3 Ways to Stay Focused While Writing With Tips From Joyce Carol Oates

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 5, 2019 • 5 min read

Successful writers produce literally thousands of pages of content over the course of their careers. For some people, writing even one page can be a daunting endeavor. Yet even if you’ve never written anything beyond what was assigned for a school project, it is still possible to develop the habits necessary to take on serious writing projects.

But before you can start writing a blockbuster script or a best-selling novel, you need to focus on something much more elemental: writing without distraction.



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Why Is Writing Without Distractions Important?

Successful writers are evaluated on the quality of their work, the quantity of their work, and their ability to meet deadlines. While quality is the hardest to teach, good writing habits can be taught and learned.

  • Productive writers treat their creative work like it’s a job. Most professional writers have a set period of time dedicated to creative work. Perhaps they reserve four hours every weekday as their writing time, and they don’t permit any other activity to bump a writing session from the schedule. Or perhaps they don’t write daily, but they set aside longer blocks of time to focus on writing without distraction.
  • Whether you’re writing your first draft of a short story, screenplay or a magazine article, great writing requires time and focus. If you don’t clear out any potential distractions, your work will show a lack of clarity and focus.
  • Even writer’s block can sometimes be traced to a lack of concerted focus on the act of writing. Writers may spend too much time ruminating outside distractions and not enough time contemplating the mechanics of the story they are creating.

4 Tips to Avoid Distractions While Writing

There are a number of proven ways to stay focused on writing. While not everyone will respond the same to all these methods, it is worth trying all of them to see what resonates with you.

  1. Manage the sounds in the room. Sound resonates with us in unconscious ways. A dull, nonspecific ambient soundscape may not be distracting, but being too physically close to someone else’s conversation may prevent you from hearing your own thoughts. Working in a home office can help stave this off. But if you don’t have an office and do most of your writing in a coffee shop or other public space, consider investing in a good set of headphones and listen to music that’s relatively ambient—in other words music that won’t compete for your focus.
  2. Set a reasonable length of time for your writing session. It takes a little time to get into the proper head space for writing, so a session that’s too short may wrap up as you’re just getting on a roll. It’s also a mistake to schedule a session that’s too long. A human brain can only maintain focus for so many hours, and after that it’s only natural that a person’s mind will start wandering. So set realistic workday—six hours tends to be a good upper limit, with a thirty to sixty-minute break for lunch.
  3. Don’t alter your caffeine routine. Do you drink two cups of coffee every day? Then stick to that schedule throughout the duration of your writing process. Writing is hard work to begin with; you don’t want your body to tackle a new variation on chemical management on top of that.
  4. Be honest with yourself about internet use. Most writers work on personal computers, which are invariably connected to the internet. It’s easy to drain hours on social media, and that can directly eat into your writing output. Consider whether it would be helpful to turn off your wifi while you work. Or if you need wifi to research while you write, make sure you’re only looking at web browser topics that are relevant to your work. Twitter threads and online shopping can be addictive, but they certainly won’t help you hit your deadline.
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Joyce Carol Oates’s 3 Tips For Maintaining Focus While Writing

Joyce Carol Oates is an acclaimed author of novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and literary criticism. She is also a teacher of writing, having served on the Princeton University faculty since 1978. Below, she shares some tips she usually shares with her students who are seeking to establish a writing process that will service their writing goals.

  1. Outside forces may interrupt you, but don’t interrupt yourself. The writing process differs for every writer, but one thing applies across the board: the worst thing for writing is interruption. Sometimes we interrupt ourselves. We look at our phones or the news, breaking our concentration and slowing our creative momentum. Other times external factors, like family or work pressures, break our concentration and remove us from the writing process.
  2. Identify the “quiet” times of the day. Being proactive and protecting your time is paramount. Joyce has learned to utilize times of day that tend to be quieter—morning and night—to write. However possible, we need to learn to go into a room, close the door, and give our writing the concentration it requires. How you manage this task is up to you.
  3. Follow Virginia Woolf’s advice about “a room of one’s own.” Virginia Woolf believed that having the time, space, and resources to concentrate was essential to being a writer. She also believed that for women, this was particularly challenging to achieve. In 1929, Woolf published the essay collection A Room of One’s Own, a feminist text about women and art-making. In this collection, Woolf states frankly that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” She also creates a fictionalized version of William Shakespeare’s sister to demonstrate her point. Woolf uses this character, Judith, to show that even if Shakespeare’s sister had her brother’s talent as a writer, she would have been denied the education, resources, and space to manifest these skills.


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Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, mastering the art of fiction writing takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Joyce Carol Oates, the author of some 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. In Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass on the art of the short story, the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor reveals how to extract ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft one sentence at a time.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.