07 January 2009

Cory Doctorow: Writing in the Age of Distraction

from Locus Magazine, January 2009

We know that our readers are distracted and sometimes even overwhelmed by the myriad distractions that lie one click away on the Internet, but of course writers face the same glorious problem: the delirious world of information and communication and community that lurks behind your screen, one alt-tab away from your word-processor.

The single worst piece of writing advice I ever got was to stay away from the Internet because it would only waste my time and wouldn't help my writing. This advice was wrong creatively, professionally, artistically, and personally, but I know where the writer who doled it out was coming from. Every now and again, when I see a new website, game, or service, I sense the tug of an attention black hole: a time-sink that is just waiting to fill my every discretionary moment with distraction. As a co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches, I know just how short time can be and how dangerous distraction is.

But the Internet has been very good to me. It's informed my creativity and aesthetics, it's benefited me professionally and personally, and for every moment it steals, it gives back a hundred delights. I'd no sooner give it up than I'd give up fiction or any other pleasurable vice.

I think I've managed to balance things out through a few simple techniques that I've been refining for years. I still sometimes feel frazzled and info-whelmed, but that's rare. Most of the time, I'm on top of my workload and my muse. Here's how I do it:

  • Short, regular work schedule

    When I'm working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I'm working on it. It's not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it's entirely possible to make it all shut up for 20 minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there's always 20 minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn't become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day's page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you've already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.

  • Leave yourself a rough edge

    When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you're in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you're in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day's knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the "hint." Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it's hard to build on a smooth edge.

  • Don't research

    Researching isn't writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don't. Don't give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day's idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type "TK" where your fact should go, as in "The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite." "TK" appears in very few English words (the one I get tripped up on is "Atkins") so a quick search through your document for "TK" will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards. And your editor and copyeditor will recognize it if you miss it and bring it to your attention.

  • Don't be ceremonious

    Forget advice about finding the right atmosphere to coax your muse into the room. Forget candles, music, silence, a good chair, a cigarette, or putting the kids to sleep. It's nice to have all your physical needs met before you write, but if you convince yourself that you can only write in a perfect world, you compound the problem of finding 20 free minutes with the problem of finding the right environment at the same time. When the time is available, just put fingers to keyboard and write. You can put up with noise/silence/kids/discomfort/hunger for 20 minutes.

  • Kill your word-processor

    Word, Google Office and OpenOffice all come with a bewildering array of typesetting and automation settings that you can play with forever. Forget it. All that stuff is distraction, and the last thing you want is your tool second-guessing you, "correcting" your spelling, criticizing your sentence structure, and so on. The programmers who wrote your word processor type all day long, every day, and they have the power to buy or acquire any tool they can imagine for entering text into a computer. They don't write their software with Word. They use a text-editor, like vi, Emacs, TextPad, BBEdit, Gedit, or any of a host of editors. These are some of the most venerable, reliable, powerful tools in the history of software (since they're at the core of all other software) and they have almost no distracting features — but they do have powerful search-and-replace functions. Best of all, the humble .txt file can be read by practically every application on your computer, can be pasted directly into an email, and can't transmit a virus.

  • Realtime communications tools are deadly

    The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer's ecosystem of interruption technologies: IM, email alerts, RSS alerts, Skype rings, etc. Anything that requires you to wait for a response, even subconsciously, occupies your attention. Anything that leaps up on your screen to announce something new, occupies your attention. The more you can train your friends and family to use email, message boards, and similar technologies that allow you to save up your conversation for planned sessions instead of demanding your attention right now helps you carve out your 20 minutes. By all means, schedule a chat — voice, text, or video — when it's needed, but leaving your IM running is like sitting down to work after hanging a giant "DISTRACT ME" sign over your desk, one that shines brightly enough to be seen by the entire world.

I don't claim to have invented these techniques, but they're the ones that have made the 21st century a good one for me.

Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:

Comments are welcome, but are moderated.


At Thursday, January 08, 2009 2:30:00 AM, Blogger A.R.Yngve said...

I recently became a parent too, so I sympathize. (Who knew that babies needed their diapers changed so often?)

Totally agree about Instant Messaging. I never use it.

At Thursday, January 08, 2009 3:49:00 PM, Blogger Gary Kemble said...

Thanks Cory! You've just redefined my writing habits.

I'm constantly sucked into the Wikipedia/research sink hole -- no more!

All the best, Gary

At Friday, January 09, 2009 12:32:00 AM, Blogger Evren K. said...

Yes, thank you very much. I'm struggling to make an habit out of the 20 minutes thing... You just gave me one more reason to succeed and work on my writing projects.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 12:35:00 AM, Blogger Cory said...

Incidentally, you just described my work day--except I am one of those programmers who only uses vim to edit text files.

- short work schedule: rather than one page, my goal is usually to resolve one bug. (As a manager, that's about all I can handle.)

