Advice for Writers: Staying Productive

At the age of only 15, Sylvia Plath immortalised the thoughts of writers everywhere when she said, ‘I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still.’ Working with books every day, we know full well how impossible it is to silence that voice. However, it can sometimes be hard to hear it over the sound of phone notifications and other daily distractions. To help you hear it just a little bit clearer, we’ve put together a few tips that may help you maintain focus and productivity the next time you put pen to paper (…well, fingers to keyboard, probably).


1. Zadie Smith believes that you should only writer on a computer that is not connected to the internet. Having that disconnect removes a minefield of distractions, from the more obvious culprits such as Twitter and Facebook, to the sneakier forms of procrastination, such as Wikipedia spirals, that can occasionally masquerade as ‘research’.

If you’re going offline on your computer, you’re going to need to do the same to your phone. If you don’t need to be immediately contactable, get it out of the room you’re writing in immediately. If you do need to be reachable, however, make sure your phone is set to Do Not Disturb, and register your emergency contacts as favourites – this way, their calls can still come through, but the rest of the social media slurry won’t reach you.

All notifications sounds – laptops, tablets, phones – should be on silent. Not even vibrate. The sound of a notification buzz or ping triggers a response in your Limbic system that makes you crave the dopamine that receiving and checking a notification gives you. The Limbic system is considered the seat of emotion in the human brain, so it’s tricky to conquer, but a phone on silent and out of sight will help you do just that.

If you really can’t part with your phone, download the productivity app. We’ve found Forest an oddly engaging one. When you start working, you plant a tree in the app – the longer you work with the app open, the bigger it grows, but it will die as soon as you close it (to check Instagram, we’re guessing). It’s both satisfying and oddly addictive, so you may find it’ll quell those phone-related distractions.

Virginia Woolf quite famously believed that one must have a room of one’s own in which to write fiction, and she certainly wasn’t wrong when it comes to the importance of where you write. Now, we may not all have a lovely shed in rural Sussex and a husband who regularly brings us coffee while we write in it, but consider the space you occupy when you write. Avoid working where you sleep and try to establish a consistent spot where you can write, such as that one table in your living room, a local cosy coffee shop, or your favourite seat in the library. This familiarity and routine may prove to be wondrous for your productivity levels.

Sitting down and word-vomiting for hours on end may work for some, but it’s definitely not for everyone. If you work best in short and frequent bursts of activity, find a way to control and schedule these bursts to ensure that they’re happening often enough for you to be productive. A personal favourite of mine is an adaptation of Lauren Graham’s kitchen timer writing method: set a timer for 45 minutes, get rid of all distractions (phones, Wi-Fi, music with words), open a word document and grab a scrap piece of paper. The trick is to write uninterrupted for the full 45 minutes, only pausing to make bullet point notes on the piece of paper (for example, fact check this sentence or research this person more). After the 45 minutes, start a 15 minute timer and briefly satisfy your distraction cravings – research what’s on your scrap notes, checking your phone, etc. When that timer finishes, however, all distractions should be put away and the 45 minutes should start again.

Will Self recommends always carrying a notebook in which you can capture the fleeting ideas that would otherwise disappear into the ether of your short-term memory. It’ll save you time as you try to wrack your brain for that idea you had while queuing in Pret last Tuesday morning.

Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings and move on from a sentence, paragraph, or a chapter that’s giving you grief. You can always come back to it, but you can never get back the time you spent getting nowhere with it.

Finally, if all else fails, grab a Post-It note, open Google Translate and do as Helen Simpson does:

“The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-It on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”


Thank you for reading and be sure to tweet us @AgoraBooksLDN if you’ve found any of these tips useful or if you have any that you’d like to share with us!