Creating the Optimal Virtual Writing Space

Where do we writers spend a good chunk of our lives? At our computers. And where does the most distraction happen? At our computers.

In the last post, we looked at creating the optimal physical writing space, but for most of us, the computer we write on is the greatest focus of our attention—and the greatest source of our distraction.

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How can we create a virtual writing space that promotes focus and limits distraction? First we need to identify what about our computers actually distracts us.

Distraction 1:

Multiple Open Programmes

I talked about exogenous capture of attention in the last post. To recap quickly: contrasting, bright, large things draw our attention. Having lots of programmes or documents open at the bottom of the screen can pull our focus towards them and tempt us to click between them, which breaks up the flow of our writing session. The same goes for formatting options along the top of the screen.

An easy solution? Close all programmes besides the one you’re writing in and hide the formatting options. If you’re using Microsoft Word, for example, you can use the ‘collapse the ribbon’ feature at the top right of the screen to hide the formatting options.

If you have a programme that allows you to write in full screen mode, this could be ideal for the easily distracted writer. Scrivener* has an option that allows this. So does the desktop version of Write or Die. If you don’t have a writing programme that allows you to do this, however, then limiting the number of programmes open in the taskbar really does help.

Distraction 2:

The Internet

The Internet is like a black hole. Many a writer goes there with good intentions—to research, to seek some writing advice, to join a word sprint—only to find themselves sucked in by Procrastination’s gravitational pull.

The obvious solution is to turn off the Internet altogether. When you write, the Internet goes off and isn’t switched back on for anything. Research can wait; you can muddle on through and seek writing advice later; and once the word sprint starts, you should be writing, not Interneting, anyway.

To bring in some psychology: if you continually flick between the Internet and writing, you build an association between the two (see ‘Classical Conditioning’ in How to Form Good Writing Habits for more information on this). Soon you become a chronic clicker and can’t write without flicking back to the Internet every so often (in my case, it was every few minutes). It becomes a habit—a bad habit. Fortunately, we can form new ones. By not allowing yourself to go on the Internet during a writing session, it becomes easier to resist its siren song.

If, for whatever reason, you need the Internet open during your writing session, you can focus yourself by reducing the number of attention-grabbing items on the screen. Remember exogenous capture of attention? Same principle here. The more tabs you have open, the more contrast and colour there is to draw your attention (not to mention the need to flick between said multitude of tabs). Only have a select few tabs open at once, close ones you don’t need, and hide your bookmarks bar if you have one.

Distraction 3:

Computer Files

Nothing eats up writing time like clicking through file after file, trying to solve the case of the mysteriously disappearing document. Make sure your files are organised so that you can quickly and easily find what you need to write.

Name everything clearly (no ‘final version’; use the date instead) and sort them into files that are also clearly named. When you don’t have to strain your memory to recall where you saved your documents, your mind is freed up to concentrate on what really matters: the story itself.

Part III of the Creating the Optimal Writing Space series will look at ways to promote focus through creating the right mental state or ‘writing space’ before and during a writing session. You know what they say: success is a state of mind.