- leave a rough edge: while coding, I deliberately leave syntax errors where I know work is needed later. It's a lot more sure than typing a "FIXME" comment in, because you literally can't run the program without going back to where you left off.

- don't research: yeah, man, I need to learn that trick a little better. Researching cool software components to use is as insidious as looking up the brooklyn bridge on wikipedia, trust me. Now I need to think of a way to make "TK" replace my software research.

- don't be ceremonious: you got that right. This is a big one. I'll try to work in my office, but if I'm talking to someone and an idea for improving the code comes to me, I will walk over, get my laptop, bring it back, and work on my bug. Right there with them. The inspiration to code doesn't wait for ceremony.

- kill your word processor: vim. duh.

- realtime communication: I wouldn't bother training your friends not to use IM - if you're serious about 20 minutes a day, they can freakin' wait. Just shut it off for 20, that can't be hard. At worst your friends will think you're ignoring them, and since it's only 20 minutes, what do you care? Far more likely they'll think you're on the crapper. ;-) So just turn it off.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 1:14:00 AM, Blogger Via said...

The research sinkhole is my trap, now that you mention it. The TK tip is handy. ty

At Friday, January 09, 2009 2:22:00 AM, Anonymous chw said...

Good point about research here. Sometimes I do mine immediately, sometimes later; and while I had't thought about it before, in retrospect it seems to me you're right about its distractive potential. (Okay, so what's a good German equivalent for TK...?)

Best, C.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 2:27:00 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

Thanks Cory, your post totally distracted me from my work

At Friday, January 09, 2009 3:32:00 AM, Anonymous <a href="http://www.mikeboyd.com.au">Mike Boyd</a> said...

Great post Cory!

Some very basic but effective points you've raised there. I particularly struggle with interruptions from social media's and instant messaging which I can't seem to draw myself away from.

I will try to implement some of your strategies in 2009 and monitor the progress.

Thanks again,


At Friday, January 09, 2009 3:41:00 AM, Anonymous daen said...

"Little and often" sounds like some very good advice to me - certainly for the actual writing. But how about planning a story? Do you do that differently, or do you treat that as "meta" writing - same rules, different outcome?

On a somewhat unrelated note, I wish the "little and often" approach worked better for software development in open plan offices. Some days it seemed like I had twelve or fifteen 20 minute disconnected segments to work in rather than four or five hours contiguously. The problem I have with doing software development in that "little and often" way is the amount of contextual switching involved: sometimes it can take you 20 minutes or more just to set up the right conditions for a particular debugging session, for instance, let alone actually doing the debugging. Coming back to that after doing user support was not easy. Conclusion: software development and open plan offices don't mix well, especially in small companies where IT work is less differentiated.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 4:37:00 AM, Anonymous Runa said...

It's worth a try, Thanks! :)

At Friday, January 09, 2009 5:08:00 AM, Blogger Bryan said...

Your suggestion to leave a "rough edge" is a great one, and something I'd never considered before. Too often, I spend the last 20 minutes of a writing session reviewing what I've done for the day, polishing repeatedly so I can put the day's work "to bed" and feel a sense of completion when I step away from the keyboard. But the next morning, I'm staring at another isolated, blinking cursor, wondering how I will leap into it _this_ time. Having a hanging thread to grasp onto could help me swing into action. Thanks.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 6:25:00 AM, Anonymous Stephen R. Smith said...

I have to agree, and yet even knowing all of this I still get sucked into chats, or the internet instead of writing in those moments I've decided to write. Knowing what to do is half the battle, actually doing what you have to do is critical.

Just like being able to write doesn't make you a writer, you actually have to write. Sounds simple, but the implementation seems to be tricky.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 6:32:00 AM, Anonymous Dan Brendstrup said...

Solid suggestions.

I do all of my academic writing in TextMate which, much like your journalist's trick, lets me borrow the programmer's convention of marking up my text with FIXME and TODO marks for stuff that needs revising or research.

A quick ctrl-shift-T then pulls up the TODO-bundle's window which shows me all the stuff that needs fixing, with links to the corresponding places in the document.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 6:35:00 AM, Blogger Wendy said...

very nice indeed!

i know some phd-sufferers -> people (trying to) writ(e)(-ing) a phd -> these tips are a big help for them too!!



At Friday, January 09, 2009 6:44:00 AM, OpenID strugglingwriter said...

Great advice Cory. I'll have to make an effort to follow thest.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 6:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to look up "TK" and spent a half hour reading about magazine editing terminology. I think I'm doing this wrong.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 8:24:00 AM, Blogger Maryn McKenna said...

Awesome advice. I'm finishing a book ms, and already live by "regular work schedule" (wish I could say it was short) and "leave a rough edge," which is lovely phrasing (my version is, "Stop when you know what you're going to do next"). I use a dashboard timer (3-2-1, BaldGeeks.com) that freezes the screen and tells me "Take a break" the last 10 minutes of every hour; that's when I check email, Twitter etc. (because you have to breathe and stretch anyway). I can hold off on them for 50 minutes because I know that 10 minutes is coming.

