Writing focus: 9 ways to improve yours

When you’re writing, your focus isn’t ‘on’ every day of the week. Improve your writing focus so you can get to work and finish your story. Try these 9 strategies for the busy writer:

9 ways to build your focus to write:

Start with freewriting
Keep active
Plan ahead
Remove distractions
Join a writing sprint
Try short bursts
Use music
Try meditation
Switch up place and time

Let’s dip into these ideas:

1. Start with freewriting

What is freewriting? You set a timer and write whatever comes into your head for five to ten minutes, either freely following associations or choosing a topic, place or idea beforehand.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron instructs writers to do three pages of freewriting each morning on waking.

A strategic concept behind this is that you will dump out a lot of the thoughts, emotions and negativity that may be blocking you.

Your initial freewriting will help you unclutter your minds. ‘Marie Kondo’ chatter and replace it with focused writing for the remainder of your session. Try it and let us know in the comments if it helps.

2. Keep active

Distinguished Japanese author Haruki Murakami is also a dedicated runner, and according to Murakami, the endurance and focus required for running is reflected in his writing and vice versa.

You don’t need to run marathons to build writing focus, necessarily. Simple movement – walking, swimming or other low-impact physical activities – will relieve stress, benefit your overall health and help you stay more focused on your writing.

Exercise is also vital for good sleep and getting enough sleep is essential for both focus and the mental agility you need when hatching grand plots and dodging deus ex machinas.

3. Plan ahead

Many authors plan ahead – and this doesn’t necessarily mean written planning. When asked in the October 1966 edition of the New York Times how she came up whodunnits that had sold 300 million copies worldwide, Agatha Christie said:

Walking or just washing up, a tedious process.

‘Quiet Murders Suit Miss Christie: Visiting Writer Still Prefers to Keep Crime in Family’, by Howard Thompson, New York Times, October 1966.

While making dinner, driving to work or waiting in line, ponder character motivation, plot twists and structure.

A notes app on your phone is a great solution for jotting down ideas and preliminary sketches when a computer or pen and paper aren’t nearby.

Use Now Novel’s story outlining tools to create a PDF plan for your stories that grows as your ideas do. With a plan in hand, you’ll have the rough guide to each scene you need to focus on getting your rough draft down.

4. Remove distractions

How many times have you sat down to write and found yourself ‘doom-scrolling’ the news or doing something else?

Writing focus is hard if there are easy distractions near. Switch off your phone or leave it in another room. Add an extra obstacle that makes it harder to reach for the easy distractions.

Writing for The Guardian in the ‘Book Club’ pages, author Jonathan Franzen says:

Rendering a world is a matter of permitting oneself to feel small things intensely, not of knowing lots of information. And so, when I’m working, I need to isolate myself at the office, because I’m easily distracted and modern life has become extremely distracting. Distraction pours through every portal, especially through the internet. And most of what pours through is meaningless noise. To be able to hear what’s really happening in the world, you have to block out 99% of the noise.

Jonathan Franzen, ‘Jonathan Franzen: ‘Modern life has become extremely distracting’, in The Guardian, October 2015.

5. Join a writing sprint

Although it may sound distracting, a writing sprint you attend with other authors is a great way to create a focused, sacred space for your writing process.

The idea of a sprint is simple: You meet, maybe say hello for five minutes (this is much easier if your sprint is moderated and the hellos and goodbyes are guided or timed).

Your sprint might each share two brief things at the end of the session – what’s been going well in writing, and what’s been a challenge.

It’s a simple way to come together and make progress together. Members of our Group Coaching course called writing sprints ‘a game changer’ and were able to finish drafts using this system.

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6. Try short bursts

Working in short bursts is an excellent way to maintain your writing focus.

When we slog away, writing feels like work. Well, writing is work. Yet shorter, targeted sessions of writing break up process into a satisfying rhythm. You pause and clear your mind. You have moments of respite to think about where your next foot goes on the climb.

The Pomodoro technique is a popular and adaptable approach to productivity. In its original form, it breaks tasks down into 25-minute periods with a rest period of 3-5 minutes and a longer break after every four so-called ‘Pomodoros’.

Try a method like this and journal your writing progress as you go, noting how productive you are each session.

7. Use music

Focusing on your writing may be easier if you use music [I find the smooth, relaxing sound of Sade excellent for productivity – ed’s note].

There are many apps that offer relaxing ambient sounds, too, if this helps you concentrate more. Classical music (particularly the simple instrumentation of baroque music such as Bach) is easy to have in the background, without lyrics creating further distraction.

8. Try meditation

Meditation is a tried and trusted way to improve focus. Quality apps that train you in meditation (such as Headspace) do come at a premium, but there are also free meditation apps.

Many authors have embraced meditation as a means to quiet the mind and focus on the task at hand. Niche practices such as ‘Transcendental Meditation’ have been practiced by luminaries of the arts who swear by it. As an added bonus, meditation helps you alleviate tress and ease muscular tension.

9. Switch up place and time

Are you writing in the same spot or at the same time every writing session?

Your schedule may be jam-packed, making it hard to be flexible. If possible, however, try changing when and where you write and seeing if this makes a difference to your focus. It could be the neighbors’ noisy pool pump has been creating a distracting avalanche of white noise you hadn’t even noticed, for example, and another room is all that you need to claw back a little focus.

Do you have a ritual or strategy that’s your go-to when you need to focus? Share it with us in the comments.

Join Group Coaching for weekly writing sprints and a structured program to help you finish writing a book.

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