How to Manage Distractions during Your Writing Practice

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One of the most common – and annoying – aspects of maintaining a writing practice is dealing with distractions. Especially when you’re working on a deadline or immersed in your latest work-in-progress, distractions are not very welcome. They can interrupt the flow of thoughts that you need to put down on paper. They can disrupt your momentum, slow you down or make you lose your place in your manuscript.

I suppose distractions can have an upside too, although that’s rare. For example, they might help you notice a plotting problem in your story while you’re away paying attention to the distraction. Or they might inspire a new story idea. Still you need to get back to the task at hand.

Minimizing distractions is important for writers because good writing requires time and focus, writes Joyce Carol Oates on the Masterclass. Without that time and focus, the writing will lack clarity and impact.

In my experience, I’ve noticed five types of distractions.

1. Physical environment. Room temperature and uncomfortable furniture can make you lose your focus. A messy desk can be a sign of a cluttered mind. Outside noise, like construction and leaf blowers can disrupt your thoughts.

2. Familial environment. If you have kids, they may be curious about the work you’re doing, and pets may want your attention when you want to work. If you live in a condo building, neighbors may start renovations in their units that requires drilling and vacuuming. The occasional ambulance with its blaring sirens can disrupt your thoughts too.

3. Technology. Electronic devices, such as your phone and laptop, can tempt you when you should be working. You might be tempted to work with the TV on to keep an eye on a baseball game or catch up the latest breaking news. Social media is always a temptation because writers have a need to know what’s going on in their world.

4. Internal noise. These are the voices and conversations inside your head that may have nothing to do with your work. You might experience negative thoughts, replay arguments you’ve had or worry about upcoming events. You may be more focused on your worries and fears that you lose track of what you’re supposed to be working on right now.

5. White noise. Part of the background most of the time, white noise has little impact on your writing progress – or it shouldn’t. It might be the ticking of a clock, passing traffic from the expressway near your house, or the drone of a plane flying overhead.

Distractions, in whatever form they take, are inevitable. But you can minimize the impact they have on your writing practice. Here are a few suggestions to do that.

1. Identify the distractions that affect you the most. Before you can reduce distractions, you need to know what they are, according to the Author News blog at Penguin Random House. Take note of what is taking your attention away. Is it a pesky pet who insists on sitting next to you on your desk as you work? Is it the constant barrage of emails and phone calls that distresses you? If there’s one particular distraction that is bothersome, then find ways to remove that distraction. Perhaps move the cat to another room, or set aside a specified time to respond to emails.

2. Set office hours. Most successful writers treat their writing like a real job with set hours. Those steady office hours let others in your household know that you are busy during that time and cannot be interrupted.

3. Know your productivity hours. Every writer has a prime time for writing, where they feel at their most creative and productive. It could be during the early morning, or it could be late at night before you go to bed. Establishing a regular writing session during your most productive time of day can help eliminate unnecessary distractions.

4. Put away your electronic devices. This might be easier said than done. Most of us rely on our computers and phones to get our work done. But do you really need them for your writing? I’m a big proponent of writing longhand on pads of paper. I find it easier to brainstorm blog post ideas and fiction scenes that way. I can draft scenes in a heartbeat with only a pen and paper. Using a computer or phone to write or research might feel more productive – as long as you stay on task – but it can also be tempting to check your emails and your social media accounts. I recommend turning off the TV as well. The focus should be entirely on your writing.

5. Keep a neat, tidy desk. Put everything in its place and use only the materials you need to get your writing done. When writing my blog posts, I have my file with my blog calendar and list of story ideas, a lined note pad for drafting an outline, and a pen. I find that a clutter-free desk translates to a clutter-free mind. It’s also important not to have other tasks and deadlines hanging over your head, say experts at Mediabistro. Take care of those details before you begin your writing session so they don’t creep up on you while you write. Need to make a doctor appointment? Make that appointment now before you begin writing.

6. Reward yourself. If you still struggle to keep distractions to a minimum, try this experiment. If you’ve managed to stay away from the Internet and social media during your writing session, reward yourself with a social media hour or an hour of internet browsing or online shopping. If writing is your real job, then treat social media as play time. It’s what you do when you’re done with your work day. Knowing that you have a full hour of social play time waiting for you at the end of your writing session might be enough to keep you focused on the writing task at hand.