But oh man, that "don't research" is brilliant. That's the black hole I fall down, every time, and it seems a lot of others of us here do too.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 8:36:00 AM, Anonymous Madeline said...

Thank you for this. I'll try to keep these tips in mind as I work on my thesis (and all my fiction projects).

The "rough edge" tip reminds me of something Haruki Murakami says in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, about how he always leaves a little extra to do at the end of his fiction-writing time so that he'll know exactly where to start the next day.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 9:58:00 AM, Anonymous Kay said...

I personally find a web gadget very handy in keeping myself undistracted when I sit down for my 20 minutes: http://lab.drwicked.com/writeordie.html -- Write or Die starts turning bright pink if I'm in an IM window for too long, and it makes a punishing sound or sends up a pop-up if I've tabbed away to do too much research or check my email.

In short, it punishes you for your wandering attention, and I find that's exactly what I need.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 10:00:00 AM, Blogger J M McDermott said...

I've always thought of my own writing in this way. The final product I produce will be competing for attention span with the entire internet, kids, dogs, tv, movies, and etc.

If whatever I am writing cannot keep me interested long enough to avoid all those other things, how can I expect it to pull the reader away from all those things?

Thus, when I am writing, and I find myself distracted, I know I must do something to the prose to make it more interesting or engaging.

In this way, I've found the internet and the preponderance of distractions in the world a helpful tool, as well!

At Friday, January 09, 2009 10:10:00 AM, Blogger jordan said...

Good stuff. I shut off my wireless card when it's time to write, and crack open TextEdit, which is refreshingly feature-free!

(I use [?] as my come-back-and-research-it market, but TK is way faster)

At Friday, January 09, 2009 10:50:00 AM, Blogger EHS Director said...

Nice wrap up on distractions... you will enjoy comparing this list to
menshealth productivity list.

The people who really meant this to be a 'productivity list' in
really need to try actually working (amazing ;>)

Imagine working next to 'one of these' guys while writing....

At Friday, January 09, 2009 11:55:00 AM, Blogger Evonne @ Amoration said...

Thank you, there's a few tips here I haven't tried yet. A friend of mine, a TV writer, told me to block out 4 hours a day and WRITE no matter what, but I find it impossible to do more than an hour at a time unless it's 3AM and the muse is burning. Your 20 minutes model seems perfect for my short attention span.

Oh, and SIGN OFF all of your chat systems before you start writing! Going idle or away is not enough and friends get frustrated that you're not responding in a timely manner....training them to use email only is an even better solution. I turn my phone ringer off for writing days too.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 12:06:00 PM, Blogger Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for "TK" — I'd never heard of it.

Re: being ceremonious: in his book Creative Reading, the poet Ron Padgett has an account of his teenaged attempt to create an ideal reading environment — pillows, background music, a Do Not Disturb sign, cold drinks, and cookies. The only problem: he ended up falling asleep.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 1:08:00 PM, Blogger Ken said...

Great stuff Cory. You are so right about the distractions that can derail a writer.

I've been using a great program called WriteRoom lately. It's a very simple word processor such as you would have found on an early pc or mac. No distractions whatsoever. Just amber type on a black background that is full screen. You can change those colors to your own preference, but those are mine. It's worth checking out.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 1:19:00 PM, Anonymous Joe Clark said...

Keep in mind that Doctorow is a workaholic who has no use for “typesetting,” so his advice may be inapplicable to someone who has a hard time getting started, just doesn’t know what to write, or needs actual typography in their work.

Doctorow’s ability to write anything anywhere borders on unique and sets up unreasonable expectations. The fact that he can do all these things does not mean you can.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 1:53:00 PM, Anonymous Andrew Binstock said...

Agreed with all points, except stopping in mid-sentence when word limit is reached.

I generally add some additional bread crumbs (maybe 10 words), so I can remember where I was heading.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 1:56:00 PM, Blogger Scott Rosenberg said...

And if you type TKTK you can make absolutely sure your "find" doesn't capture appearances of "t" next to "k" even in proper names -- like, er, Kottke.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 2:44:00 PM, Anonymous steve said...

Been using opera with all my reading stuff in netvibes.com, why?

Well opera can be minimised to tray, so out of site + out of mind. Netvibes.com has all my rss feeds, mail etc so basically has everything I want to read is in one place. I find this useful as after I've found what I want to read, I can read it, hide opera away and go about my day.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 2:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cory -- good tips. Hemingway was a big proponent of stopping only when you have something to pick up the next day. And personally I use good old []'s when I'm guessing on the fly. No shift key required, even easier to search for, and otherwise they're just taking up useful keyboard real estate. one word of warning -- if you start using them to substitute for word choice and ideas on the fly instead of just factoids, you wind up deferring all writerly decision making. Very very dangerous -- you wind up with entire scripts / manuscripts composed of [].
At any rate, cheers,

At Friday, January 09, 2009 2:57:00 PM, Anonymous Chuck Michaels said...

