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Meghan Ward

I'm a freelance writer and book editor represented by Andy Ross of the Andy Ross Literary Agency. You can read an excerpt of my memoir, Paris On Less Than $10,000 A Day, and visit my website for more info about me.

Butt-in-chair stick-to-it-iveness

I’m writing again for the first time in months and finding it difficult to sit still in my chair. Today I thought about what works and what doesn’t for me. What do I have to do to get from distracted-checking-my-e-mail-every-five-seconds Meghan to focused-writing Meghan? Here’s what works for me:

1. Make sure you’re in a quiet place where you won’t have any interruptions. If you’re somewhere with noise, use earplugs or noise-blocking headphones. If you can’t afford those multi-hundred-dollar Bose things, get a pair of $25 construction headphones at Home Depot (that’s what I have). They’re big and bulky and block out all noise.

2. Make sure you have water, tea, and snacks at your side, so you have no excuse to get out of your chair for the next two hours. (You can also bribe yourself with something you want, like chocolate or a chai latte.)

3. Give yourself 10 minutes to check your e-mail, then shut it down.

6. Open Scrivener. If you don’t have it, go here and buy it right now. Do the 30-day free trial if you want, but what happened to me was that I didn’t do the tutorial within the 30 days and then didn’t buy it for several more months. My recommendation: skip the trial and just buy it. I know many writers who swear by it and once I finally started using it, I loved, loved, loved it. Once you’ve bought it, do the tutorial. I opened a second Scrivener window at the same time as the tutorial and imported my book while doing the tutorial so I could apply what I was learning to my book as I went along. Buy it. Right now.

7. Open Freedom. If you don’t have MacFreedom and you’re using a Mac. Download it right now. It’s free. You can also use Self Control. More and more writers are using MacFreedom, so it seems to be the preferred app, but with self-control you can blacklist or whitelist certain websites, while MacFreedom blocks you from using the Internet at all. If you’re on a PC, google “network blocking software” and see what’s out there. There must be something.

8. Set Freedom for the amount of time you want to work. I usually do 120 minutes, but if that’s too long for you to go without Internet, do 60.

9. Open your stopwatch widget. If you don’t have one and you’re on a Mac, go to Apple and download one for free. If you’re on a PC, I don’t know how widgets work, but you can always go to a sporting goods store and get a real stopwatch. I used one for years. Turn on the stopwatch (and turn it off whenever you get out of your chair of stop writing to check your e-mail, etc.)

10. Now you’re all set and panic sets in. You can’t write. You don’t want to write. You can’t think of what to say. You desperately want to check your e-mail. Or wait, didn’t you leave the stove on? Oh, maybe that’s the mailman. And you should pay the electric bill. Oh damn, you forgot to call Sophie to tell her you can’t make it tomorrow. Go ahead, think through all the reasons why you can’t write right now. But don’t get out of that chair. Just sit there for ten minutes until your brain calms down. Still don’t want to write? Then don’t. Just open up the document you were working on yesterday (or last week) and read it. Before you know it, you’ll be making edits and editions and … look ma, I’m writing! Thirty minutes later, you remember you need to add that movie to your Netflix queue, so you open your browser and … damn MacFreedom! You’re blocked from using the Internet! Sigh. Back to writing.

11. Once your 120 minutes are up, stop the stopwatch, get up and use the bathroom (you’re also allowed to do this while writing, just make sure you stop the stopwatch when you do), give yourself a 10-minute time limit to check your e-mail, refill the coffee, eat lunch, whatever, then sit back down and set MacFreedom for another 120 minutes (or however long you plan to write. Have a goal before you begin.)

12. And voila! You just wrote for four hours! Now it’s my turn …

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22 comments to Butt-in-chair stick-to-it-iveness

  • Haha, great tips.

    You know, I LOVE Freedom, but I couldn't get into Scrivener. Too much going on for my tastes. I'm much more about the "blank page" feel of a Word doc with every single tool bar eliminated. But you're right, TONS of writers swear by Scrivener. I'm just a weirdo. :P

    If I'm having an awful time focusing, I will use Freedom, but if I'm just at a low-level ADD, I'll allow myself to keep my internet connection live but close my browser. I use Gmail Notifier to keep me from going crazy. It checks your Gmail every 15 or so min and puts a little red mail icon in your top bar (next to the date/time and battery and such) if you've got something. Otherwise, no reason to check email, so you may as well keep on writing, right?

  • Kristan – you're more disciplined than I am! I have to have the Internet shut off or I check e-mail constantly and surf the web. I like the "full screen" mode of Scrivener which gives me a blank page with a black background, but I understand that Scrivener's not for everyone. It took me a while to get into it, but now i really love it.

  • I was all excited and clicked on the Scrivener link…..to find that it's only for Macs. Not available for windows. Then I remembered I'd looked at it before with the same conclusion. This does not make me happy because I am very visual and I am constantly drawing out charts and things for my stories. Guess I'll have to keep doing that on old scraps of paper that I then lose….unless you or anyone knows of a good equivalent for Windows?

    (And no, before you say it, I'm not buying a Mac. Not because I'm against Macs…I love them…but I think this kind of software should not discriminate against Windows users. Yes, I feel discriminated against. Thanks, Scrivener! You have made me feel bad!)

