Distraction-Free Writing

I have started writing again. After a year off, it feels as if I am starting over from the very beginning. In some ways, I guess I am. This time around, I am aiming for truly distraction-free writing as much as possible.

“Distraction-free” is buzzword I see in many apps today. Word processors have “distraction-free” modes that are supposed to help writers focus on the writing. I’ve tried many of these and found that to a large extent, they don’t work well for me. From what distraction am I being freed?

These days, I find the tools themselves a distraction. Even the choice about which tool to use to write is a distraction that prevents me from writing. I used Scrivener for a long time. Then I used Google Docs. Then I switched to a text editor. All of them had their distractions, no matter how distraction-free they claimed to be.

When I started writing again, I spent days trying to figure out which of these tools to use—days which I could have spent writing, instead of being distracted by the very features designed to be distraction-free. Eventually, I backed away from my computer and considered this. I felt foolish. I decided that for me there was only one way to get a true distraction-free writing experience:

I would no longer write on the computer—at least not first drafts.

On June 1, I began writing the first draft of a new novel. I have written only one other novel in my life—I wrote the first draft of it in 2013, and never wrote a second draft. It was practice. Perhaps this time is practice, too. But unlike just about all of my previous writing, this draft started on the first page of a brand new 200-page Composition Book.

Almost at once, I learned some things:

  1. I write more slowly than I type.
  2. I am not bothered by the same kind of distractions writing in a notebook as I am writing in a word processor. I don’t have to worry about formatting, fonts, or if my changes have been saved.
  3. Since I am not on the computer when I am writing, I don’t have to worry about going down some kind of Google rabbit hole. If there’s something I need to look up, I just make a note of it and leave it for a time when I am not writing.
  4. I am not distracted by word counts. I used to be obsessed by word counts. Writing in the notebook, I have the general sense that each page I fill is worth about 300 words. Beyond that, I don’t worry about it. I just write.
  5. There are no alerts or notifications popping up to bug me. I try to leave my phone somewhere else when I write so that I don’t have to worry about that distraction either.

There are still interruptions. Kelly or the kids might ask me for something while I am writing, and these are welcome interruptions. I’ve been making extensive use of the margins to jot down notes, especially if I think an interruption will take me away for an extended period of time.

So far, I like using the notebook approach. It is the most distraction-free writing approach I have yet encountered.

What happens when I complete the first draft? At that point, I’ll do what I usually do: I’ll set the story aside for a while. When I come back to it, I’ll read it, mark it up, and I’ll do the second draft—which for me is usually the best part of writing—in Scrivener. I can afford more distractions once I know what the story is about, and I almost never know that until the first draft is completed.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.