Writing Tips: Avoiding Distractions

Write where and when you can write.

The other day, one of my Twitter friends tweeted:

At XYZ, writing. Or trying to. This place is insanely distracting on… um… many levels. This place could be trouble for me.

This statement mystified me and I @replied to him to get clarification:

Trying to understand why you’d go to a distracting place to write. What is XYZ?

His reply:

XYZ is a coffee shop. Lots of creative energy, and I have headphones. First time working here; underestimated the place.

But my statement remains: Why would anyone go to a distracting — or even potentially distracting — place to write?

We’re Not J.K. Rowlings

Anyone who is serious about writing knows about J.K. Rowling. She supposedly wrote the first Harry Potter book longhand, in a coffee shop. Apparently, the coffee shop was owned by her brother-in-law — although I’m not sure whether that makes a difference. But the story has given rise to a certain idea that bestselling books can be written in cafes and coffee shops.

Reality check here: What works for one woman doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else. Did Rowling write all the books in a coffee shop? And what was that coffee shop like? Was it a bustling, high-energy place with lots of traffic, music, and noise? Or a quiet cafe off the main drag where people normally gathered to read, write, and drink coffee amidst the soft sounds of classical music?

In other words, was the place conducive to writing?

Distraction reduces productivity.

The above statement should not be necessary. We should all be aware of the fact that the more distraction we have in our workplace, the less real work we’re likely to get done.

I know this from experience. I’ve been writing for a living since 1990. I don’t write in coffee shops or anywhere else I’m likely to be distracted by what’s going on around me. Heck, these days I have enough trouble finding a distraction-free workplace in my own office.

Distractions give me excuses to procrastinate. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m procrastinating. Let me just answer these few e-mails before i get to work. I’d better catch up on my tweets before I get to work. This link (in an e-mail or a tweet) looks interesting; I’d better follow it now before I forget. I told so-and-so I’d call this week; better do it now to get it over with. The latest episode of House is on Hulu; may as well tune in while I finish these e-mails. It never ends.

I can’t even imagine trying to work in a coffee shop, which likely has WiFi — why visit one that doesn’t these days? — so I have most of the distractions of my home office with me on my laptop, along with the distractions that are part of a coffee shop.

Again, this is me. But I’m willing to bet that, like me, most of us can get a lot more work done without distractions. There’s really no reason to add more to the mix by purposely trying to work in what’s likely to be a distracting place.

Concentrate and Create

I write best and fastest when I can focus on the task at hand. That means eliminating all distractions and putting just my work and related notes in front of me. That means making conscious effort to avoid the things that I know will distract me.

For me, that means doing the following:

  • Clearing off my desk of all non-work material. That means putting away (or at least piling elsewhere) what might be in an “In Box.” Sometimes it even means wiping down the desk surface so it’s free of dust or coffee rings. The only thing on my desk should be my outline or notes.
  • Quitting non-essential software. That includes my e-mail client, my Web browser (usually; sometimes I do need it), and my Twitter client.
  • Loading up all the software I need to get the job done. Opening all applications and documents I need to work with before I start eliminates the need to hunt through the applications and documents folder on my hard disk, where other distractions await me. Depending on what I’m writing, I usually need Microsoft Word or InDesign and Photoshop. (I do layout for some of my books, so I actually write those books in InDesign. I use Photoshop for all image editing needs.) If I’m blogging, I use ecto for offline composition and usually have my browser running to get reference material (like the links to software here). I have tried distraction-free writing tools like Scrivener and StoryMill and I don’t like them. I’ve been using Word since 1989 and have written numerous books about it. I know Word 2004 better than any other program I use; why would I want to waste time learning a new word processing program when Word works just fine for me? (Want to read more of my opinion on special writing software? Read “Software isn’t Always the Answer.”)
  • Turning down (or off) the music. I can often focus with certain types of music on, but when I’m struggling with a topic or having difficulty focusing, the music needs to be turned off. In any case, its volume must be turned down and I absolutely cannot listen to podcasts.
  • Setting the climate control properly. This really only applies in the winter (when my office on the north side of the house seems to get cold) or the summer (when the whole damn house can get hot). There’s nothing I hate more than getting into “the zone” and suddenly realizing that I’m shivering in my chair.
  • Closing my door. Not always necessary, but when Alex the Bird decides to spend 15 minutes imitating the failing battery in a smoke detector, a good door slam can turn him off. If my husband is home, it can also filter out the sound of the movie or football game he’s listening to with surround sound upstairs.
  • Turning off the phone. This is only when I get really desperate to get work done. In general, I don’t get many calls, but a call from a friend or family member can keep me from my work for an hour or more.

Once I get focused, I can churn out finished prose — or even laid-out book pages — at an alarming rate. (I once wrote a 350-page book in 10 days.) My work needs very little editing before it’s published. My editors, for the most part, like me very much because I’m reliable and dependable and make their jobs easier than many other authors.

But that’s because when I’m working, I’m working.

Get Serious!

I believe that a serious approach to writing is what sets professional writers apart from amateur or wannabe writers.

As a professional writer, I must write and I must finish what I write by a predetermined deadline. I don’t have time for bullshit like distractions that might slow me down. I build my best writing environment — like a bird builds a nest — and I climb into it to write. I don’t emerge unless I have to go to the bathroom (which is in the room next to my office) or my stomach is so empty I can’t think over the sound of its growling. (Sometimes, when I really get in the zone, I can go a whole day without eating or drinking.) On tight deadlines, I start at 6 AM and often work until 6 PM. I sometimes work 7-day workweeks. It’s what I do because it’s what I must do.

If I don’t produce publishable prose when I’m contracted to do so, I won’t get paid, I won’t get future work, and I will likely have to join the 9 to 5 grind I’ve managed to avoid for nearly 20 years.

My Two Cents

I didn’t write this post to criticize my Twitter friend or anyone else who tries to write in coffee shops or cafes. I just wrote it to share my own take on the topic of working in a place full of distractions. I say avoid it when you can — if you’re serious about getting work done.

As for “creative energy” — well, that’s a topic for another post.

3 thoughts on “Writing Tips: Avoiding Distractions

  1. Fair comments. There are longer term benefits however that can be achaived as a result from working with yur tribe in a coffee shop. For telecomuters, home business operators or home workers, working in a coffee shop can give them the people interaction that working day in day out from a room in your house misses.

    Of course, if you have something critical to get done or tight deadlines, you can always stay home to make sure yuo work in a less distracting environ.

  2. Great points as usual. And as someone who has been lucky enough to be your editor, I can confirm that you are appreciated for delivering top-quality work on time!

    Successful writers do learn what works for them — and they avoid the things that *don’t* work. For example, I can be my most productive in certain kinds of “distracting” environments, such as airport gates. The bustle of meaningless activity forces me to block out the noise and concentrate, where other distractions (like a TV) pull my attention away. I can’t imagine writing in a public “office” environment where I’d hear other people on the phone.

    I have also learned the times of day when I am most effective at certain tasks. I simply cannot write when I’m tired, so I no longer try. Late afternoons are my time for phone calls, e-mail or research. I do my best to crank out words early in the morning or early in the afternoon and to schedule the day accordingly.

    I don’t think that there’s any Right or Wrong way to write… as long as you write. The trick is to figure out what works for you, and to creatively feather one’s nest to accommodate those needs.

What do you think?