Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 23, 2021

ONE Tool That Transforms Your Writing

by Tiffany Yates Martin

I want to tell you about a writing tool that will generate infinite story ideas; that will almost unfailingly allow you to accrue steady word counts; that can help you solve literally any problem in your manuscript.

I know it sounds too good to be true, but this tool works—nearly infallibly—as long as you are using it.

If I promised you a tool like that for your writing, I’m guessing most authors would snatch it up and be eager to start wielding it—but you already own this tool. And I’m betting it often sits neglected in your author toolbox.

It’s your unbroken focus.

Hold on—I know it’s trite to talk about how hard it is to write in a distracted world, but for just one moment, try an exercise with me. For the rest of the day, just pay attention. Make a note—mental or actual—of every time you let your focus on whatever you’re doing or working on slip, even slightly, into something else.

Look at the following:

  • Is your phone the first thing you reach for?

What do you do on it? How long does that take? Actually time it. As you’re getting ready or exercising or walking your dogs, are you reading email, scrolling social media, surfing the internet, texting or talking, reading, listening to a podcast? If you commute, do you listen to books on tape or podcasts or news or music? Talk on the phone?

  • While you’re writing (or working), time your chunks of completely uninterrupted concentration on a task.

Do you get pulled away after a time to “real quick” look at email, or answer a text, or “just check this one thing” you have to know right that moment? Notice how long your distraction lasts. Notice how long it takes when you refocus on your task before your focus starts to slip again. Notice how many times you pick up your phone in an hour, in a day.

  • What if you’re stuck waiting in line or for an appointment—do you immediately reach for your phone?

While you’re watching TV, are you also on the phone or your computer? While reading, do you stop to look things up or take a quick look at social media?

Just notice your behavior for a day—simply pay attention to your uninterrupted attention: where it goes, how often, for how long.

Good writing happens as a result of—at the risk of going Jack Handey on you—deep thoughts. Scattered, shallow thoughts result in underdeveloped, shallow stories. That’s not the kind most of us want to create, but rather the stories that draw readers deeply into their world, that present characters who feel fully fleshed and real, that move readers or make them think or make them see the world in a new way.

And yet most of us are constantly denying our brains that state of full concentration that allows us to fully develop stories like that.

So How Do We Focus?

There’s a Cherokee parable you may be familiar with that I’ll sum up: An elder tells his grandson there are two wolves battling inside each of us, one that is our evil impulses and one that is our good ones.

“Which one wins?” the boy asks.

The grandfather says, “The one you feed.”

Think of your focus as those two wolves: one that allows you to think deeply, concentrate fully, give yourself wholly to your writing—or any pursuit—and one that wants to take you down an internet search rabbit hole or suck you into social media or texts or emails or any other distractions.

If you want to do what computer science professor Cal Newport calls “deep work” in his bestselling book by the same title, feed the first wolf.

Here are a few simple ways you can do that:

  • Pay attention: It sounds like a tautology—you pay attention by paying attention—but simply doing the exercise above as often as you can, noticing where your focus goes, can be a powerful first step in reclaiming it.

When I first did this, I realized that I was flipping between something I was working on and email or the internet about every five or ten minutes. A recent UC-Irvine study found that after your focus is broken it can take 23 minutes to regain it, so in most cases I never actually fully got my focus back before I broke it again.

How can we solve thorny plot problems, deeply develop character, or even stay oriented to the world of our stories if we are constantly fragmenting our thoughts?

  • Focus on what you’re focusing on. Another seeming tautology, this one helps me keep my attention where I want it. Staying focused is like strength training—you can’t phone it in or slack off; you have to maintain the proper form and sustain the action for the full number of reps or you won’t build those muscles. And just as in weight training, the more consistently you do it, the stronger those muscles get.

It will be hard at first.

Even with the intention of concentrating on a certain thing for a period of time, I’m startled at how often I notice a powerful, insidious pull to “fact check” something really quickly, or bop into email, or just take a quick peek at social media for a brain break, or go grab a snack—especially if what I’m working on is hard or I don’t want to do it.

