From the newsroom


With so many things vying for your attention and time, can you stay focused on writing?

Raji Chacko

Maintaining your focus while writing can be challenging but not impossible

I prefer to edit in a tranquil environment, with maybe some music playing faintly in the background. I need some degree of quiet to edit because often what I am editing is something I need to read carefully to understand. It may be a subject matter I am unfamiliar with or a type of English I am as yet unacquainted with. Friends who write prolifically tell me writing is also executed similarly. Let me share the methods I employ when I want to work and cannot find a tranquil setting to do so.

So many claims for your attention

There was a time when working in a newspaper office only meant having to deal with editors haranguing reporters about factual inconsistencies, photographers hovering around to ensure their pictures were correctly cropped, haggling with marketing personnel for content space in the midst of the ads, and of course, catching up on gossip with the entertainment team. However, technology has complicated this further. Now, there are the Twitter and WhatsApp update pings on the phone to check, the colleague’s new Tablet to check out, and of course, the latest crime scene to investigate on Facebook. Keeping one’s eye on the ball has become ever so difficult!

If you decide to work from home, television, DVDs, the refrigerator, the inviting bed, cooking, kids, and so much more add to the cacophony seeking your attention. Apparently, the path of the diligent writer is littered with numerous distractions and besting them all to achieve a desired output is extremely challenging.

Shutting out the ambient noise

Let me begin by noting that for me, the power of distractions is inversely proportional to the level of interest in the piece I am writing. Unfortunately, the least interesting ones need the most effort. So, I guess it’s safe to say that if you love what you are doing, you are less likely to be distracted.

Routine: Having a routine in place can help deal with distractions. I don’t mind starting a little late in the day if I can get in a couple of uninterrupted hours of work. I find that frequent breaks, especially enforced ones, derail my flow of thought. Returning to the point at which I was interrupted then requires some back reading, which is time wasted in my opinion. You might find that early morning or late at night is when you are at your creative best; you could then develop a routine that allows you to work uninterrupted at that time. Of course, this is more relevant when you are working from home rather than in an office. Although at office, too, if you have an established routine of some sort, your colleagues might pick up on it and leave you alone during certain time periods.

Breaks: Discipline is all very good but when you’ve been working non-stop, it begins to feel a little like homework and that’s not a good feeling at all. So, I take periodic breaks. A walk to get some fresh air, getting up to watch the news or some TV, some exercise so you don’t suffer the ill effects of sedentary pursuits, a phone call, tea and snacks with friends, anything works as positive reinforcement. So, tell yourself, you’ll finish this piece/page/paras and take a break and you will find yourself more motivated to block out the distractions and focus. I find that planned breaks help me to finish off a section and leave my desk with less reluctance because I know I will come back to start on something fresh, even if that’s only a new paragraph. However, I try not to interrupt a gushing stream of thought; it’s such a rare occurrence that I find myself unwilling to turn my back on it.

Mix it up: I am not sure about you but for me, writing is nearly equal parts research, planning and writing. So, I mix it all up. If I find myself getting distracted when I am doing research, I might pull out a sheet of paper and scribble ideas or draw up a rough structure. If that fails to hold my attention, I might get down to writing with whatever little I have. I realize that my structure and my written draft might eventually have to be redone based on additional research or a new branch of thought, but it is very rare that I have nothing to salvage from these initial efforts. By mixing up the activities, I am still working towards my deadline even if I move from one to the other because I am distracted.

Technical assistance: The tips I listed above are the equivalent of a DIY technique for applying greater focus to your writing assignment. However, there are some who believe in a far more robust way of keeping out the distractions. I was surfing the Net when I stumbled on to distraction-free writing software. Call me an ignoramus but I didn’t even know such things existed, but once I discovered them, I had to investigate.

You can take your pick from FocusWriter, WriteMonkey, OmmWriter, Q10, WriteRoom and many more. In addition to tracking daily word count and time spent writing, these software provide timers, spell checks, document backups, and statistical feedback. They essentially take away all distractions on your computer, such as toolbars, scrollbars, icons, etc. They facilitate full screen writing and reading with keyboard shortcuts for various actions and relaxing themes for your screen to help you get into the mood. To me, it’s a little cloying and taking the whole ‘no distraction’ clause a little too far, but hey, whatever rocks your boat. There is plenty of discussions online so you can find out what peers recommend and use appropriately.

You’re the boss

Sure, you may report into the Chief News Editor or you may cough up pieces as dictated by some autocrat somewhere, but when it comes to the actual writing process, remember you are the boss. You determine what method works best for you in producing a creative output. In a crowded newsroom, that might involve 15 minutes of meditation before diving in, chaos and all, to type up your 500 words or it might mean blasting Mozart through earphones plugged deep into your ears while you try and drown out any other ambient noise and produce a masterpiece. However, it is my experience that the best trick is to ensure that the task doesn’t feel onerous. All attempts at drowning out distractions seem to fail when writing becomes a chore. Go back and reacquaint yourself with everything that made you fall in love with writing. That could mean re-reading those lovely comments on an older article or re-reading a book that inspired you to write. Whatever it is, find the love! Without it, you are very vulnerable.

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