Writing in the Age of Distraction

Cory Doctorow is one of the wonders of the world — a very good writer, a terrific lecturer and an inspiring activist for open-ness. I’m perpetually amazed by his productivity, so was much cheered to come on this essay by him in Locus magazine. It’s essentially a list of suggestion about how to get things written. Top of the list is this:

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.

This echoes the advice of many professional writers down the ages. Graham Greene, for example, used to write no more than 700 words a day — in the morning. But he wrote every single day.

The idea of finding 20 minutes a day is ingenious because it’s something that even the busiest of us can do. I’ve been thinking recently that a mobile phone with a decent little keyboard (step forward BlackBerry) would probably do quite nicely. You could even email the results of your daily stint to yourself.

Other tips from Cory include:

  • Use a simple text-processor. All you’re producing is words, after all. No formatting needed.
  • Don’t be ‘precious’ or ceremonious about where you write. Forget all that crap about having the right music, atmosphere, coffee, etc. Just do it!
  • Switch off all real-time comms when you’re writing — no IM, no Skype, no Twitter.
  • Great stuff.

    Many thanks to Adam Szedlak for the link.

    LATER: Bill Thompson, writing ruefully about how he is easily distracted.