I run a writing workshop for teens and I was asked, how do you keep on task and write with ADHD? Being ADHD positive myself, I found this a very relevant topic that I too could benefit from. So, I went to my fellow authors and said, hey, how do you handle writing and ADHD? Well, it turns out this is a common issue but not one that many people have a tried-and-true suggestion for on hand.
So, I did some research and after reading several articles (which I should have cited but I never intended to share this beyond my teens), I made this list of things to try.
The internet is great for idea generation and mental stimulation, but it can get in the way when you’re trying to focus. Heck, when you have ADHD, your own brain is enough to wander you down a random rabbit hole whether you’re looking at one or not. Here are some suggestions to keep your mind on the task.
Write by hand. I at first scoffed at this because who writes by hand anymore, but then I realized that it makes your brain slow down just enough that you can chill out a little between words and not get so zipped into another time zone as you zone out on the keyboard. I used to write everything by hand back in the before-times. When I used to actually finish things. Hey, maybe it’d work again. It gets you away from the internet which is a huge distraction as well. Another option to get away from the internet – dictate. If you have a windows computer, Dragon natural speaking is a software that a few friends of mine have used. It is not available on Mac, however, so I’ve never tried it myself.
Part of ADHD is having invasive thoughts. Sometimes, it’s helpful – oh nice a new plot twist. Sometimes it’s not – oh hey I forgot to put a doctor appointment on my calendar. Have a notebook to take notes on what goes through your mind during your working time to alleviate dwelling or task-changing. Acknowledge the thought and write it down so that you can address it later when it’s not writing time.
Have a writing space. When I was a kid, it was the right side of the dining room table. During grad school, it was my recliner chair. Now, it’s my desk in the living room. It doesn’t need to be a private space – it just needs to be somewhere the only task you take part in is writing. Or at the least, you are only productive at. Your brain will recognize that is the place you work and start getting ready to focus.
Alternatively, my brain sometimes requires micro-distractions. Nothing big enough to pull me all the way out but something enough for my brain to shift to and back to keep it from wandering. A frenetic atmosphere helps with that. I once wrote a short story while I was hanging out at a children’s event full of excited kids. Too bad malls aren’t still a thing I’m sure they’d be a great environment as well. I’ve heard coffee shops and restaurants with a laidback atmosphere can also be useful. In undergrad, sometimes I’d go to the all-night diner in the middle of the night. Sadly, the place is no longer open and I no longer live in that town.
Music can provide a great backdrop as well. In times when you need focus, choose something without lyrics – classical, lo-fi, movie soundtracks, whatever. When you need the micro-distraction, choose something that gets your blood pumping. I used to write to Metallica when I needed a little extra oomph to keep on task.
When it comes to writers with ADHD, we need more structure than others.
You’re going to need an outline. As much as I hate outlines and everything they stand for, that’s really something I’ve had do come to terms with. Outlining is the only way I was able to win NaNoWriMo in 2015. Everything needed to be outlined or plotted beforehand. And when I say everything, I mean beyond the big picture ideas. Scene-level plotting needs done. This doesn’t always have to happen at the same time you do your big picture outline. When I did scene plotting, I plotted the next day’s scenes after I was finished writing the scenes from the day before. I called this micro-plotting. Micro-plotting kept my juices flowing so that I could finish before I burnt out and I never had to look at the page completely blank. Making your outline on sticky notes can help – it provides a visual and also allows more free-flow to the outline. You can remove/add/modify as you go without having to reformat an entire document. I kept a sticky note outline for big picture and put the scene plotting in a notebook, written by hand. I feel like keeping my writing and plotting separate keeps me from trying to modify something during my writing work time. There are apps for movable plotting as well, but I’ve never had any success with them, probably because they bring you back to the big bright internet.
Sometimes, while writing, you may come across something you need to research. A good way to deal with this is to mark it in the document and make a note in your notebook, then look up the information outside writing time. This will keep you on task while still acknowledging the item for later.
I learned during my research that ADHD brains tend to be visual brains and like being stimulated with visuals. Make a Pinterest board for your story/characters/places. Look at them when you’re stuck. Could get you back on track to look at the pin boards when your attention is flagging to get back on track. Sketch out your ideas like a storyboard for a visual outline. Checklists are another tool to keep on task. Make a list of each thing you want to accomplish during your session so you don’t get tempted to run off after the shiny butterfly on the internet. This can include plot items to cover, research, or document maintenance. Making a checklist will make sure that you don’t get distracted by something else while you’re clearing your tasks. It will also give you a sense of accomplishment and breakdown overwhelming tasks into surmountable tidbits.
Making yourself a deadline can keep you on task. Choose a set amount of work you are going to do in a month. When I was in grad school, it was 25 pages of new work or 50 pages of edited work a month. This helped me immensely. I finished the draft of the book that I had been working on for 20 years. Deadlines helped me forge forward and keep going even when I was tempted to put it off till later. Now I know I mentioned editing pages but important to remember: don’t revise until you are done or you will end up stuck forever in a loop of perfectionism and never get out.
Editing is always the next big step after finishing a piece and that’s where I’ve unfortunately stalled. While go, go, go is good for getting ideas out, it’s not great for making a work polished. I’m going to try some of these ideas to break down the work into easier to comprehend sections as right now looking down the barrel of a finished manuscript is a little daunting. Small bites makes for a happy ADHD brain.