Protect your writing from interruptions — here’s how

Reading time: About 5 minutes

Are you tired of being interrupted? A host of people — from needy children to noisy neighbours — can derail you if you don’t protect your writing from interruptions…

As I write this column, a contractor sits in our front yard using a skill-saw. He’s rebuilding the railings and balusters to our front steps and the sound is both loud and fierce — sort of like a dentist’s drill combined with a transport truck. 

If I wanted, I could let this sound interrupt my writing…. Much as I could let the sound of our neighbours’ gardeners (yes, plural — two sets of neighbours — one on each side) distract me by the way they run their leaf blowers, hedge trimmers and mowers every Friday from April to October. Argh!

But instead of fretting, I just shut my windows and continue writing. I’m not going to let a little noise derail me!

I’m just guessing here, but I imagine the pandemic has increased the number of times your own writing is interrupted each day — especially if you have children at home. Here are my suggestions on how to protect your writing from interruptions.

  1. Always begin by planning for interruptions: This mindset is not being a Negative Norman or Nancy. It’s simply being realistic, which allows you to plan. When my triplets were younger than five, for example, I knew that they would need me more-or-less constantly. As a result, my expectations about writing were very different than they are now that they’re 26 and mostly not living at home. (Well, except for two of them during the pandemic. The good news is that they now cook for us. Yahoo!) Thinking ahead prevents all kinds of preventable catastrophes. I have learned this the hard way.
  2. Assess your possible interruptions and develop a plan for each: You might be interrupted by other people or even by yourself. Here’s the list of what you should plan for: YOURSELF: internet, social media, email, hunger. OTHERS: family, phone, email, text, other visitors, noise. (For example, I have a policy of not opening the front door during business hours.) 
  3. Find a space to write that’s separate from everyone else: If you live in a house, separation will be easier. You may be able to consider a corner of your basement, a loft or your backyard. If you’re in a tiny apartment, you’ll have fewer choices and may need to make do with a space in your bedroom, a closet, your car or a nearby park (assuming the weather cooperates and you have a laptop.) I know writers who have successfully used each of these spaces. And all of them are far better than a corner of the kitchen or dining-room table or, worse a corner of the living-room couch. Basically, you want a room with a door you can shut (and lock, if necessary). Close the door and put a sign on it saying, “Knock at your own risk!” or “Interrupt only in the case of an emergency!”
  4. Wear headphones while you write: My office is in a loft at the top of my house. It used to be accessible only by a ladder, although 10 years ago we put in a staircase. When my children were young, we managed to persuade them — with acting skills we no longer possess — that they were incapable of climbing the ladder. Still, they could stand at the bottom and shriek, which they did frequently, even if there was another adult to attend to their needs. To cope with the noise, I bought myself an expensive pair of noise-cancelling headphones. I discovered too late that they don’t drown out the sound of the human voice (although they are terrific for airplanes). What I should have bought was an inexpensive pair of gun muffs. Later, when my children became older, however, the headphones were more useful. If they saw them on my head, they were more reluctant to interrupt me. And if they did, I could lift one earphone — only one! —  and say, “yes, what’s up?” thereby conveying the message that it had better be a burning building because I was too busy to stop writing. 
  5. Write early in the morning or late at night: Early-morning writing time was my best discovery as a young mom. I developed the habit of starting writing at 6 am, long before my kids were awake. This blissful half hour, when my phone was quiet, too, allowed me to crank out 500 to 600 words before I had any other demands on my time. No interruptions! 
  6. Write for short amounts of time: Some people seem to believe that writing is impossible if you can’t clear at least an hour in your schedule. This supposition is entirely false. I work with a large number of writers and some of them can produce 350 words in 15 minutes. (That’s 23 words per minute!) Some can do more than that. Sure, they may not be perfect words — but they are words that can be edited. Writing need not take eons. Write down what you can, when you can, knowing that you’ll always be able to edit it later. If you write just 300 words per day, five days a week, you will have 78,000 words by the end of a year. That’s enough for a book!
  7. Be explicit about how long you want for writing — otherwise, just be with your kids: One of the parental habits that’s particularly hard on kids is the distracted mom or dad. You know what I mean! You’re saying “yes, yes, I’m listening,” but in fact, your eyes are locked with your cellphone, while you’re texting. When you’re writing, write. When you’re with your kids, be with your kids. I know the mindless boredom of being with five-year-olds but remind yourself, they’ll grow up soon enough. And they are more likely to respect your need for alone time if you’re fully engaged when you’re with them. Also remember that your time away from your writing is useful to you. It allows you to regroup and gain perspective and new ideas. 
  8. Communicate your plans with your family and coworkers: I can’t stress this strongly enough: Others don’t have ESP about our writing plans. They are not mind-readers! If you’re writing at home, let your family members know when your writing time is going to end. This will make them far more likely to respect your wish not to be disturbed except in an emergency. The same rule applies to coworkers when you eventually return to the office. 
  9. Learn to say no! Many writers — especially women writers—feel guilty for taking time away from their family. Remember that you are the only one who can protect your writing from interruptions, and that you deserve to be able to do that. Rest assured you will have the rest of your day to nurture everyone else.
  10. Have “available” and “unavailable” times: Schedule regular check-in times with family or coworkers. Ask these people to keep a running list of the things they need to discuss with you so you can deal with a bunch of stuff at once. And do the same for them, too! Just be sure to make yourself unavailable when you’re writing: turn off your phone, shut down the internet, make your own use of social media verboten.
  11. Deal with the habit of interrupting yourself: At the top of this post, I referred to times when many of us like to interrupt ourselves. You know what I mean: You’re struggling with a hard sentence and all of a sudden you’re overcome with an unstoppable desire to check your email. Or check Facebook. Or Instagram. Be aware of the interruptions you create for yourself and make plans to short-circuit them. (See tip 12, below.) Oh, and don’t forget about hunger. I like to keep a supply of healthy high-energy snacks (like almonds) close to my desk so I don’t have to go to the kitchen when I get the nibblies. I also keep a big jug of cold water by my right-hand side at all times.
  12. Get your computer to help you: If you have a hard time banishing computer-based reminders, be sure to use software to protect your writing from interruptions. Freedom and StayFocused are two good ones.
  13. Leave yourself instructions for when you resume writing: Just before you stop writing for the day, triple your odds of future success by spending just three minutes writing yourself some instructions for what you want to write next. For example, you might say, “flesh out point about the reason for XYZ” or “add more description to paragraph 3” or “tell a story about yada-yada-yada.” This is your own internal editor leaving you instructions for the next day, so you won’t waste time figuring out where to start.

Interruptions are annoying and frustrating, true, but they don’t need to short-circuit you. With determination and a little careful planning, you can protect your writing from interruptions.

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My video podcast last week addressed how to better organize your writing. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you deal with interruptions? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Jessica Armstrong, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a May 12/20 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Jessica!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!