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My latest Locus column, “Writing in the Age of Distraction” is up — a grab-bag of practical tips for getting the writing done in the internet era.

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:

Cory Doctorow: Writing in the Age of Distraction

10 Responses to “Writing in the Age of Distraction”

  1. tensility

    Cory could as well have said that he writes using Notepad. The point would have been the same. Many of the tools available in modern word processors are about changing how pages are displayed (i.e. fonts, paragraph styles, et al), which is a complete distraction from the essential task of generating and subsequently rearranging text. If it weren’t for the agility provided for the latter task by the computer, it might actually be better to write with a typewriter or by hand.

  2. David Wesley

    “Don’t be ceremonious”

    Writer’s need to signal their brain that it’s time to write again, to get into the flow. There are things a writer can do that you’ve mentioned, like stopping in an unfinished sentence, but some level of ceremony is another method that works for some writers. The trick is to create a ceremony that’s simple so it can be accomplished easily. I would wager that in fact you have a ceremony, but it’s mostly just the act of putting your fingers on the keyboard.

  3. E...

    Cory, Thanks for the suggestions. I do most of these already — except the research part. Yep, it can really suck me in…

    I know it is a little OT, but I wonder if you have any suggestions for how to deal with a break in the writing that can go in many different directions. Do you have any advice on how to manage the different paths the story could take? (as a note I’m a scientific programmer not a novelist, but with your insights into writing I thought you might have an idea I have not tried).

  4. Frederick Fuller

    I AM A RETIRED TEACHER. WHEN I WAS WORKING, I DID THE 20-MINUTE BIT, INCLUDING STEALING TIME AT SCHOOL TO WRITE. GOT LOTS DONE: PLAYS, POEMS, ESSAYS, ETC. PUBLISHED SOME, TOO. NOW, RETIRED, I CAN WRITE EVERYDAY, ALL DAY, AND RELISH IT. I AM, HOWEVER, AN INTERNET JUNKY AND CAN SPEND ALL DAY SURFING. I ALSO USE WORD FOR MAC, AND IT DOES DISRUPT. I AM GOING TO TAKE IT TO BASICS, JUST WRITING IF I CAN. OR, I WILL TAKE YOUR ADVICE AND USE MAC SCRIPT EDITOR. THANKS FOR THE INFORMATION.

  5. Jamie Harrington

    I sit here with one monitor open to my book and the other open to your website and all I can do is laugh! It is like you are my teacher right now tapping your pencil on my desk and redirecting me to the task at hand. I am a completely new writer who is just learning the ropes, and you are right. I am having way too much fun writing, but I love your idea to leave my sentence incomplete. From now on I will always do that. It is the perfect way to start the next day and I am sure that it helps fight off the tiny writer’s block I always feel when I first sit down. Thank you so much for your help!

  6. Ntino

    Just finished reading Context (the dead tree version) – mind blowing, as Content was. Talking about editors, I am (aspiring) scifi writer and Ubuntu monk, here’s what I use to shut out all distractions:

    JDarkRoom
    http://www.codealchemists.com/jdarkroom/#screenshots

    Focuswriter
    http://gottcode.org/focuswriter/

    And a list with some other words processors with the same minimalistic spirit:
    http://linuxandfriends.com/2008/06/12/text-editors-for-distraction-free-writing/

    cheers !

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