"Who knew that babies needed their diapers changed so often ?"

Who knew indeed.

It looks like this is a big Learning Experience for all of us !!

At Friday, January 09, 2009 3:11:00 PM, Anonymous James Egan said...

Excellent advice. I'm plagued by all of these things on a daily basis.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 4:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Cory! Great writing advice.

At Friday, January 09, 2009 7:13:00 PM, Blogger Caleb said...

Thank you! I've just started writing on an internet-capable computer and you have addressed my very problems!

At Friday, January 09, 2009 10:31:00 PM, Blogger John said...

As a college student who is VERY easily distracted by the Internet and who wants to sit down and write more I found all this information helpful. Thanks!

At Saturday, January 10, 2009 12:09:00 AM, Blogger Frank Meeuwsen said...

Hey Cory,

Great advice, thanks for sharing. One other thing you could do is just turn off the internetsignal on your PC/Mac. Whether it's unplugging your networkcable, turn off your modem or switch off the wifi-channel.

--now...what was I actually doing before I read this...

At Saturday, January 10, 2009 1:44:00 AM, Blogger Walabio said...

At Friday, January 09, 2009 3:41:00 AM, daen said... :

> “On a somewhat unrelated note, I wish the ”little and often“ approach worked better for software development in open plan offices. Some days it seemed like I had twelve or fifteen 20 minute disconnected segments to work in rather than four or five hours contiguously. The problem I have with doing software development in that ”little and often“ way is the amount of contextual switching involved: sometimes it can take you 20 minutes or more just to set up the right conditions for a particular debugging session, for instance, let alone actually doing the debugging. Coming back to that after doing user support was not easy. Conclusion: software development and open plan offices don’t mix well, especially in small companies where IT work is less differentiated.”

You should read this:


Basically, the idiots for whom you work waste your productivity by taskswitching and distractions

At Saturday, January 10, 2009 4:54:00 AM, Blogger Miragi said...

Having the attention span of a flea, this is SO what I have needed to read for a LONG time! I am committing this post to memory! I believe I have alot more to learn from you! I look forward to reading more of your blog! Thanks!

At Saturday, January 10, 2009 9:22:00 AM, Blogger Batman said...

Unfortunately, I'm my own editor/publisher of most things these days, so, the TK suggestion may or may not be a good idea. Other than that, great stuff here :)

At Saturday, January 10, 2009 9:34:00 AM, Blogger Klintron said...

Here's a round-up of distraction free writing software, such as the previously mentioned WriteRoom:


At Saturday, January 10, 2009 10:06:00 AM, Blogger Antonio said...

Great advice! I also recommend Notepadd++ as it starts quickly and you can have multiple tabs

At Saturday, January 10, 2009 2:47:00 PM, Anonymous Celia Francis said...

Really great advice. It applies well to any kind of creative or thoughtful work. Glad your post somehow ended up in my news feed and I let myself get distracted by it. Ooops...

At Saturday, January 10, 2009 3:19:00 PM, Blogger CNEIL said...

Halting my usage of Word and Open Office helped my writing tremendously. I now use Gedit and write more than ever.

I intend to start using your TK suggestion immediately. Up until now I've put things in parenthesis (This fact is wrong. Fix it. etc.)

At Saturday, January 10, 2009 9:58:00 PM, Blogger bulia byak said...

On TK: why not just "???" or "!!!"? Easier to type, harder to miss.

Other than that, great advice, except that the probem is actually worse than your tips suggest. At least for me. I found it best for productivity to just turn off the net completely for days until I finish some project. Nothing else works reliably enough. (Even this does not quite work, as I usually have some downloaded stuff to read and waste time on.)

At Saturday, January 10, 2009 11:00:00 PM, Anonymous ben said...

"They don't write their software with Word."

That's true, but I'd be willing to bet Word is written in Visual Studio, which does check syntax and so on. To me an IDE seems like the programming equivalent of Word.

At Sunday, January 11, 2009 9:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anne Wayman said...

lol, not sure I'm ready to kill my word processor but I have beat it into submission and don't use the fancy tricks I know until the draft is done... and maybe not even then.

I also remember when my kids were little and I learned to write in spite of their various needs for me... thank the goddess they're adults now.

Love the piece... off to link to it now.

Anne Wayman

At Sunday, January 11, 2009 1:09:00 PM, Blogger Erin said...

While your writing advice is excellent, your knitting example is off the mark. Knitters knit with the same strand of yarn until their piece is finished. When they pick up knitting the next day, the clue to where to start is the working yarn. It's not called "the hint." Crochet works the same way, as does every other yarn craft I'm familiar with.

At Sunday, January 11, 2009 2:30:00 PM, Blogger Barker said...

Great advice! Thank you!

I'm glad I got distracted enough to find this article.

At Sunday, January 11, 2009 2:42:00 PM, Blogger Hugh Tauerner said...

