By Zoha Arif
I have some exotic, discombobulating thoughts when I’m brushing my teeth. Some mornings, I’ll be applying a generous swab of Colgate to my toothbrush and then suddenly be round-house kicked with a phenomenon I dub as the “writing bug.” As in, I feel an overwhelming string of motivation to spend the entire day finger to keyboard, pumping out some of the pieces I’ve been meaning to write for a while but haven’t had the right mixture of creative juices to sit and write yet. It is on these writing bug mornings that I snag a can of iced peach tea and roll down to the basement, taking an oath that I will spend the majority of the day huddled on a bean bag in the warm corner between the dryer and the sewing cabinet writing. It’s a sweet thought, but that’s hardly how I ever sit and write anything.
Focus, on the part of the writer and the actual writing, is an integral part to the writing process. If you, the writer, aren’t focused, not only is the intimate connection between creator and writing-child loosened, but it’s quite difficult to produce anything substantial in the time you set aside for writing. Furthermore, the finalized product might just be a piece mashed together by many vaguely connected ideas, few or none of which are fleshed out and explored to the bone—not to mention the lack of a clear message behind the piece. Over the years, as I’ve become more propelled to improve my writing and experiment with new styles and tools, I’ve learned a few pointers on how to stop myself from paying heed to every notification on Instagram, drifting off into a deep thought bubble on the iron Mauritania cross-Sahara Railway documentary I watched spontaneously last night, or letting a sudden beam of inspiration turn my Gilded Age comedy short story into a James Bond horror novel. Hopefully, these tips will help you learn to avoid becoming a distracted writer.
Writers, Stay Focused!
Before high school, I used to declare Saturdays as my “official writing day,” and expected myself to sit and write for at least 10 hours back-to-back. What I’ve learned, however, is that it’s impossible for a human being, no matter how much the literary genius, to sit for an entire day and focus on just writing. Taking breaks and being in the writing zone are important conditions for staying focused. If you find your mind drifting off to other things in spite of your phone being taped to a box, your writing nook’s door being nailed shut and a “do not disturb sign” discouraging anyone from entering, there may be a chance that you’re simply not in the mood for writing. Most of the time, when I find that I’m not in the mental state to write, I don’t force myself to hunker down and create the perfect story. I’ve found that, considering that writing is a form of self-expression, if I’m not in the mood for self-expression, the heart and passion existent behind writing is not there even if the physical words are. So I throw in the towel, do something else productive that I am in the mood for, and when the writing bug attacks me, I find that there’s no internal struggle to sit, focus, and write. Even popular contemporary authors (notably Rick Riordan, writer of the Percy Jackson series) take breaks in the middle of writing a piece. If you take breaks, you will feel fresh and motivated when you return to write.
However, if you’re on a time crunch for a Modern American Literature creative writing project that you need to pump out for tomorrow’s class and your mind is not cooperating, I would suggest the Pomodoro technique for focusing the mind. The basic premise of Pomodoro is working in small intervals. If you have a short story to write, for example, you can tell yourself that for the next 25 or so minutes, you’re going to stay focused, hunker down, and work productively to get the character backgrounds and names set. After the 25 minutes are up, you reward yourself with 15 minutes of free time to browse the advents of the internet, go poke your little brother, or do something else just because you fancy it. Then, after the 15 minutes of free time, you tell yourself that for the next 25 minutes, you are going to get the first paragraph done, and you repeat the cycle. In this way, you piece apart the larger task of writing a short story into smaller, easier, attainable tasks for your mind to individually focus on with the incentive that if you work productively for a small, set period of time, you will be rewarded with free time. If, in the middle of writing, I am struck with the urge to rewatch that hilarious Great Gatsby meme compilation, I stay focused on the task at hand by reminding myself that if I push through the next 20 minutes so, I will have 15 minutes to watch that Great Gatsby meme compilation 20 times over.
Some other quick pointers for keeping the mind focused include removing physical distractions (especially your phone and all the consuming temptations of social media and the internet that come with it—setting your own screen time might be a good way to motivate you to not use your phone unnecessarily), giving yourself longer breaks when you’ve worked for hours on end, and constantly reminding yourself of your writing goals and what will happen if you don’t focus and pump out the writing now (in the case of the English assignment, remind yourself that if you don’t start writing now, the quality of your work will be sacrificed in your sleep deprivation later).
At the end of the day, however, I still often struggle with keeping my mind focused. There are many days when I set aside a few hours to write and come out of the session with nothing more than a character name, two sentences, and a wacky title that I think sounds cool and interesting. Giving yourself breathers and forgiving yourself for not finishing a piece or making substantial progress on one every time you sit to write is essential. Like with any activity, there will be great, okay, and bad days.
Outlines and Edits
I sincerely hated plot maps when I was in elementary school. In those days, all New Jersey elementary school kids had to take a standardized test acronymed the NJ ASK, and one part of this test was the creative writing component. I remember being coached to always take five minutes before beginning to construct a plot map, essentially a vertical three ring venn diagram with a beginning, middle, and end bubble with a few bullet points describing what would happen in each act. In the beginning of my writing journey, I was very much a spontaneous make-it-up-as-you-go writer. I would freewrite, then go back and cut out any fluff while editing. I was not fond of spending precious minutes plotting everything out and considering a theme and message beforehand. However, as my writing and I matured, I realized the value in taking some time before delving into a piece to plot everything out and bluntly state your main topic and the message that you are trying to convey. Having a skeletal outline to look back on when you’re in the meat of a long piece is especially helpful to remind yourself what the purpose and message behind the piece is. With complicated, experimental pieces, I now often find myself leaning on plot maps to guide me through each scene and to avoid tangents that stray from the main ideas.
In terms of keeping writing focused, however, editing is by far your best friend forever. I used to be into a lot of descriptions. I loved the metaphor (and I realize that this is very cliché now, but I was really into it as a young writer) of words being a writer’s paint brush, a piece of lined paper being a blank canvas, and paragraphs being the painting. I loved illustrating an intense, detailed scene for the reader and found myself in the mindset that if everything (from the character’s brand of shoes to the exact shade of their fingernails to the type of nose shape they have) isn’t described, then it’s not good writing. However, I eventually realized that I was fluffing up my piece with fruitless description. I was deviating the reader from the main message of the piece by bombarding them with flowery, colorful details that had no justifiable reason for being there other than that the reader picture a really vivid image in their head. To help recognize what descriptions were necessary and meaningful, I stuck the piece in a drawer for a few days and then came back to it with fresh eyes. I went through and meticulously examined each sentence, asking myself why is this here? What does this add to the piece? Is this contributing to the overall message? In this way, I cut out the fluffy descriptions and made sure that each breath of the piece was focused on the main topic. My main piece of advice: when you finish a piece, let it sit for a few days and then return fresh and ready to cut anything that doesn’t obviously add to the main idea.
A Few Final Words
Whenever my mother told me that everything gets better with practice, I used to say that things like avoiding sleep and watching TV and procrastinating don’t get better with practice. However, editing your pieces for clarity and focus and keeping your mind focused are certainly on the official list of things that improve with practice. Perfection is not an attainable final goal, but improvement is. The hard part is just getting started.
Tell us in the comments! What do you do to keep yourself and your writing focused?
Zoha Arif is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and the Managing Editor for Voices.