Writing While ADHD

I won’t lie. Writing while ADHD is a challenge! There are many benefits to ADHD, such as the ability to think quickly and generate galaxies of original ideas, as well as an enhanced capacity for hyperfocus and flow. It’s always good to remember that ADHD isn’t an “illness,” but rather a less common type of brain wiring. Still, ADHD can make the act of sitting down and putting words on the page trickier than it is for people with other types of brains. What I’ve learned from more than a decade of writing while ADHD is that we simply have to work with it, not against it.  

This post is divided into three segments that address specific ADHD concerns: the necessity of minimizing distractions, the efficacy of establishing a routine, and tricks for overcoming executive function disorder. All of this advice applies to people without ADHD, but it’s critical to those of us whose heads are buzzing with ideas yet who find it difficult to write.

Minimizing Distractions

Virginia Woolf famously established the necessity of a room of one’s own. Writing is a solitary activity, and it’s important to minimize distractions so you can hear yourself think. Unfortunately, avoiding distractions is difficult for many people with ADHD, and it can sometimes be necessary to take extra steps to create a comfortable work environment.

The easiest way to make a quiet space is to stay away from the internet. This is just as obvious as it is problematic, as it negates many of the tools used by other writers, such as Discord-based writing sprints, music channels on YouTube, and online countdown timers. This also means that you can’t do research as you’re writing, meaning that you’ll have to set up a system of annotations to return to later. Nevertheless, the internet is kryptonite for people with ADHD, and it’s best to limit access while you’re writing and editing.

In addition, it goes without saying that your phone should be nowhere near your hand. If you have pressing business or emails that need to be taken care of, promise yourself that you’ll handle it after you finish writing. Many people with ADHD are excellent multitaskers, but writing demands focus.

ADHD gives us intense powers of concentration once we’re able to focus on one task, so it’s important that this concentration isn’t misdirected. Because of our brain chemistry, people with ADHD tend to gravitate toward the most high-stimulation activities available, so we need to be extra careful to create a quiet physical and mental space free of distractions.

To summarize: Be kind to your ADHD brain by putting away your phone and staying off the internet while you’re writing.

Establishing a Routine

Many writing guides stress the importance of establishing a routine. Putting your butt in the chair can be difficult for everyone, but it’s especially difficult for people with ADHD, many of whom find it almost impossible to concentrate if we’re not feeling motivated. This is why it’s crucial for those of us with ADHD to put extra effort into training ourselves to get into an appropriate headspace to write.

Having a quiet environment free of distractions helps immensely, as does having a set time of day for writing. If you use medication, it’s helpful to sync your writing time to your medication schedule. It also helps to schedule your writing in accordance to the natural flow of your mood and energy. While some writers are capable of carving out small blocks of writing time during their daily schedules, this isn’t a feasible strategy for most people with ADHD. Instead of fitting writing into a pre-existing schedule, many of us have to rearrange our commitments to work and education in order to solidify a routine for writing.  

The process of establishing a routine tends to take longer for people with ADHD. Some days might be painful, especially at first. Because we can’t choose how our brains are going to function on any given day, it’s important to be patient and kind to ourselves in order to keep the routine going. If you can only write for twenty minutes during your designated time before getting distracted, consider it twenty minutes well spent. If you can only write for five minutes, that’s okay too. People with ADHD tend to be susceptible to burnout, so it’s important to give yourself time to adjust to a new routine and not to push yourself if you’re not feeling it.

The important thing is to stick to your routine, no matter what. It will take time – three or four months at minimum – but you’ll train your brain to appreciate the routine instead of resisting it. With practice, this routine will help you trigger your ADHD superpowers of concentration when you need them. Knowing with certainty that you’ll be able to access a state of flow is the key the what is perhaps the tallest hurdle for writers with ADHD: overcoming executive function disorder.

To summarize: While paying attention to the natural fluctuations of your focus and energy, set aside a specific time to write every day, and be kind to yourself if some sessions aren’t as productive as others.

Overcoming Executive Function Disorder

Let’s say you have a fantastic idea, and you can’t wait to start writing. You’ve written any number of stories or essays before, not to mention school assignments and social media posts. Even though you acknowledge that writing is work, it’s work you love doing…

…and yet somehow you just can’t bring yourself to do it. It’s like there’s an invisible force field around the project, and no amount of good intentions (or pressing deadlines) will help you get past it. You’ve settled into a writing routine, and you’ve minimized the distractions around your writing space, but you still can’t get started.

This is when it helps to be sneaky. You have to trick yourself into opening the document and putting your fingers on the keyboard. The easiest way to do this is to shift the goalposts of what you count as a successful writing session. Maybe you can’t write a page. So what? You can write a sentence instead. So what if you can’t write a sentence? You can write a short list of sentence fragments. It’s all good. If you can’t focus today, there’s always tomorrow.

Once you get started, you’ll usually end up tricking yourself into meeting your original goal, which is fantastic! Sometimes it’s just not working, and there’s no helping it. And that’s okay! You don’t have to play by the same rules as other writers. If you end up with just a sentence, you’re doing great. (True story: Some of my most successful publications were written at a pace of one sentence every day.)

Delayed gratification isn’t something that most people with ADHD are equipped to handle, so another useful trick to getting around executive function disorder is to treat yourself before you start writing, not as a promised reward. Go ahead and eat a piece of chocolate or drink a cup of fancy tea as soon as you sit down. Physical motion often helps ADHD people focus, and a pantheon of respected writers have said that they do their best work after taking a walk. The brains of people with ADHD aren’t wired to get serotonin from the expectation of a reward, so it helps to treat the opportunity to sit down and write as part of an integrated ritual of self-care.