  • Sierra, I didn't know Scrivener was only for Macs. Let me ask around to find out if there is anything similar for PCs. And I'll send Literature and Latte a note to develop a PC version, too!

  • I am right along with you! thanks!

  • I have an honest-to-God bomb shelter in the basement of my house (the house was built in the 1940s). I dream of clearing all the crap out of there and using it as my inner writing sanctum. I even think my wireless connection wouldn't work in there so the temptation of email would be nullified.

    How sad it is when you start dreaming of being locked up in solitary just to have the right atmosphere for writing? :)

    Good luck! I think it's really just a matter of getting into the groove of it.

  • I've been having trouble with focus recently too. These are all good tips! I actually created a separate account on my Mac that's just for writing. It took a little time to set up, but it's worth it. I'm only allowed to use Word or Scrivener while in that account, as well as iTunes (but only the music I need for writing), and only some websites. With parental controls I've blocked everything but dictionaries, style manuals, etc. that I use while writing. It's been working really well.

  • Kristen – I have been terrible about keeping my butt in the chair lately. I'm not allowed to blog until I get caught up on my writing hours and, as you can tell from my lonely blog, I have not yet gotten caught up. I think I need a bomb shelter!

  • Meghan, thanks for all those great ideas. As a long-time Mac user, I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't know about Scrivener. I've been too busy, er, trying to write!

    To become consistently productive as a writer, it seems so important to "know thyself" — to know what times of the day work best, what locations prompt the most stick-to-it-iveness, and so on. For me, sometimes a coffee shop works well, especially when it's full of industrious college students. (I live by Ohio State University, so finding a setting like this is easy.)

    I've also found that frequency is key. The more I write, the easier it is for me to write. It comes close to running in that sense.

    Thanks again for all the fantastic tips. I plan to get some construction headphones for my next flight, because I'm always seated near that guy with the piercing voice!

  • Tom, funny that you mention running. I'm training for a half marathon right now and reading Murakami's memoir about writing and running. There are many parallels for sure. And "know thyself" is great advice! Thanks for the comment.

  • LOVE this post…I'm looking up Self Control as we speak. Thank you so much for the useful suggestions. Much, much, much so…

  • You're welcome, JS! I hope Self Control is helpful.

  • Just a head's up for PC users. On the Scrivener site, click on Links, and scroll down. The folks at Literature & Latte have been kind enough to point out some of "the best and/or most popular" writing software for PCs.

    And a head's up for Mac users too: That sames links page points you to all their Mac competitors too, just in case Scrivener doesn't fit your particular process.

    Of course, I'm with Meghan. I can't recommend Scrivener enough.

  • Andrew

    This is really helpful! I've been using MacFreedom for a while now and I recently got into Scrivener. I hadn't heard of Self Control and I like the sound of just blocking out Facebook, email, Twitter etc. to leave me free to research and look for inspiration.

    Fantastic app suggestions, but the main reason I'm glad I found this is that it was reassuring to know I'm not the only crazy fool who puts off doing something they love to such extents!

  • Thanks, Kyle, for those links! I also heard a *rumor* that Scrivener plans to come out with a PC version eventually. Fingers crossed.

  • Joanne Jones

    I liked the look of Scrivener so much I bought a used Mac on eBay to try it. I've done the tutorial, now I'll start really playing with it. The Mac OS will work with some pcs now since they're using the same chips. If you search the internet you can find instructions for creating a Mac OS boot on some pcs – after getting a license for the Mac OS. It's not the sort of thing I'd do but for some they might be able to have their pc and Scrivener too. Also, Mac and Microsoft have been getting friendlier – who knows what the future holds.

  • I'm glad you like Scrivener, Joanne. It makes me more excited to sit down and write every day. And good to know you can boot Mac OS on some pcs. I'm not a huge fan of Virtual PC or VMware for use on Macs, but they're great if there's a certain app you really want to use.

  • [...] Apparently a lot of people get distracted by constant electronic connectivity–especially when trying to write. Meghan Ward offers some suggestions for staying focused and productive (including using MacFreedom or Self Control* to shut down your computer’s networking) at her blog, Writerland, in a post aptly titled “Butt-in-chair stick-to-it-iveness.” [...]

  • Joanne Jones

    Actually, I've been looking at Macs more and just saw on the Apple site that Apple says the new Macs can run the pc OS (operating systems, like Windows.) So someone who is replacing a pc could get a Mac and also have a dual boot machine, apparently without the licensing issues since Microsoft sells its operating system separate from hardware. I have problems with organization and working through stories so I'm finding Scrivener is great for me. An unexpected bonus is that since the mac looks nothing like my work computer I'm not having "work flashbacks" during my creative writing.

  • Thanks for this tip, Joanne, and I'm glad you're not having work flashbacks. A huge plus.

  • [...] Apparently a lot of people get distracted by constant electronic connectivity–especially when trying to write. Meghan Ward offers some suggestions for staying focused and productive (including using MacFreedom or Self Control* to shut down your computer’s networking) at her blog, Writerland, in a post aptly titled “Butt-in-chair stick-to-it-iveness.” [...]

  • I do shift work so wear ear plugs all the time. My longest lasting ones were custom made from a kit, they’re much better than standard earplugs and don’t seem to wear out. It’s much less expensive than having your ears molded by a professional; I’d suggest them to anybody who uses them a lot.

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