REVIEW: “Writing in the Age of Distraction” by Cory Doctorow

Review of Cory Doctorow, “Writing in the Age of Distraction”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 133-136 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

You might expect this essay to contain trite suggestions such as to get off the internet and write, but Doctorow’s advice is more nuanced than this. (1) Yes, get off the internet and write — but don’t expect to be able to sustain that all day. Or even a few hours. Aim for 20 minutes instead. (This advice resonates with me, as I’ve found I’m much more likely to hit — and exceed — my daily goals if I make them really really small.) (2) Stop in the middle of things. (I don’t like this advice. If I know how to start a sentence, I probably know how to finish it. If I don’t finish it today, I’ll probably have forgotten how to finish it tomorrow.) (3) Research isn’t writing. (Oh, god, yes, yes, I know, I know, you don’t need to remind me — except, you DO.) (4) Learn to write whatever the day/time/setting/level of caffeine/etc. (Advice that most writer-parents have probably already internalized. If you wait for things to be perfect, you’ll be waiting forever.) (5) “Kill off your wordprocessers” (p. 135), i.e., turn off all the “helpful” suggestions. (I’d never thought about this before, but all the auto-format, auto-spellcheck, auto-this, auto-that that wordprocessers have is one reason why I do almost all my first-draft composition either in long-hand or composing LaTeX using vim. There’s zero automation. And Doctorow is right about the powerful search-and-replace functions in things like vim!) (6) Turn off realtime social media. (This is advice I can basically never follow, though at least I tend to work on a laptop with a small enough monitor that if I’m deep in composition mode, I don’t see the twitter notifications, FB alerts, slack mentions, etc. because they’re hidden underneath another window!)

Seriously good advice, and all the better for being — for the most part — easy to follow.

(First published in Locus magazine, January 2009).

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