You can look up that perfect word or obscure research detail later. I make a quick note in brackets when I’m stuck on something to remind me to come back and fix it, e.g., “[something funny here]” or “[research time it takes to refocus].” And then I keep writing. Remember every time you stop to look something up, it will take you 23 minutes to get that deep focus back.

Strategies for Success

Multitasking is a myth, as countless studies have proven. Human brains cannot effectively focus on more than one task at a time. What you’re actually doing is breaking your form. Set blocks of time—whatever works best for you (I like 30 to 90 minutes at a pop)—where you resolve not to allow your truculent brain to wander anywhere else, at all, and rigidly stick to it.

  • Put away your phone: Don’t just silence the ringer—keep your phone in another room while you’re writing. A University of Texas study found that simply having a phone nearby interferes with your brain function—even if it’s off, a stunning effect. We existed for many years without being able to be contacted instantly, and the chances of there being a true emergency that requires specifically and only you in the time block you set aside for writing are small.
  • Take breaks. Your brain works on problems subconsciously as well as consciously, so trying to bulldoze your concentration for too long could undermine this essential aspect of deep thinking.

Having an off switch is good—your brain needs the rest, and often the problems you’ve been focusing on will keep perking in the background while you give it one. The trick is to make sure you’re doing it intentionally, rather than your focus being hijacked, and that it’s true downtime, not more of that same kind of distraction, leaping from thought to random thought like a capuchin monkey trained by our habitual lack of focus.

Stand up, take a walk, do jumping jacks, play with your kids or pets, even scroll social media if you must. (Though be aware it’s literally designed to suck your brain and be addictive.) Just be sure to keep the break to a defined period of time so it doesn’t leak into the rest of your focus blocks for the day.

You might also work on something else that requires less focus or a different part of your brain. I often switch from deep editing, for instance, to a brief break of something like working on my website redesign, or writing a blog post, or interviewing an author for my How Writers Revise feature.

  • Let yourself be “bored.” Too often we reach for distraction the moment we aren’t “doing something,” like in the enforced downtime of waiting in line or for an appointment, traveling, exercising, etc. Instead, try using this time for specific focused thought: Keep your mind on task unraveling an issue you’re struggling with in your story, for instance, or work through your plot or character development. Make sure you do it in a concrete way, not idle flitting thoughts loosely related to the topic.

Give yourself that quiet, focused downtime for deep thinking where ideas are born, where story knots are worked out. You may find you’re never bored.

And stay present in those moments where you are gathering information for your storytelling (in other words, life), rather than burying your head—and your focus—in your computer or your phone. Don’t lose the present moment by “leaving” it with your distracted attention. Everyday experiences—both your own and those you observe—are rich fodder for story. Let yourself fully live them.

  • Practice…again and again. Just as in meditation, when we learn to bring our wayward thoughts back over and over and over, you may have to do the same with your wandering concentration. It’s hard, as I’m learning daily each time I think I’m focusing and I notice my concentration has drifted. That’s okay. Don’t judge or get upset with yourself—simply bring your focus back to the task at hand as soon as you notice it wandered. Like any habit, it will take time to really internalize it.

How about you, authors--do you find your focus to be slippery when you’re writing? How often? What distractions fracture your attention? What techniques do you have to combat them? Please share your story down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York TimesWashington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels, including the upcoming The Way We Weren't (Nov., Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.

Image by Thomas B. from Pixabay

35 comments on “ONE Tool That Transforms Your Writing”

  1. Absolutely love this! Thanks for sharing the reminder. The struggle to achieve focus is an ever increasing challenge in our world, but very rewarding!

    1. I've been astonished not just to see how often my focus was fractured, but how much more productive I can be when I guard it more carefully--and how much more creative. I also get a lot more satisfaction--and work fewer hours. It's been a revelation.

      This way of thinking also seems to help us reevaluate what our priorities actually are, and where our time is best spent to contribute to them. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Deleyna. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Block the internet for a set period of time - it's the only way I can focus. I use a little program called Freedom on my Mac.

    I can get out of Freedom by restarting - which takes a few minutes.

    Somehow I rarely do.

    That plus writing in the Journal what the heck is keeping me from writing THIS scene, TODAY.

