Imagination, interrupted: creative writing requires a lot of control

How often has this happened to you? You sit down to work on a piece of writing for which the deadline is fast approaching. You feel energized and optimistic. Shortly after you begin, the notification alert on your smart phone goes off. Or, a colleague pokes her head in your open door and asks if you have a moment. Or, you look back at the previous sentence you’ve written and decide that it could be worded better. And so on. Taken in isolation, such small interruptions seem harmless. However, each of them disturbs your thought process. After you’ve dealt with the interruption, your brain can take 3 to 5 minutes, or more, to get back on track. There is a better way: follow the suggestions below and take control of your environment and of the writing process. You will free your mind to focus deeply on putting into words the ideas buzzing around in your imagination since your last writing episode.

Happy Hippo

Happy Hippo at Rose Bowl Parade 2014

Control the Writing Environment

Blocking out interruptions begins with asserting control over the context within which you’re writing. Three long-term considerations are particularly important. First, make sure you get enough sleep and begin the writing process well rested. Studies show that a high proportion of the population is not getting enough restful sleep, resulting in inefficient and error-prone work behaviors.

Second, establish a regular time and place for your writing activities. Make sure that you set aside this time for writing only, perhaps by blocking it off as a “busy” period on your calendar and smart phone. Pick a time when it is unlikely that you will have any scheduled meetings and be fiercely protective of that slot. Some writers tell me that they like to work in coffee shops and that the constant buzz of activities doesn’t bother them. I know that some think the “white noise” of such spaces is soothing, but the problem is that somebody you know will see you and want to engage you in conversation. Turning down an invitation to talk with them can be awkward, and the very act of telling them that “I am working” constitutes one of the interruptions that you’re trying to avoid. (I suppose you could always wear some kind of disguise, if you can’t break yourself of the habit of working in a coffee shop!)

Third, turn off all notifications on your PC, laptop, and smart phone. Don’t let your smart machines ping you when somebody posts on Facebook or sends you an email. Although you may have the willpower to resist the fatal attraction of social media’s siren song, marshaling such willpower constitutes another interruption to the train of thought that you may have been working on. Prevent such struggles by simply turning off all alerts.

Three short-term considerations are also important. First, whether you are working in the office or at home, keep the door to the room closed. Take a “do not disturb” card from your last hotel stay and put it on the door. Train people to recognize that when your door is closed, you are working. Drive that point home that by being very approachable only when the door is open. Call to people when they are walking by to indicate that you have switched to another mode. Eventually, you’ll train most of your colleagues and friends to recognize the difference.

Second, rather than just turning off alerts and notifications from your phone, be courageous and turn the phone off. The odds of your receiving a call so important that is worth interrupting your train of thought are vanishingly small for most of us. Reward yourself for an hour or so of productive work by turning on your phone for three minutes and checking for messages. Then, turn it off again!

Third, take planned breaks to designated places. Some authorities recommend working in two-hour sessions, whereas others recommend getting up and walking around at least once every hour. Whatever rhythm you choose, stick to it. Binge writing without taking breaks is ultimately counterproductive, as working until you actually feel tired enough to need a break means that you’ve probably been working inefficiently for quite some time. Set a timer and obey it. (I like old-school hourglass timers, but electronic ones will do.)

Control the Writing Process

If you’ve taken control of the writing environment, you’ve gone about half way toward your goal of blocking interruptions. I use three strategies to control the writing process itself. First, differentiate clearly between “free writing” and “production writing.” Use free writing when you are trying to generate ideas, search for connections between ideas, and explore thoughts wherever your imagination may take you. The major discipline required in free writing is the will to keep writing, even when you’re not sure about the quality of what you’re capturing. Interruptions are deadly to this process because you may never get back to that creative thought you were about to set down on paper when the phone rang. Use production writing, my contrast, when you’ve done enough free writing and research to have discovered the narrative that’s going to unify your paper.

Second, when you’re in production mode, but not free writing mode, work from an outline. My outlines tend to be very structured, sometimes with four or five hierarchical levels, and with headings that signal to me the substance of what is needed in the coming section. The joy of an outline is that even when interruptions occur, you really can’t lose your place. Although I don’t achieve it in every project, my goal is to outline the paper right down to the level of having a few key topic sentences in every subsection. If you have your story or central narrative in mind when you begin the outline, you will find that a few topic sentences in each section serve as reminders of what you’re trying to achieve.

Third, don’t copyedit while you write. Every book or article about production writing makes the same point: draft, then copyedit, but don’t try to do both at the same time. Copy editing is a pernicious form of interruption, as you may feel that you are still “working” because words are appearing on your screen. However, interrupting your train of thought to copyedit risks disrupting the coherence of your narrative and is one more intrusive act from which your brain will need to recover to get back on track. I treat copy editing time as a reward to myself, and generally schedule it as a less stressful part of the writing process whenever I finish a major section.

Summary

Interruptions aren’t accidents! They can only happen if you allow them by not controlling your writing environment and writing process. By preventing interruptions from disrupting your writing, you increase the chances that the words in your document will reflect the flight of your freed imagination, rather than the struggle to complete a coherent thought.

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