Distractions are a normal part of our work days, but you don’t have to let it ruin your writing practice. Start by identifying the pesky distractions that bother you most, then take action to minimize their impact. You’ll find you have more head space to produce better quality writing.

Write Stories with Better Sensory Descriptions

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This week’s writing prompt: Choose a season of the year and write about the smells that evoke that time of year for you.

One thing I often struggle with in my own fiction writing is sensory descriptions. While non-fiction might address the five W’s (who, what, when, where and why), fiction deals with the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

Experts say it’s easy to go overboard with descriptions, which can distract readers. On the other hand, it’s also easy to forget to include them. Writers need to walk a fine line between the two extremes. However, using them judiciously in your work can make your writing shine.

Kellie McGann, a writing consultant and contributor to The Write Practice, says the key to unlocking the five senses is the question behind them. “Why does the character see, hear, taste, smell or touch something in a certain way? What do those sensations mean to them?”

If you’re writing a memoir, ask yourself the same question: what do those sensations mean to you?

McGann’s advice? “Don’t bog readers down with unnecessary details, but a few well-placed descriptions can immerse readers into the story and into the character’s world.”

You may find that some senses are easier to describe than others. For example, you may write an uncanny accurate description of the sound of a waterfall to your ears, but have difficulty describing the visual beyond just “stunning” or “beautiful.” There are other ways to make sensory descriptions work within your prose.

1. Sight – Visuals are the most important element in descriptive writing. However, it’s easy to overdo them. Masterclass writing experts suggest selecting only certain details you want to highlight. It’s not necessary to mention a person’s height or shoe size, unless those details are integral to the story. For example, a mystery where an imprint of a boot was found at the murder scene.

One way to approach visual descriptions is to describe them directly (“the sun was bright,” for example) or indirectly, which can give readers more visual interest. For example, “the light from the sun reflected off the glass windows so that they shone solid white.”

2. Taste – While sight might be the easiest to describe, taste may be the most difficult because it’s subjective. How do you describe the first bite of an apple? One person’s experience after biting into that apple, or a garlic clove, will be different than the next person’s. But if done well, it can make a powerful impression.

Remember that taste isn’t just about consuming food. Think of all the other ways we taste life. For example, the ooze of blood when we bite our lip or falling onto the ground and getting dirt in our mouth. What does that blood or that dirt taste like?

3. Touch/Feeling – Touch is usually associated with the texture of something. The sense of touch can be easy to overlook because we’re always touching some object every moment of the day. It’s a real and immediate sensation that places characters – and your readers – in the present moment.

For practice, make a note where you are right now. What are you touching? If you’re sitting down, pay attention to the chair. How does your body feel when you sit on it? Or try feeling different fabrics and textural materials. Describe how they feel in your hands or under your feet.

Remember that the sense of touch can refer to internal sensations too, such as pain, pleasure and temperature. Try describing the moist heat of a sauna, or the sharp stab of pain when you wrench your back.

4. Smell – Experts say the sense of smell is closely associated to memory. How many times have you walked into someone’s home and the smell of fresh baked break reminded you of your grandmother during the holidays? Or the scent of flowery perfume reminds you of your favorite aunt when she kissed you.

But don’t overdo descriptions of smell which can overpower your readers. Just like strong perfume in real life, a little bit goes a long way.

Try this exercise: Go to a place you know well, such as a library, a school, a bakery, coffee shop or a park. On a small notebook, make a list of all the smells that define the place for you.

5. Sound – Descriptions of sounds are often used to create a mood. Think of soft classical or jazz music playing in the background during a romantic scene, for example, or the boom of an explosion setting off panic and destruction.

Challenge yourself with this exercise: Sit quietly and listen to the sounds in your room, in your building or in your neighborhood. What do you hear? Make a note of every sound you hear and try to describe it.

When writing, it might be tempting to use onomatopoeia – words that sound like the noise they make (whoosh, boom, crash, etc.) It can help capture the mood of a scene, but again, don’t overdo it or your writing will come across as comical and insincere.

For more practice, I recommend Writing from the Senses by Laura Deutsch, which contains 59 exercises to challenge your sensory writing skills.

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction narrative, sensory descriptions can spice up your writing and help you bring readers along on your literary journey.  


Tips for Overcoming Blank Page Syndrome

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It can be scary and intimidating to start something new, especially a new writing project. What winds up happening is you stare at the blank page, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of it all. Many writers are afraid they won’t be able to fill the page with the right words to tell their story. Others fear not having an interesting story to tell. What if it all comes out wrong?

