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Write Faster by Separating Cognitive Tasks

Splitting writing into its component tasks helps you beat distraction.

By
Stever Robbins,
August 15, 2017
Episode #467

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Your computer is a magical writing machine. It holds piles of reference documents. It switches formatting at the click of a button. It puts a world of research info just a search away. And it checks your spelling! But it might be too magical, because it’s your distraction machine too. And since almost all our writing is done online these days, it takes a special approach to focus when writing on a computer. The key to that approach is separating cognitive tasks so the very tools that make the magic don’t accidentally turn you into a frog. Frogs can’t type.

Gather reference material before you write

Bernice is putting together a blog post explaining why Audrey II’s, despite their tendency to snack on household pets, are actually the ideal plant for a suburban lifestyle. Her essay is complicated by the fact that next week is a total solar eclipse. As everyone knows, Audrey II’s and eclipses are a bad combination.

But is that true? Although Bernice adores raising Audrey II’s, she’s never done actual research on them. So she finds herself bouncing between Microsoft Word and Wikipedia, slowly grinding out a draft that is … basically a summary of Wikipedia. After deciding she needs to look at more scholarly sources, Bernice ends up on a website for cute kittens dressed as fruit.

Bernice has fallen victim to distraction! That’s because she’s trying to write and research at once. That’s a recipe for disaster. (Though not for the owners of the cute kittens website, which made $103 dollars in ads from Bernice’s visit.) It’s hard for brains to switch from information intake to creative construction. So jumping between research and writing, like Bernice, burns time and energy for no good reason. Plus there’s no time to digest the new information so we can form nuanced opinions and original thinking. And of course, the web is made to distract, so there’s always a devastatingly tempting cute kitten website just a single click away. When we research as we write, there’s a good chance we’ll blandly reproduce our source with each paragraph. But if we research first, we can group our information in more logical and interesting ways.

Research first. Take dedicated research breaks. Find the books, articles, and other sources you’ll use and put them out on your desk. Use highlighters or sticky notes to mark passages and quotations that seem useful. Now you have everything at your fingertips to find, copy and paste a quotation when you need it, instead of having to stop and research in the middle of your focused writing.

For internet research, open all the tabs you need at the beginning of your writing session. If you need a break, save them in bookmarks. In Chrome, choose Bookmarks > Bookmark All Tabs. In Safari choose Bookmarks > Add Bookmarks for These Tabs… Those will save your open tabs as a folder in your bookmarks bar. The next time you need them, right-click on the folder and select Open all Bookmarks In New Window Once your tabs are open, disconnect your computer from the internet by turning off your Wifi or unplugging your network cable. That way you can’t distract yourself with new research, social media, or other projects.

And by the way, put your word processor into “full screen mode.” On the Mac, almost every program uses the keyboard shortcut command-control-F to start and stop full-screen mode, so it’s super easy. Now, you won’t be tempted to stray from your writing by the site of your web browser in the background. (See what I did there? “Site” of your web browser? I should win an Emmy. Really, I should.)

Format for filing and structure before you write

Bernice has all her sources together, and is ready to draft her blog post. She writes furiously for hours, and almost has a solid draft. But she doesn’t notice that her Audrey II has been happily chewing through her computer charger. And alas, her computer dies in her lap before she has a chance to save her work!

Bernice has made the vital mistake of getting too keyboard-happy. Always create, name, and save the files you need before you write. Before you start typing in a new document, make sure that document is saved in the right directory. Doing this won’t just reduce the chance that you’ll lose your work if your computer crashes. Saving your files first will also keep you from getting distracted the first time you need to save. When that time comes, just hit Command+S and keep typing away.

Proofreading should always be the last thing you do.

Once you’ve organized your writing at the filing level, spend some time organizing each document’s structure, too. Decide what the takeaway of your writing is and write it at the top of each document. It can be hard to start writing when you’re staring at a blank page, so stating your purpose at the start is a good way to ease your mind into letting the words flow. 

Next, make an outline based on that takeaway. A big reason that outlines work is that they let us break down the writing process into two main parts: structure and content. If you can plow through structure without the details of content dragging you off course, you’ll save lots of time.

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