You're completely wrong about knitting and a "rough edge". When you stop knitting the yarn is still attached, so there is no need to leave any sort of marker as to where you are.

And I've not known a potter to leave unfinished work on a wheel. Sculptors might leave work in progress, but most potters I know finish what's on the wheel.

At Sunday, January 11, 2009 5:38:00 PM, Blogger webhill said...

I don't have a clue what you're talking about when you say "Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day's knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the "hint."" and I have been knitting since I was 10 years old (I'm going to be 39 next week).

I asked around among the knitters I know, and none of them know what you are talking about, either. I mean, when you are knitting, you just start from where you stopped. There is no "hint," there's just, you know, the piece of yarn that you are knitting with is still hanging there where you left it. It's not an extra piece or anything. It's just - you have your ball of yarn, and one end is inside the ball, and the other end is the end that you are knitting with, and it just IS wherever you left it!!

I'm curious where you heard about this "hint." Did someone who knits tell you this? Did you just think you remembered it from somewhere? Did you see it on some TV show or something?

At Sunday, January 11, 2009 6:49:00 PM, Anonymous erik said...

As a recently diagnosed adult with ADD, this may be the best thing I've ever read. Thank you, Cory.

At Sunday, January 11, 2009 7:01:00 PM, Anonymous Grace said...

I guess you forgot to stop at some point and actually research knitting! In 20+ years of knitting, I've never heard of the "hint". If you can't figure out where to restart you knitting - considering it would be where the knitting stops and a large ball of yarn is connected - you've got big problems.

Not only that, but stopping mid-sentence when writing would be a good way to slowly drive me insane...

At Sunday, January 11, 2009 9:35:00 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

There is some good advice in there- the research bit, certainly, as it's too easy to get caught up in research instead of actually writing- but the whole knitting "hint" thing jumps out as being wildly inaccurate. I'm a knitter, surrounded by knitters, and I've never heard of this. Where's this coming from? I'd be interested to hear more. As the yarn is still attached to one's knitting until you finish a piece, I can't imagine what that statement is describing.

At Monday, January 12, 2009 5:17:00 AM, Blogger Scott said...

I sure noticed my productivity drop when my company activated the Windows IM program ... Sadly, we're expected to be logged into it when we're working. My fix was to always set my status to 'Busy'--it seems to discourage casual IMs.

I've had a couple people notice that & comment, "Your IM status is always 'busy'. Why is that?" "Because I'm always busy." I refrain from adding, "Duh!"

At Monday, January 12, 2009 7:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great advice! I wish someone had given me this advice when I graduated college. I wanted to be a novelist/short-story writer, but always found myself puttering about and unable to get stuff done. Reading this and looking back, I see that I broke every single rule you laid out.

At Monday, January 12, 2009 12:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great ideas. Every writing workshop could benefit from handing out these bullet points on the first day.

The comments have been informative, too. Who knew knitters were so annoying?

At Monday, January 12, 2009 5:08:00 PM, OpenID pat said...

Is it wrong that I did a

$ grep -i tk /usr/share/dict/words

...to see how many words contain tk?

At Monday, January 12, 2009 11:52:00 PM, Blogger CatalogK9 said...

Umm, hate to break it to you, dude, but we knitters do nothing of the sort. We might leave a sticky note on our written pattern or chart, but that "extra bit of yarn" leads straight to the ball: we have no choice but to leave it. Sorry, man. ^^;;

At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 3:12:00 AM, Blogger Sandra said...

I'm doing this right now for my designs, and my writing. Thank you.

At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 3:31:00 AM, Blogger Chance Deveraux said...

Your advice rocks. Absolutely rocks!

At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 5:11:00 AM, OpenID Angela Brett said...

Great advice! I already follow some of it. I hate IM... and yet, sometimes I leave it running in spite of myself, and once I made the mistake of giving my username to some people I barely know who seem to have nothing better to do than start chatting about nothing at the most inconvenient times. That's why I didn't get enough sleep last night.

I write in TextEdit, in fact I don't even have any word processing software any more. What's the point of it? I'm a writer, not a publisher.

Leaving a rough edge is interesting. I've always tried to do that at work (though when I've finally got into something interesting that keeps my attention, it's hard to force myself to stop before it's finished) often leaving the code not compiling, as Cory (the one in the comments) does, so that when I get in the next day I have something to start with straight away, and something as straightforward as getting code to compile, instead of wasting time looking for the next task. But I've never thought about doing that for writing. I'll have to try it. I have a feeling I wouldn't be able to sleep until I'd smoothed off that edge.

'Don't research' is definitely a good tip. I find the best place to write is on a train, when I have a laptop but no internet. Sometimes I get caught up wishing I had some crucial fact, but I do eventually push on and continue writing. When I'm at home, I get the fact and a billion other ones, and before I know it I'm commenting on a blog (oops!), or it's 1a.m. and I have to work tomorrow. So I'm in two minds about whether to get a cellphone that would allow me to connect to the internet from everywhere.

