Step Away from the Internet

Staring at a shelf of books on all things writing, I never know which one to choose. I want the best one. I want the one that will infuse my writing brain with the knowledge and inspiration of all the great authors.

But, there’s so many. Click on author, Jody Hedlund’s Helpful Writing Books page alone, and you’ll find a long list of choices.

Stuck with the funds to buy only one book recently, I gravitated towards a collection of authors’ advice on writing, a book whose cover stood out to me: bright orange and red and yielding the words “Secret” and “Miracle.” I picked it up because, well, I want to know the secret to and the miracle of writing a complete novel.

I’ve mentioned Daniel Alarćon’s book (The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook) before when I talked about walking away from a novel in progress, and his book continues to be a great resource.

In Alarćon’s chapter titled “Getting Started,” he asks several published authors, “What is most distracting for you? How do you deal with it?”

About one third of the authors he interviewed answered with the same irresistable pull: the Internet.

This I write, as I work diligently on a post I hope readers will click to, read, and comment on in their own spare time.

While the Internet as a distraction is nothing new – there are plenty of articles by other writers about ways to avoid the Internet when you should be writing – what’s new for me is a glimpse I got, from Alarćon’s interviews, into the reasons why I turn to the Internet instead of my work in progress.

Jennifer Egan (author of The Keep) says:

I find that there is some part of me that is always looking for a way to pull  myself out of a state of deep concentration….The Internet is a naughty accomplice to that desire (p. 118).

Anne Enright (author of The Gathering) says:

I think a lot of distraction is anxiety. If I am too anxious to work on the piece at hand, then I work on something else (p. 119).

For me, that “something else” often turns out to be emails and Twitter. Ouch.

Today, I wrote in my morning pages about how many precious minutes I use up browsing Twitter or reading articles on writing, instead of using that time to write. I will avoid working on a draft if I don’t have a significant amount of time to tackle a big chunk of the project.

Just as soon as I get started, get into the grove, I think to myself, I’ll have to stop. It’s difficult for me to trust that short spurts of writing eventually add up, even as I do trust authors like Becky Levine who can attest to the fact that “baby steps [in writing] can lead to big productivity.”

Of course, I produce better work when I have bigger chunks of time to sit and concentrate. Still, something is better than nothing, and I wonder how much of my quick dips into the Internet don’t stem from a little writer’s anxiety?

Jennifer Egan shares a little more of her experience, which might explain why I cling to the internet, and she offers one strategy for getting back to the work:

A writer friend of mine, Lisa Fugard, once told me that she had a sign next to the door of her office that said, ‘Why are you leaving?’ Many times she found herself walking through that door with no idea of why. Then she made herself sit down again and continue working. I try to have a mental sign that asks why I’m leaving when I find myself suddenly typing something into Google for no particular reason, as if I had nothing else to do (p. 118).

I value Google, email and Twitter. But, on days when I have to ration my writing time, I have to be more vigilant about avoiding their draw and ask myself “What am I looking for?”

If what I’m surfing through isn’t time sensitive or relevant research for the story I want to write, then I can close down the application and open up that draft instead.

What are your biggest distractions and how do you deal with them?


Alarćon, Daniel. The Secret Miracle: the Novelist’s Handbook. New York, New York: Henry Hold and Company, LLC, 2010. Print.


12 responses to “Step Away from the Internet

  1. Here, here! I mean here, as in #notwriting 😉

  2. The internet is definitely a big distraction. Whenever I’m working on my novel, I find myself checking my e-mail or Twitter way too often.

    What helps me concentrate is listen to music that inspires me. I also take a break from writing every 15-30 minutes.

  3. The internet is a distraction but it provides so much information that I need at this time. I am editing my book and finding that what I thought were sufficient edits aren’t and so I go edit some more. No I promise I am not editing to death.

    I work on writing for about 30 minutes to an hour then I take a break to goof off. If I don’t play I don’t work well either so I do allow myself to be distracted so that I can learn more and enjoy life while I write.

    • Nanda and Ardee-ann,
      I agree, the internet is a rich resource for me as well some days. I like the suggestions for short breaks here and there, and calling those moments away from writing as “play” instead of a distraction.

      But, I think my short breaks might have to be a physical break from the computer as a whole, unless I buy a timer that screams and shocks me when my fifteen minutes on Twitter and Email are up!

  4. It’s either things that ought to distract me, because I have chosen the wrong time to write (husband, children) or yes, it’s that pesky internet. I go to my garret, I turn off the wireless, and I tell myself in 1000 words I can peek at Twitter. There is no other way!

  5. Really nice post. Ron Carlson says that writing while connected to the internet is like writing in an amusement park! He also says, “stay in the room.”

    This last one has helped me the most. Whenever I get that urge to click away, I know I must be getting close to something. Still, if you’re a think-er like I am rather than a create-er, sometimes it helps to distract myself for a minute, then pop back to what I’m working on. That way I can kind of sneak up on myself.

  6. Oooh, great thoughts, Christi! Even in the days before the internet, I’d find myself distracted, especially when the writing got especially tough. So, I do think there’s some of that “I don’t know what to write next, so maybe if I take a break it’ll help.” And the internet just makes it all that much easier.

    For my last WIP (which I just finished, yay!), I gave myself more tangible goals. For example, I would give myself from 3:00 to 4:00 to write 400 words. Then from 4:00-5:00 I’d give myself another 400. It really helped drive me and keep me on task for that hour. Sometimes I’d even get done more when I was really working hard at staying focused. It eliminated that ambiguous “I have all the time in the world, so I can take a break” feeling.

    And it helped me minimize internet distractions during those hours. I’d check important emails, but all the while knowing I had to get my word count done in that time.

    • Thanks, claireking & Jody for your comments!

      claireking: Yes, I think sometimes I choose the wrong time to sit down and write. That’s half the battle for me.

      I love both suggestions from you and from Jody Hedlund about setting a specific word count goals before I get a break.

      And, Jody, I wasn’t writing before the Internet – just doing a lot of talking about writing 🙂 But, I can imagine I would have found something other than the Internet to pull me away. Some days writing through those distractions is much more about discipline!

      And, Cynthia: I love that quote from Ron Carlson about the Internet’s equivalent to an amusement park – so true!

      I also like your suggestion to allow myself a break for a second, so I don’t get caught up in forcing whatever ideas are rising to the surface when I so want that distraction.

  7. I blogged nearly this same thing, just the other day. And my husband said to me, in all sincerity, that I needed to disable the internet on my laptop in order to get any work done. Man! It’s just such a lovely time suck!

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