Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Writing Productivity Tip: Multitasking is Death to Creative Writing

Saying it bluntly, our brains never multitask. They hop between tasks, and with each hop, they do each task worse. Nearly every validated study on the subject confirms this.

I am also a single parent with a full time job pursuing a writing career. As a general rule, I don’t give a damn about validated studies. I may do a slightly worse job on each task as I make dinner, quiz my daughter on her spelling words, switch the laundry, and assemble the next day’s lunches, but if I didn’t multitask she’d be hungry and naked while flunking a spelling test the next day.  

Love it or hate it, creative writing is a unique beast when it comes to multitasking. It’s no accident that praise for good writing centers on “depth” and criticism will often be couched in terms of “shallowness.” Only so much depth can be achieved when your brain is only focused on a project for moments at a time. That ten second email response costs far more than ten seconds. Cognitively, you went from the center of your fictional town to the bus station and bought a ticket to the next town. Even if you change your mind and hop off the bus ten seconds after it crosses the town line, you’re still miles from where you started. You may be writing again ten seconds later, but you’re back to where you started in terms of immersing yourself in that world. If you buy another bus ticket five minutes later, that immersion is unlikely to ever occur.

You are probably already aware of the complications of multitasking in creative writing. Multitasking impacts the creative process more severely than analytic processes. Writing fiction also involves an element of multitasking in itself. There is the event in your mind, then as seen through the POV character, and maybe some questions you have about the way you can convey what another character knows or feels without breaking POV. Add considerations that may change your outline or the direction the story is going, and you’re doing it even more.  It’s doable, because at least all of these tasks are focused on the same output, but make no mistake, you’re already multitasking. The last thing you want to do is leave writing altogether to do something else – even if only for ten seconds.

To begin with, I work when I’m alone (or at least the only one awake), with the phone off and email shut down. Even when intrusions occur – the dog needing out or in, a thirsty child, whatever – they tend not to pull me as far out of the world as I go if I choose to break from it to answer a research question or scan email.

JMC – Just Maintain Concentration is my  primary concern, to the point it’s a mantra. My goal has little to do with avoiding “multitasks” and everything to do with striving to remain as deeply in the story as I can.

In other words, my personal goal is to hold the story as tightly as I can with both hands. I focus less on the nature of the outside distraction or task vying for my attention and more on the end goal – total investment in the story itself.

Code for “getting distracted by shiny objects,” multitasking is an exit ramp on the writing highway, even when the tasks aren’t technically multitasking. Answering a spelling or research question on the internet is directly related to the output (task) at hand. But the bottom line is: if I can’t stay in the world I’m building, I can hardly ask my reader to.

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4 thoughts on “Writing Productivity Tip: Multitasking is Death to Creative Writing

  1. Haven’t seen you around for a bit. I thought of you the other day. I seem to remember you having a legal background from the Absolute Write days. Any idea if it’s safe to write a recently dead celebrity as a supporting character? Similar to Play it Again Sam, but a different actor. No need to give legal advice, but maybe an opinion?

    • Life’s been nuts lately. Mostly good, but nuts. The answer to your question is a bit involved, but I actually did a three part series on the ins and outs of using real people (including celebrities) in fiction. Take a look at the Law for Writers section, it’s the top three entries.

      Good to hear from you. You’re much better about regular blogging than I (but blogging for Query Tracker will light a bit of a fire for me that way).

  2. Here i was thinking that i don’t multitask when i write, but i didn’t even think about how checking that new email that just came in affects me. The problem is, i can’t just ignore that little icon, it would interfere more than just taking the 5 seconds to read the email, but still. Probably the solution is to not even have my email open, which would work with my gmail but not my dayjob email (if you get my drift). *sighs for 15 minutes*

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