Incidentally, one strategy I have to avoid further lack of sleep is to plug my ADSL modem and wifi base station into a timer, so that they turn off at 1a.m, on at 7a.m. in time for my computer to wake me up with music streamed over the wifi, off at 8:20 so I go to work, on before I get home. This also saves power. But what I really should do is also have it turn off the internet for 20 minutes at some other time of day when I know I'll be home, so I can write.

Even though I'm forcing myself to write something every week, I still haven't managed to make myself write every day; somehow there never seems to be that 20 minutes, except when I'm at work and I feel guilty about spending 20 minutes doing my own thing, even when I don't really have any work to do. I really should force myself to do it, it would make my weekly things much more polished. I should do it on the bus instead of reading. In fact, sometimes I do. But only sometimes, and I realise that's a problem.

At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 2:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your writing experiences with all of us. Bottom line, I read your article this morning and then wrote for 20 minutes this afternoon, tossed TK in at least twice and just as you predicted, I was one page further along in my own book. Again, thank you.

At Thursday, January 15, 2009 8:27:00 AM, Blogger Ruth Wahtera said...

Thanks, Corey. As a grant writer writing to an inflexible deadline, I've learned that researching, writing, and editing should be handled as totally separate tasks. To work efficiently I never mix them.

I like your TK suggestion instead of highlighting question marks, as I've been doing. And, using a 'find and replace' to turn the TK font red before I start editing really makes them stand out.

But, give up Word? I really have to think about that!

At Friday, January 16, 2009 12:31:00 PM, Blogger Jamwes said...

Thank you for the tips, they will be used and serve me well.

I find it interesting that you say not to go away from the internet but to just tune it out for 20 minutes a day. Tuning out the internet is a trick I must learn. In order to write the rough draft of my novel I went to someplace without internet every day, but that was a 20 minute drive there and back, so I was already wasting twice as much time as you recommend on traveling when I should have been spending it writing.

Using TK is another great idea. Thank you.

At Friday, January 16, 2009 12:36:00 PM, Blogger Jamwes said...

@Ruth Wahtera
I bet you can get away with not giving up word, you just have to teach yourself how not to be distracted by it. Don't mess with any of the settings while typing, just use the default. You can change it later. Also, you can turn off the spell check and grammer check and just turn them on when you are done. I've been leaving the checkers running, but I don't waste to much time worrying about them. A quick right click and I've fixed my spelling, then its time to move on.

At Friday, January 16, 2009 12:41:00 PM, Blogger L.B. said...

This article is getting bookmarked for future reference by me, for me. ^_^ Love all the suggestions (ten blogs in a day, wow... now that's something that I want to aspire to). Only thing that I couldn't imagine doing is typing into a simple .txt file... I've lost more work than I can imagine from sudden power outages, etc in a program that doesn't have auto save.

At Friday, January 16, 2009 12:48:00 PM, Blogger Gina Black said...

What excellent advice. Thank you. I shall put it to use immediately.

At Friday, January 16, 2009 12:55:00 PM, Anonymous Stel Pavlou said...

Excellent article.

Over the last 18 months I'd been slowly working all this out for myself and have put it into practice. The result has been a much higher output of creative material.

When all else fails, I unplug the modem, btw.

At Friday, January 16, 2009 1:05:00 PM, Blogger Phronk said...

I like the TK suggestion a lot, and that's something I need to work on as I really do get distracted for the rest of the day if I take a Google break. :)

Although, instead of TK, I like to put something more specific in ((double brackets)). It's easily searchable and allows you to write notes to yourself for later, like ((insert length)) or ((insert plot)), that make editing easier.

At Friday, January 16, 2009 1:06:00 PM, Blogger Georgia said...

I could hug you for this. I've been beating myself up for not writing enough, and I have "work on short stories" on every single one of my to-do lists, always. I'm printing this up and reading it every time I start to feel like I'll never have a chance to work on all those stories I've started. Oof. Really, thank you.

At Friday, January 16, 2009 5:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another crafter chiming in with - you don't even tie off to change colors, if you're doing it right. There are very few reasons to actually cut the yarn. Research can also be a good thing. Or maybe you live in Eureka and knitters there have an alternate universe method we here in this universe don't use?

I wish I could use your tips on the job. I don't write for a living but I do huge amounts of paperwork and am frequently bogged down at the end of the day. But 90% of my responsibilities involve talking to people and being flexible and available, so ....

At Saturday, January 17, 2009 11:40:00 PM, Blogger Craig Mod said...

Just to add to the tips: consider Writeroom for composition, especially if you're authoring shorter pieces (involved blog entries, short stories, articles, etc). Having it take over your screen further makes jumping into research just a little bit harder.

It should also be noted that the new '09 version of Pages from Apple also supports full screen immersion mode.

Writeroom link: http://www.hogbaysoftware.com/products/writeroom

At Sunday, January 18, 2009 8:12:00 AM, Blogger Fille-de-Loups said...

