The Power of Focused Writing Time
Focus. The elusive trait that is tied to success or failure, to production or abandonment, to clarity or confusion.
Can you do it? How do you do it? What does focused attention really look like, for you?
These are rhetorical questions. Oprah gets it. A remarkably successful businesswoman, Oprah knows that foucs is a nearly impossible intangible to harness, but when leveraged, there’s nearly nothing more powerful in any endeavor.
Recently, I read that Oprah begins every meeting with 3 questions. This pattern not only provides predictability for everyone — on all of her multiple entrepreneurial, production, and management teams — but it also brings incredible clarity to each of her interactions that support the meetings.
When I read it, I thought, “Well that’s great. For people who have meetings and are bringing together multiple people and projects.” Sounds like it works well in business. But:
- What if you’re a writer?
- What if you hold regularly scheduled, work-focused meetings with yourself?
The truth is though — it doesn’t matter. The Queen of Media began her reign as a professional communicator, and the questions that she uses to focus her team to maximize their efficiency are the same questions that anyone can use in good communication — even with themselves.
How to Save Time and Write More
There are only-so-many hours in the day. There are only-so-many words you can put down in the limited time you have to write. Since the days of etching into clay and stone tablets, writers have struggled with efficient documentation.
Whether you schedule time to write or write on the fly, write efficiently by asking yourself the same questions at the beginning of your writing session that Oprah asks to kick off her meetings:
- What is the intention?
- What’s important?
- What matters?
1. What is Your Intention?
What is your intention during this writing interval? Are you intending to plot the action of a specific scene? Do you intend to brainstorm on a particular character description? Do you intend to tackle a particular difficult dialogue exchange? Are you dedicated to revising a previous draft of a chapter for more powerful verb choice?
By choosing a specific outcome to focus on during your writing time, you can drive yourself toward a particular goal — be it stronger poetic description, discussing gender in a chapter, the conclusion of a scene, or if you write until all the ideas are out of your head.
Your intention may change. Your focus may shift. When it does, preset yourself with the same three questions to take on a new goal or topic.
2. What's Important?
Once you’ve chosen a specific scene, character, dialogue, chapter – even when you want to focus in on a particular sentence – ask yourself what’s important.
If the most important part of your writing time is merely to get the word count on the page, you’re selling yourself short, cutting off your potential, shooting yourself in the foot … etc.
The importance will vary. Sometimes, the scene will need more details. Sometimes, the important thing about the dialogue will be that it needs to convey the right emotions. Sometimes, the paragraphs or sentences in the chapter will need to be reorganized and reordered to better connect ideas in a way that makes sense.
Sometimes, what will be important is making it shorter; other times it will be important to elaborate or clarify and make it longer. But if you focus on “word count” or “length” as your sole focus for the writing period, you’re missing out on attending to what really will improve your craft.
You should focus on the most important thing first. You know your intention for your writing time, and once you choose what’s important, it only makes sense to tackle it first.
3. What Matters?
While it sounds the same as “What’s important?”, use this third question to focus your writing time by examining your own writing from a slightly different angle.
You’re focused on a particular scene, character, plot point, etc., and you’ve looked at what’s important to move toward the outcome you’ve set as a goal, so now, critically, ask yourself:
If this were removed, how would it change the bigger picture? If the reader never knew this ‘important’ detail, or you hadn’t ordered the scenes in this way, would it make a difference to the overall story? Would it ‘matter’ in the world of your characters?
Your knee-jerk reaction may be to say, “Of course it matters! I’m the writer, and I put it there, so it matters!”
But, dear Writers, I tell you – and not without some regret – that effectively, the author is dead (long live the Author!). When you release your creation into the world, your intention does not matter.
Whatever story you think you’re telling is only as real as what the reader interprets from what you’ve written.
So I ask you again – what matters in the world of your characters?
If you take the time to polish the word choice of a particular section, because you want to show distinctly the characters’ thoughts on class and society, then also consider – why?
Is the character motivated by status? Is the world highly structured, or wildly unstructured according to class or arbitrary social divisions or unity? Is there some reason the dialogue takes places between these characters, at this point in the story, in this particular setting?
(I mean – if the conversation could take place in a hallway or a park and be the same words, is it really the same conversation, though?)
If you can honestly begin to analyze scenes, characters, dialogue, order of ideas, and word choice and answer, “Yes! It matters, and here’s why!“, then Congratulations. You have successfully evaded a number of plot holes and inconsistencies, and you’ve probably established a very believable world with personable characters that readers can relate to.
Job well done.