    And a set of checklists I've put together from various sources that provide me with all the material I might need for the scene before I start trying to write it.

    You're right: focus.

    1. Oh, I LOVE Freedom! I used that for a couple of years too--really helpful (and that peaceful little green butterfly makes it seem less bossy).

      I like your approach of journaling about the block. It seems like that would at least kick-start the writing muscles--and also let you pay attention to what's breaking your focus. That's been key to me in maintaining it.

      Also love your checklists to prep you and get you in the right mind-set. It's sort of like making sure we know what our characters want before they "enter" a scene, isn't it? If we define our goal or purpose before each writing session, that can be so helpful. I do a version of that whenever I'm creating a webinar or course or article: Before I start I think about the core of what I actually want to convey, and my purpose in doing that. It really helps keep me on track.

      I'll dare to speak for lots of readers and say that if you wanted to post links to some of those checklists, no one would be mad at you for it. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Alicia.

      1. Thanks for the offer. Here is one of those posts with a checklist, based on Donald Maass' excellent book on writing, The Fire in Fiction. 'Left brain' and 'right brain' are no longer considered physical separations, but it still works to think of them as different (logical, intuitive) ways of looking at work. And the concept I propose, switching from one way to the other deliberately and/or when having trouble writing, works for me every day. I believe you can copy the image.

          1. When I become famous (note the when, not if 🙂 ), I'll do my own 'How to write despite being of very little brain' book. There are techniques that could help anyone, techniques only we get/need, and a lot of things in between.

            But no one listens to you if you don't know what you're talking about. Publishing - and then selling - is the proof. Working on it. VERY slowly.

              1. You have my email address; I'd like that - or send me your address, and we can work something out.

                My blog is at liebjabberings.wordpress.com - I have over 600 posts, the vast majority about writing topics.

  3. It's true, every word you said, about focus slipping away. I find myself doing the research 'now' instead of putting a note to do it later. And I do the 'just a quick look at my emails', although my phone is usually in another room.

    1. Because it's SO DAMN SEDUCTIVE. 🙂

      I like what Cal Newport (author of Deep Work) says about this. He talks about it not mattering how long your focus blocks are when you are completely cut off from all distractions, or how many you have, as long as when you are in one you honor it rigidly. It's sort of like addicts (which it's so easy to be with social media and the internet--it's designed to impact the same area of our brains): You have to completely avoid the thing you are addicted to, not "cut back." It helps me a lot to promise myself I can do whatever that pressing urge is later, after my focus block is over, but I try to be absolutely inflexible about honoring one while I'm in it.

      Good for you on putting the phone in another room. That was a huge one for me, but once I tried it, it was revelatory! And freeing. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Truth! When you hear it, sometimes it's painful. I love to become distracted by having to do a bit of research or to wander in the kitchen for a snack. I find that I unravel my thorniest plot problems when I am doing a mundane physical task that releases my mind to wander. We need more of the down times for sure.

    1. Yes! That was a hugely helpful tip for me too--both to use that "downtime" as key focus time, working out something I'm working on in a very deliberate and focused way, rather than just random thoughts...but also taking true downtime where I shut it all off and just live. Realizing the subconscious brain is still working gave me "permission" (sort of sad that I needed that)--but it really works. I feel guilty for now continuing to gnaw on a problem I may be working out, even after my workday (or when I'm trying to fall asleep...UGH), but when I can actually genuinely stop it, I find my brain works much better and quicker when I am using it consciously.

      Thanks for the comment, Irtrovi.

  5. Tiffany, thank you for this ammunition! My husband retired last year, and I've had to train him not to walk into the dining room where I write and tell me about the bird he just saw outside, or his latest thoughts on renovating the basement. Grrr. He's getting better, but I can tell him there are studies that prove how disrupting it is to my thought process.

    1. Those distractions are so hard! I have found it helps to post my "office hours" when needed--times when I will be incommunicado for a time.

      But I have to say I also prioritize some things--I do try to pay attention to my husband if he has something he's eager to tell me. Sometimes I think it can steal someone's thunder to say, "Not now" when they are excited to share something, so I will often stop whatever I'm doing to listen at those times. To me that's less of an egregious violation of my focus time than the internet or social media--it serves one of my highest values (my important relationships), which is my whole point in doing this. I've noticed myself sometimes feeling as if he's distracting me FROM MY DISTRACTIONS, which really made me reconsider my feelings about "interruptions."