This advice is quite helpful! Especially the part about not researching... I do too much of that and end up getting entangled in the minute details of whatever it is I'm looking for. Thank you for writing this!

At Monday, January 19, 2009 1:04:00 AM, Anonymous Nixy Valentine said...

I started to leave a comment here, but it got so long that I just blogged about it instead. Link: http://www.nixyvalentine.com/index.php/2009/01/begging-for-distractions/

At Tuesday, January 20, 2009 1:04:00 PM, Anonymous k said...

I use Aquamacs in fullscreen-mode, very much like Writeroom (only it's an emacs).

Of course, as sort of a programmer it's very easy to get distracted into writing little emacs-extensions that, say, do my research for me... (when I've got self-control though, I use my own version of "TK": "[]")

At Wednesday, January 21, 2009 2:26:00 PM, Blogger Larry-bob said...

A book-writing friend of mine gave me the following advice about writing: "stay in the chair."

At Sunday, January 25, 2009 6:43:00 PM, Anonymous Danny Adams said...

I have a modified version of the stop when you hit your word goal idea: I have a daily minimum, but I stop at a point where I know what happens next. That can be in the middle of a sentence or two pages later. Already knowing what's coming up, I don't have any problem with staring at a blank screen or page, and with a guaranteed start then the next day's word count almost always flows.

--Danny, who intentionally doesn't have an Internet connection at home to avoid distractions, but can still sufficiently get online at work.

At Wednesday, January 28, 2009 9:04:00 AM, Anonymous Jacob W said...

I don't agree with your idea of not looking up the info. that you need at the time you need it. I think instead that you need to practice self restraint. stop looking after you have found what you need, simple. I have made many a paper better because of the info. that the artical has refreshed in my mind.
But I do agree with being able to write in all environments. It makes you ready for everything.
I can also relate to have a new born, and let me tell ya, it's realy not that fun.years down the road I'm sure it will pay off though.

At Wednesday, January 28, 2009 9:06:00 AM, Anonymous Julianne said...

I believe that it is necessary to look up your information. you can do other research but if you have access to it via internet or phone or something then use what you have. I do agree with you on the schedule a chat time with your friends and family though. It can be a big distraction if you are doing something and one of your friends or family happen to im you.

At Friday, January 30, 2009 2:51:00 PM, Anonymous Joe Haldeman said...

I'm 90% with you, Corey, but if I could only write twenty minutes a day I would probably have to write greeting cards instead of novels. Takes me a while to get down to it.

I used to write a thousand words a day and stop in the middle of a sentence. But one day I got up to start writing, and absolutely positively didn't know where the fuck I was going -- a totally mystifying sentence fragment. I had to go back half a page. This was back in typewriter days, and I would literally count the words on each page as it came off the platen. One thousand words and not a syllable more.

Now I'm happy if I get half that.

Joe Haldeman

(I write in longhand now, and type up the day's work in TextEdit, but make a Word copy for pagination and italics, etc.)

At Monday, February 02, 2009 1:27:00 PM, Blogger BogusRed said...

Hi Cory,
I came across this entry from the Drawn! Illustration blog. I just wanted to thank you for posting this advice as much of it applies to illustration work as well.

I have suffered from becoming a 'slave to my reference.' doing too much research not only is a time suck for illustrators, it can also become crippling trying to illustrate a scene and getting all of the buildings/scenery accurate for the time period, location, etc.

I also really like your idea about leaving a rough edge. It definitely could be applied to my web design and programming work. That's an idea that I've never heard before and it makes a lot of sense. Just having a little bit to get you started next time you sit down really helps get me going.

Thanks so much for the tips!

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 1:20:00 PM, Blogger Adam Snider said...

I've recently started using Dark Room to help eliminate distractions when I write and I've been amazed at just how much it increases my productivity compared to when I'm using a more complex word processor (Word, Google Docs, etc.).

The TK tip is great, too. I tend to do the old _____ trick, but TK is actually much better, especially when writing larger documents, because I can consistently search for the same thing using "Find" instead of having to visually scan for a _____ that I've left for myself to fill in later.

At Thursday, February 05, 2009 9:53:00 AM, Anonymous Victoria said...

This is great advice. Natalie Goldberg is said to have used a simple gesture to indicate the most important thing a writer can do: pick up a notebook and write.

You might want to check out my blog, devoted entirely to the issues of fiction writing and including guest essays by authors, at http://www.victoriamixon.com

At Tuesday, February 10, 2009 6:16:00 AM, Anonymous James Batchelor said...

Fantastic tips - thank you very much! They're so blindingly obvious, but it's the sort of thing you need to be told.

I'm guilty of wanting at least an hour to write, but can never find one. 20 minutes sounds more than reasonable - I used to get more done on the train to work!

At Friday, February 13, 2009 7:10:00 AM, Anonymous cool said...

I'm a new blogger, and it seems you are a good teacher. Thanks.

