’ sleeping habits lead to productivity and more focus.” I would like to take issue with your conclusions about what was proved.

    It’s a subjective human characteristic to assume our personal “needs” are universal to our species. While the science of human creativity (and our understanding) is in reality quite minimal, from a writing perspective our needs to “focus” and how we acquire “focus” are shaped more by circumstances and context than by any scientifically based standard techniques. More often our preferences of how we focus are related to the availability of respective resources – time, space, and interactions which we don’t control (interruptions, distractions, biological imperatives, etc.). I can’t argue the five techniques you listed aren’t constructive to assist in achieving “focus,” but I can argue that none singularly or collectively are actually essential to achieving focus and or successful writing – simply because much of the literary world’s written success has been achieved without these five elements.

    I suggest that you might want to “focus” on your reading and your critical thinking skills and be more careful with your references, descriptions, and your conclusions – in stating what others concluded in their quotes. You referenced an article on “Famous writer’s sleeping habits, vs. literary productivity.” You should note that they “proved” nothing even by its authors own admission – regarding waking times’ relationships with writing productivity/success. Well, other than the necessity of waking.

    “The most important point, perhaps, is a meta one: A reminder that >no specific routine (read waking times) guarantees success,< and the only thing that matters is having a routine and the persistence implicit to one. Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success."

    This referenced article was far from scientific "research" – having no replication (or ability to replicate), no controls, and no analysis for statistical reliability – so it isn't surprising that it failed to "prove" anything. Without the knowledge of each "famous" author's additional context of variables that might be controlling their waking time – the article is quite meaningless – as was its value as a reference in your article on "Focus." At best it is a group of highly selective (and dubiously sourced) author observations of convenience – followed by a completely subjective opinion of its results.

    Again, that isn't what the article's "research" determined. They produced no conclusive data, proved absolutely nothing regarding waking times and or relationships with writing productivity/creativity, and their "conclusions" were as the authors stated below – the opposite of your statement above:

    In a final analysis of your referenced article we might only observe that while waking times did not prove causal to the authors relative successes – quite obviously without persistence – none would have had success regardless of when they awoke – as long as they awoke. In other words "Focus" techniques are nice, but "persistence" is essential to wriitting success.

    Consider that globally authors are now writing well over a million new books per year. When we write a book today we are literally one of that million new books and its associated annual marketing and sales competition universe. With that level of competition in mind, here's a quote for you and your authors that might have more relevance and far more significance than "waking times:"

    "Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts (especially today). Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent." — Calvin Coolidge

    Reply
    • Danka Orihel

      I totally agree with you. I’ve a lot of time to write duting a day,but do all my writing in the evening and at night.
      Persistence is a key to everything we do.

      Reply
  22. Johanne Winwood

    Very useful tips. I’ve found telling myself that this ‘writing ‘ lark is my job, not a hobby, so I just need to get down to it!

    Reply
  23. La finistrella

    Really useful article – thank you so much!
    I was wondering if you could help with my dilemma (potentially similar to many others.)
    I live and work abroad (Italy) have a full time challenging job in a multinational company – but not many new friends yet in the city in which I live. I love to write, have always written, have started an exciting project. I have a few barriers though. 1) I often get bouts of loneliness which makes me feel down – and not in the best frame of mind to write, which is extremely frustrating as technically I have the time in the evenings! Sadly, this dampens my excitement. 2) Apart from timing myself and generally being strict – I find it hard to feel disciplined or really feel the benefit from sitting down alone to write – even though once I do it I tend to feel wonderful. I need someone to check in on me, to keep me in check and be a source of encouragement – when I’m far away from those who would naturally encourage me. Suggestions?! Thank you in advance 🙂

    Reply
    • LilianGardner

      Where do you live? I live in Veneto, ( Delta del Po) Perhaps we could get together because i have the same problem as you do.

      Reply
      • Akshay Kumar

        Hi Lilian, Do you want to increase the sales of your books? I can help you to increase the sales of your books as I am professional book promoter.

        Reply
      • La finistrella

        I live in Pordenone, which is the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region! Interesting that you have the same problem! What do you suggest?

        Reply
        • LilianGardner

          I live in Taglio di Po. There are no English speaking people in my area. Many of them have learnt English as a school subject, but they don’t read. I can’t ask anyone to read and critique my manuscript, or suggest changes, etc:.
          I don’t know if you have the possibility of visitng me, so we can discuss our work. My email address is: liliangardner@gmail.com if you would rather connect with me by email.
          Hoping to hear from you soon.
          Best of luck with your writing.

          Reply
  24. RANDY

    Hi Kelly,
    Liked what you wrote. I’m following a regimen where I get up at 6am, don’t watch TV, skim the headlines of the newspaper etc. I need to play 18-hole golf every four days a week. The ratio is 4( golf)+( write)3=7 days. I only wish there were more days to the week! Just think I don’t take even Sundays off. The pace is slow and steady, not frenetic. I have accomplished some 45 thousand words. I can tweak the golf days, though, and get one full day to write.I’m 61 years. I don’t want to have a more punishing schedule.
    Cheers.
    Randy

    Reply
  25. Brian

    Thanks Kelly for that good advice…here it goes, wish me …happy writing.

    Reply
  26. Azure Darkness Yugi

    I need it this, I get distracted easily.

    Reply
  27. Corrie Ann Gray

    Thanks for this. Focus, or lack there of, has been my downfall this year. For a variety of reasons. I agree that deadlines work, however I find my personal deadlines never keep me accountable. If I am doing something for someone else, I hit the deadline with time to spare.

    Reply
  28. George McNeese

    I got back into the habit of writing first drafts with paper and pen. It’s too easy to edit while typing on a keyboard. I’m not big into deadlines, but it’s something I could benefit from. Deadlines could help me to focus more on getting thecwords down and not worry about being perfect.

    Reply
  29. Dahlia Dowler

    A really interesting technique I came across in a book I was reading was to record your book, especially if you don’t always have the chance to write it down, you can just record a scene on your phone’s voice recorder and write it up later. It works really well as well when writing up dialogue!

    Reply
    • LilianGardner

      thanks for this handy tip. I’ll try it.

      Reply

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