      Of course, if it's something less pressing--logistics, a minor observation, etc.--I do sometimes ask if it's okay if we talk about it after my focus block or after work. I am so type A I will actually often make a list of those things so I don't forget to bring us back to them later. 🙂

      It's a balancing act, isn't it? I love that you honor your work that way--I think taking ourselves and our art seriously like that is the first positive step toward creating focus. Thanks for the thoughts, Karen.

  6. Great advice, thank you. What you said about scattered thoughts producing weak plots and characters resonated deeply. I have recently had a manuscript returned, with a great rejection letter pointing me towards better characterisation, deeper insight. So your article is bang on target, on time!

    1. Glad to hear that! And congrats on the excellent rejection letter--those are the best kind, not just actionable but so positive, letting you know you're on the right track.

      I started really working on this when I began noticing how fragmented my attention felt, and how it was for me to feel truly focused and stay that way. It's not at all like me. It was a relief to see how common this is, and to learn the reasons for it--and I always love having an "action plan" to attain the objectives that matter to me: in this case bringing my full attention and concentration to my pursuits, and working at peak mentally.

      Hope revisions go well, Glenda, and that you're able to dig deep into those characters. Thanks for the comment!

  7. This was an invaluable post and an excellent reminder. Thank you! I've been following a lot of what you recommend, yet it's a continual battle. It's me against electronics, against the internet, against those who "don't see what the big deal is."

    My life changed in June 2020. I live alone and no longer work, yet wasn't managing even four hours per day on any aspect of writing. On the day I'll never forget, I checked my phone at my desk, set it down, and then picked it back up. I'm sure I'd done it a million times, but that day I froze. I would swear the room tilted. Maybe the world. My towering denial crumbled and it was horrifying. I removed the phone from my desk and more changes followed.

    With awareness came the realization that much of what surrounds us, especially the internet, is more than seductive, it's almost predatory. It teeters on the edge of threatening. Don't leave or you'll lose this deal. Shifting the cursor to leave a site sparks a rash of messages to stop what you're doing. Ad after ad in your periphery vision telling you what a loser you are and only they have the answer. It's nothing new, of course. What's new is that the message is unrelenting.

    Since that painful day in 2020, my time has more than doubled. With greater focus has come greater productivity because I'm more engaged. Insights and ideas have soared. Yet, like I say, the battle continues—every day. Yesterday was one of those days so your post today was timely. I thank you for that.

    1. This is fascinating, Christina--how striking that you had such a visceral reaction. I don't think you're overstating this. I keep delaying watching The Social Network because I think it's going to be terrifying--and sobering, almost literally in the sense that I expect it might shine an undeniable light on the addictive quality that's designed into these diversions.

      Newport makes a strong and compelling case in Deep Work for quitting social media altogether. I know that's hard for writers and other creatives who are hoping to reach their audiences, but it has made me be more deliberate and mindful about what I'll mortgage my time and focus to--what matters to me at the core.

      The more I do this focus work, the more I find I have time and attention for the things that fulfill me so much more than social media or web surfing: my editing, writing, teaching, course creation, etc. And more time for my family too, honestly, as I'm so much more productive I'm able to stop work--and leave it behind me--to focus on my husband and family and friends and dogs and the other things that make my life meaningful.

      It's an ongoing effort, though, isn't it? If we're not vigilant it's easy for these distractions to seep back in. Thanks for the thoughtful comment and insight.

  8. This is one of the most impactful posts I've read in a long time. I'll do the focusing exercises. I'm letting myself be distracted constantly by everything on my to do list and all the rabbit holes I jump in and out of all day long. As a result, I'm giving so much short shrift, especially my writing. Thanks for this, Tiffany!