At Tuesday, February 17, 2009 5:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really excellent post, loads of useful info, thank you. I almost didn't read it, though—that horrible convulsion-inducing green banner on the left really has to go.

At Tuesday, February 17, 2009 6:02:00 AM, Anonymous Michèle Laframboise said...

Hi Cory!

Michele from Toronto area here.

Good tips: the short uninterrupted periods.

Word-processor: I use word and all the settings are there since so long that they dont grab my attntion. And some of the simpler editor do not have the French accents.
The other reason I use a word-proc. is I mistype so foten now that I programmed my word editor to correct mistyping (foten for often, for instance.) I save a lot of time this way.

The research sinkhole: I TRY to do all the research while constructing my story line, before wrting. BUT.
It is not a simple factual "tech" like a bridge length that hold me up. It is rather some sense of forgotten detail that affect an entire scene that prompt me to check the facts. (The Oh noooooo! I have to rewrite the entire scene because I forgot to check the lay out of a nickel mine where my characters run.) It happened for my last novel (thanks God and Karl Schroeder I got some facts corrected!) and for the ms. I just completed.

I put a writing advice in my own blog, with caricatures (can I send you one?) at http://savantefolle.sffq.org/2008/12/22/comment-faire-pousser-une-histoire/

It is in French, but you may get the gist of it by checking the pictures!

See ya!


At Thursday, February 19, 2009 3:44:00 PM, Blogger Mark said...

This is excellent stuff. The "rough edge" I discovered halfway through the first draft of the novel I'm working on, although I think of it more as breaking off when the writing is flowing and my energy is high, rather than when I'm stuck and struggling - the memory of that joyful flowing helps me get up the motivation to start again, and usually lasts until I have my momentum up.

At Monday, February 23, 2009 6:17:00 AM, Anonymous Backlinks said...

Good point, the RSS feeds are really distracting, especially if they're on your homepage or on your desktop. There's too much noise pushed in your face that can really clutter your mind.

At Thursday, February 26, 2009 6:05:00 PM, Anonymous pete evaristo said...

Excellent writing ideas.

If you really want to eliminate distractions, how about turning off ALL electronics (except for background music, maybe) and going out into the outdoors with nothing but a pencil and blank piece of paper.

Rediscover the true art of writing (and drawing).

This may be hard to fathom in an age where people are addicted to pushing buttons.

A friend of mine tells me his 17-year-old son recently got hooked on typing on an old typewriter.

Believe it or don't, they found a source for typewriter ribbons, so the son is typing away at all hours.

There's really nothing like writing from scratch.

I could quote Mark Twain or someone else but you can enjoy being distracted by searching.

At Sunday, May 31, 2009 1:46:00 AM, Blogger Irrevenant said...

re: killing your word processor, when doing last year's NaNoWriMo I found the best tool was a full-screen text editor called Q10. It sounds a lot like WriteRoom (which I only just heard about in this thread) for Windows. Q10 also has (optional) typing sounds, which I love. :)

At Tuesday, June 02, 2009 4:16:00 AM, Anonymous C. Patrick Schulze said...

Great ideas for every writer. I especially like the idea of stopping in the middle of a sentence!

At Monday, June 29, 2009 1:25:00 AM, Blogger Blackwood said...

If you're doing your writing on a Mac I can highly recommend installing Steve Lambert's SelfControl app: http://visitsteve.com/work/selfcontrol/

It blocks your internet connection for as long as you choose, eg. 30 min. and there is no way to bypass this (not even shutting the app down or restarting the computer).

It's great for staying focused on writing and not wandering of on the internet.

At Friday, August 21, 2009 3:29:00 AM, OpenID machtundrebel said...

THANK YOU! I really needed this advice, being constantly sucked away from whatever I am supposed to do. Will try to follow your advice :)

At Thursday, September 17, 2009 1:55:00 PM, Anonymous Chrıs Anton said...

Too often, I spend the last 20 minutes of a writing session reviewing what I've done for the day, polishing repeatedly so I can put the day's work "to bed and feel a sense of completion when Istep away from the keyboard. But the next morning, I'm staring at another isolated, blinking cursor, wondering how I will leap into it _this_ time. Having a hanging thread to grasp onto could help me swing into action. Thanks Nice Blog

At Thursday, September 17, 2009 1:59:00 PM, Anonymous Chrıs Anton said...

There's really nothing like writing from scratch.

I could quote Mark Twain or someone else but you can enjoy being distracted by searching

At Sunday, January 03, 2010 1:05:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i like your ways of tackling distractions.
although not a writer myself,i get the general drift.
will think of the the "DISTRACT ME" SIGN nexxt time i feel like needlessly opening gtalk.

At Friday, February 12, 2010 10:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cory, you've just gave e inspiration to get back on my pen-horse, so to speak.

But at the same time, as I was reading through and beginning to really want to sit infront of a piece of paper, I found myself strangely distracted.

Well done, you've distracted AND inspired me.

That must be an accomplishment.


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