But you can take comfort in the fact that many writers and creatives have faced blank pages (or empty computer screens) for centuries, and they somehow manage to overcome their fear of it.

In her book The Creative Habit, choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp writes: “The blank space can be humbling. But I’ve faced it my whole professional life. It’s my job. It’s also my calling. Bottom line: filling this empty space constitutes my identity.”

Though Tharp writes from a dancer’s perspective, what she says resonates with many writers. It’s our job and our calling to fill up empty spaces with our creativity, whether that comes in the form of words, dancing, or musical notes. In her mind, the empty space is not to be feared. It’s simply the starting point of the creative process.

When you begin to view the blank page as the starting point of your creative project, then you are less likely to feel intimidated by it. Rather than fearing it, writers should embrace it. The blank page represents endless possibilities for creation. It’s a positive energy, not a negative one. Don’t let the blank page weigh you down. Embrace it as an old friend, one who supports you in your creative endeavors.

The experts at Masterclass define blank page syndrome as writer’s block. So naturally, the best way to deal with blank page syndrome is the same way you do for writer’s block. There are several reasons writers feel intimidated when they face blank pages.

1. Writers fear exposing too much of themselves. It’s always scary to put yourself “out there.” Writing is an expression of your identity. Every time you put words down on the page, you are connecting with yourself in some way, whether it’s a memory, a fantasy, a heartache, or a desire. You can’t always hide behind your words. The prospect of revealing parts of yourself frightens writers. But without those deeply felt emotions and personal experiences, writers wouldn’t be the people that they are. Sometimes the only way to deal with the harshest realities of your existence is to write about it.

2. Writers expect perfection from their prose. They want the words to flow on the page in perfect harmony. They want the words to say precisely what they want to say with no mistakes. Writers have a vision of how they want the story to start and end, but when the words come out, all they see is junk. When you expect so much from yourself at the start of the writing project, it can put you in a form of paralysis. You wind up staring at the page instead.

To overcome these unrealistic expectations of perfection, try satisficing it – that’s combining satisfying and sacrifice, according to the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Just put down a reasonable solution to start the ball rolling. Anything will do – notes, phrases, even diagrams. Then make a note to come back and fix it later.

3. Writers fear the endless possibilities that blank pages represent. When you stare at a blank page or screen, you’re faced with endless possibilities for storytelling. Should you write an essay or a short story? Maybe you might try your hand at poetry instead? There are numerous possible ways to fill that empty space.

Some people feel confused and overwhelmed when they consider all the possibilities ahead of them. They feel overwhelmed by the open-ended book facing them. These writers are the type of people who need everything spelled out for them, and they look around for a handbook of sorts with step-by-step instructions on how to navigate those endless possibilities.

Others embrace the future, even though it may look fuzzy and uncertain. They see the future as an adventure, and the world – as wide and mysterious as it is – is something to explore. They welcome the endless possibilities of the blank page because they know that it’s a forum for their creativity. Since they want their creative expression shown in whatever way possible, the blank page doesn’t frighten them.

Which writer do you want to be: the one who welcomes those endless possibilities and sees opportunity in them, or are you the person who needs a guide to show you the way? Do you recognize yourself in either of these scenarios? 

4. Writers lack vision for the end product. Because anything is possible with the blank page, some writers may not have a clear idea what to write. There are so many things they could write about so it’s difficult to know which idea will work best. If you lack vision of your end product, if you have no clue what to write about, step away from the page. Set aside time to brainstorm ideas. Jot down as many of them as you can think of. Use a favorite prompt. I find that the prompt “I remember,” works well for me.

Also try freewriting – writing nonstop for five or ten minutes. You never know what ideas spring forth from that exercise. Once you have a general story idea in mind (or several), you may feel less anxious about the blank page.

Yet another technique shared by Masterclass experts is starting at a different point in your story, such as the middle or the ending. Sometimes it helps to work backward to the beginning when you’re unsure how to begin. The important point is to keep writing. It is only by writing a little every day that you’ll figure out how to overcome that blank page.

The blank page or computer screen doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. Take Twyla Tharp’s word for it, and welcome the blank page as your friend. See it for that friend who takes your hand and helps you face endless creative possibilities with courage and conviction.