To summarize: If you find it difficult to start working, shift your expectations of what you need to achieve – and maybe treat yourself before you start writing.

Again, most of this advice applies to almost everyone. Our brains operate along multiple spectrums of how we process the world, and ADHD doesn’t manifest in the same ways or the same degree for everyone. That being said, it’s important to remember that issues that may not be a concern for other writers may be a barrier to an ADHD writer. Creating a distraction-free space and establishing a set routine is extremely helpful to those of us writing while ADHD, as is learning how to treat writing as a reward to be enjoyed instead of a task to be completed.

This post is concerned with the broad strokes of general practice, but it would be interesting to hear the specifics of other writers’ experiences. What are your strategies for keeping your ideas and research organized? How do you stay on track with larger projects? While you’re in a period in when your brain isn’t cooperating and your writing progress is incremental, how do you deal with the anxiety of not being as productive as your peers? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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This post originally appeared on Get Your Words Out, a community of writers aiming to maintain healthy creative habits and writing productivity. Membership to the community opens at the beginning of the calendar year, and its content is limited to members who maintain their writing pledges, but the GYWO Twitter account is accessible to everyone and posts encouragement, prompts, and writing resources at a steady but manageable pace.

Novel Writing with ADD

Having almost finished my third fanfic novel, I’m preparing to start my first original novel early next year. This is a project I’ve been planning for the past year, and I’m taking it very seriously as I consider the path my life will follow over the next few months.

I’m facing something of a problem, however.

I have ADD.

I’m making a (somewhat arbitrary) distinction between “ADD” and “ADHD” here, not in the least because I’m probably one of the most chill and least “hyperactive” people you could ever meet. If you talked to me for the first time, or even if you worked with me for years, you would probably never know that there’s anything “wrong” with me. To be honest, I don’t see ADD/ADHD as being in a different category of chronic condition than, say, diabetes. It’s genetic, and I handle it with a combination of medication, behavioral strategies, and social support structures. You know, as one does. It’s not a big deal.

Still, working with ADD can be difficult. The secondary conditions accompanying ADD, such as dyslexia and executive function disorder, can be difficult to work with as well. Although it’s only tangentially related, having anxiety is difficult too. All of this is difficult to begin with, and it’s made even more difficult by the fact that almost everyone born after 1980 – regardless of gender, race, or economic class – has been subject to intense neoliberal pressure to “optimize” their “performance” in order to succeed in absurdly competitive systems that only reward people with an abnormally high degree of preexisting advantages. It’s also unfortunate that these disorders are both poorly understood and ridiculously stigmatized, and that the American medical healthcare system is largely inefficient, ineffective, and intensely bigoted, even if you’re a straight white man (but most definitely going downhill from there).

In any case, having Attention Deficit Disorder is precisely that – my ability to concentrate and manage my attention is not neurotypical. I personally wouldn’t call it a “disorder,” necessarily, because it feels very normal to me, and I don’t think it’s actually a “deficit” compared to what other people experience. Rather, it’s a few steps closer to the end of a spectrum instead of being right smack in the middle. Sustaining focus and attention for long intervals with no physical movement or immediate reward is painfully difficult for me. That being said, I’d like to believe that I’m relatively skilled at lateral thinking, thinking quickly, processing multiple sources of input, and managing multiple tasks simultaneously in a way that many other people seem to find exhausting. To use an academic setting as an example, what this means is that I can finish a test quickly and with a perfect score but can’t for the life of me sit still and look at the desk while waiting for everyone else to finish (as opposed to drawing on the back of the test paper or checking my phone, for instance).

To give another example, although I can’t sit down and read one book for an entire hour, I can sit down for an hour and read ten books, and I can do this every day until all the books are read. As a result, I read more books than almost anyone else I know (I keep track of this on Goodreads, if you’re curious), usually with good retention and recall. A problem only arises if you give me a book and expect me to have read the whole thing by tomorrow – in which case I would say that’s your problem, not mine. In other words, the “problem” is often the arbitrary framework for a task, not my ability to handle it. To be blunt, the way I work only becomes a “disability” if someone deliberately goes out of their way to make it so by refusing to accommodate diversity.

This becomes tricky, however, when I have to set a task for myself.

Specifically, how am I supposed to maintain my attention and concentration for long enough to write the epic fantasy novel I’ve been outlining for the past year?

Based on my previous experiences with fanfiction and my academic monograph, I think that, in order to complete a significant writing project, I would need:

– the project to be of a manageable length,
– the project to occupy a manageable timeframe,
– the project to receive a manageable level of feedback,
– the project to have distinct and manageable milestones, and
– the project to have room for me to step away between milestones.

Instead of writing the story I’m envisioning in the form of a giant singular manuscript, perhaps it would make sense if:

– it were divided into a series of novellas
– of roughly 30k words each
– with roughly ten main chapters each
– and roughly 2,500 words per chapter.

I know this isn’t the traditional publishing model, but Tor recently started to put out novellas of approximately this length. (Silver in the Wood is a good example, I think.) Many of the Tor fantasy novellas I’ve read during the past year have been a lot of fun, and I’m given to understand, based on reviews and sales rankings, that a number of them are doing quite well in both digital and physical editions. What I’m envisioning might be possible, then.

In any case, I think it might be worth talking to an agent, but…

…I’m totally broke, I’m very shy, I only have a moderate following on social media, and I don’t have any useful connections in real life. If you combine my inexperience with the publishing world and the way my ADD workstyle functions best with external structure and feedback, I think it’s clear I would need a lot of guidance, and I don’t even know where to begin looking for help.

Maybe it’s still a bit early for all of that, though. For the time being, it would probably be best to start by cleaning up my outline and getting to work on a formal pitch. Once that’s taken care of, I can figure out where to go from there.