Educators and readers may well see the Doctorow name and immediately think of E.L. Doctorow and works such as Billy Bathgate and Ragtime and not recognize Cory Doctorow - no relation. Cory is a well-known blogger, author, and editor of the online journal, Boing Boing. Earlier this year, Cory put together a very savy article highlighting some pitfalls and strategies for writing during this day and age.
As we all spend more and more time online using Web 2.0 tools it becomes harder and harder to write. For some, that writing is responding to students or colleagues and for others that may well be fiction. Regardless, we all ought to spend a bit more time thinking about how we write and, just maybe, how we can be better writers. Doctorow's recommendations may not be the be-all and end-all, but I think they are a great signpost to think about how we write in this 'age of distraction.' Specifically he suggests:
- Don't research
Researching isn't writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don't. Don't give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day's idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type "TK" where your fact should go, as in "The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite." "TK" appears in very few English words (the one I get tripped up on is "Atkins") so a quick search through your document for "TK" will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards. And your editor and copyeditor will recognize it if you miss it and bring it to your attention.
- Short, regular work schedule
When I'm working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I'm working on it. It's not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it's entirely possible to make it all shut up for 20 minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there's always 20 minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn't become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day's page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you've already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.
- Realtime communications tools are deadly
The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer's ecosystem of interruption technologies: IM, email alerts, RSS alerts, Skype rings, etc. Anything that requires you to wait for a response, even subconsciously, occupies your attention. Anything that leaps up on your screen to announce something new, occupies your attention. The more you can train your friends and family to use email, message boards, and similar technologies that allow you to save up your conversation for planned sessions instead of demanding your attention right now helps you carve out your 20 minutes. By all means, schedule a chat — voice, text, or video — when it's needed, but leaving your IM running is like sitting down to work after hanging a giant "DISTRACT ME" sign over your desk, one that shines brightly enough to be seen by the entire world.
As Doctorow freely admits, he isn't the discoverer of these strategies - many may seem pretty obvious. However, thinking about how you write and the processes that can distract or prevent you from getting things done has long been a strategy we teachers have used with our students and we might as well 'walk our talk.'