    1. That's so nice to hear, Barb--thanks. This really has been transformative for me--and remarkable. I keep being amazed how much I get done in a relatively short time--but also how much more focused I feel in general. I felt like I was fighting through mental fog sometimes, and constantly trying to wrangle my wayward attention. This makes me feel a lot more "present" more of the time--but I do notice it's not something I can take for granted and relax into or I slip back into old patterns. Kind of like working out--if I want the results I have to keep being consistent with exercise. (Dammit...) 🙂

      Hope some of these ideas are helpful. I do recommend the Newport book, and I'm reading one now by Daniel Goleman (the Emotional Intelligence guy) called Focus that's also useful. Thanks for the kind words!

  9. Tiffany,

    This is such an extremely insightful and valuable post. Though I've written and published a number of novels and stories, I could do so much more if I could focus. I'm a hard-core news junkie and the pandemic has only made that worse. I'll be practicing improving my focus daily from now on, and your strategies will help a great deal. I can't thank you enough.

    1. Thanks so much, Dale. I hope you get as much out of it as I have since I started using these "focus blocks" of uninterrupted concentration. Besides being more productive and clearer-headed, I find I'm enjoying what I'm doing more, and have more satisfaction in the doing of it (rather than just having done it--checked something off my to-do list).

      The news and current world environment really do make it more challenging, don't they? I was pretty hard-core on news too for the last five or six years and finally had to step back. There's a great line from the Tom Hanks movie Bridge of Spies where he asks a jailed German spy why he isn't more worried that if found guilty he'll face execution, and the man says calmly, "Would it help?" 🙂 I try to remind myself of that whenever I feel I "have" to check the latest headline or stay completely current about every news event. Would it help...?

      It does help to focus on my end goals, too--what I want out of a day, a block of time, my life. That helps me remind myself what to prioritize my time and attention on.

      Thanks for the comment!

  10. Maybe the Pandemic has turned many of us to look within! I've been on a Discovery tour with myself in the hard lockdowns that Victoria Australia has experienced. I'm in my twilight years, with a huge life - and now is the time to work on the 30 plus years of writings that are in my cabinets, drawers and yes, on my desk (this is being tended to..) I'm a storyteller and so giving myself permission to go ahead. I practice Mindfulness, and with Fibromyalgia, doing Tai Chi and Yoga breathing and balance. A regime that is paramount to my wellbeing. The Cherokee wisdom is a favorite of mine. Feed the good wolf is the way to go. And not being too hard on myself, as the journey is the thing. Sitting and signing my books may not happen; but I'm practicing to progress, not aim for perfection. We've never had the press button access to the world as now - I'm happy to cocoon myself in my study and do what's vital to my wellbeing. I do have more of a caring role now with my beautiful husband - but we're blessed to be able to laugh and also cry at harsh realities of being alive and challenged. Not overload of news is a help - as a lot of poison is there, so not to grab hold is the recipe for Wellbeing. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. Thanks for being so honest. I was told a long time ago that I'm more American than Aussie with wanting to express what I feel. But like the Hippocratic Oath - first do no harm. (but in our stories you can tell it like it is). Sandra Marie

    1. I love this, Sandra: " I'm practicing to progress, not aim for perfection." I try to remind myself all the time that good enough is good enough, and it's the doing that matters, not a certain result. Love that you're writing for yourself and letting yourself enjoy it--as part of honoring yourself. Sorry to hear about your fibromyalgia--that's a tough one to navigate.

      Hope you're enjoying your cocoon! Thanks for the comment.

  11. Thank you for this gift of a post! Yesterday after reading it, I was like a dog chasing squirrels and distracted. Today, I turned off my laptop's internet connection for 1 hour writing sprints and wow, what a difference in productivity! Thank you for your insights!

    1. That's fantastic, Susan! I was so surprised to see how much of a difference this simple tool makes in my productivity and creativity. Plus I feel more focused in general--not so stressed and fragmented much of the time. I'm so happy this is helpful. Thanks for the comment!

  12. This is brilliant. I knew focus was a huge part of my issue. But you framed all of this in an original way that helped me understand better what was happening and what I could do about it.

    I bought a “forever” subscription to Freedom ages ago. But haven’t hardly used it. Now? Because of your post? I’ll start using this app on all my devices.

    FYI for anyone curious about a Freedom:

    Thank you so much for this enlightening post!

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