Distracted and Confused: How Writing Can Help by Tracey Kathryn

The beginning of 2021 has been a “hold my beer” moment. We thought 2020 was a challenge. This year apparently has upped the ante. What is a writer to do? How do writers concentrate on plot points and fiction projects when life appears to be stranger than any thriller ever composed?

Methods to Improve Concentration

My writing students often express frustration with their ability to concentrate. It’s a common dilemma, I say. To improve concentration, medical professionals offer advice that includes writing things down. Ironically, however, students frequently blame poor writing skills as hindrance to the very solution that doctors recommend. First, I reassure them that they’re stronger writers than they believe. Most have a good grasp on a logical flow of ideas and an ability to analyze what they read. What they lack is the discipline to turn off devices and SLOW. DOWN. My best advice to students are those two processes: First, turn off devices for a set period of time. Second, allow time to read new material—and do it slowly. The internet wants us to rush and react to attention-getting headlines to gain click-throughs. The beauty of long-form reading such as learning materials (and favorite books) is that we can set boundaries. We can learn to disarm distractions and set our own timelines; thus, improving concentration.

I suggest making a set time to turn off devices. Sometimes for as short a period as fifteen minutes. Start from that point. Read without interruptions or seeking another “hit” of social media, news headlines, or text messages. Expand the quiet period as necessary to achieve a desired timeframe or word-count outcome. Also, allow the concept of going slowly to enter the reading and writing process. There is freedom in working at a slower pace. Even if it’s just for fifteen minutes, take a deep breath and live in the moment. Study the ideas on the page, embrace what they mean. Interpret them using your own words. If you’re writing, appreciate the interaction with your characters. It is thrilling to write and create. Slowing down helps writers appreciate this concept.

Use a Bullet-Point Journaling to Write Away Anxiety, Solve Plot Issues

If it’s too difficult to work on a current writing project, if distractions are many and concentration is fleeing, do what my writing students do: Write a few sentences or paragraphs in a journal.

My students use the journal to express not what they will write, but how they will write. They offer ideas from improving their concentration to time-management. The journal is a low-stakes writing exercise that puts thoughts to page. Writing is a time-honored method of goal setting. Rather than stress about word count or plot points, jotting notes in a journal is a wonderful way to stay in the game of writing. Rather than stress about not writing, journaling is a method to write without boundaries. That free-writing process often is the gateway to inspiration.

I think journaling gets overlooked as a method of solving writing dilemmas among professional writers. We focus on beginning, middle, end rather than allow the process to flow organically. It was during NaNoWriMo that I accepted the practice of moving from a scene to the next without stressing over its ending. By jotting a few lines, then moving away from the scene, I allowed my subconscious to work out the ending. I then could return to it on another day.

Often, I’ll jot bullet points on a blank page as a short-hand journal exercise, then go do something physical such as walking or cleaning the kitchen. (After all, according to Agatha Christie, “the best time for planning a book is while doing the dishes.”) A phrase, a character name, or even a plot twist often appears while I’m away from the keyboard. That bullet-point journaling allows physical time away from my writing project, but it keeps my brain engaged in it.

So, if distraction and confusion are impacting your writing process, work on building concentration instead. Also, consider journaling as a low-stress way to stay in the game of writing. Use bullet-points as prompts to move past unresolved scenes in your plot.


On another note, this winter has been beautiful. Wisconsin winters can be long, gray, and intense. So far, the temperatures have been moderate and the snowfall has been nothing short of stunning. I am an early riser. It is while watching the snow come down that I remind myself of how blessed I am: My family is healthy. I have worked from home for a number of years. I have wonderful friends and a strong faith. Our world faces many challenges, but I am so grateful for my blessings. I have learned to live one day at a time and never lose faith that the world will be a healthier place because of what we have endured.

Happy January, writers. May we all have a peaceful, productive, safe 2021. ~ Tracey Kathryn

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