It astounds me how much I rely on the internet when I write. I’m not talking about checking social media or email: I mean using the internet as a resource. In the midst of writing, I often will look up some source, fact-check, do a little preliminary research. If I am not extremely diligent, I’ll soon find I have several dozen tabs open on my browser at a time (I once spent the entire length of a movie bookmarking and closing over 100 of them).
That’s all to say, I do a lot of quick internet searches when I write.
It’s easy to do. Though I often write in my home office, surrounded by the wisdom of books, I find it much more convenient to, say, look up the definition of a word by opening another tab, rather than stand up, pull out one of my hard copy dictionaries, and thumb through the pages until I come to the correct entry.
It’s a strange phenomena when you think about it, really: this ability to use a word processing device for so many other useful functions (I do think of my computer primarily as a word processor). Who would ever imagine that a typewriter could also give you access to a world of information?
Lately, I’ve been preoccupied trying to write a paper for an academic conference that I’m attending this summer. Progress has been relatively slow – and the weeks are creeping up on me. I have a lot of ideas, but trying to put them all together into some logical sequence has been difficult. I keep hitting road blocks – mind blocks. When the mind block happens, I check my email (again) or go on social media and scroll, much as don’t want to admit it.
One day this week, I woke up to work on my paper as usual, but found that the internet was not working. Now, when I say I’m “going to work on my paper,” what I really mean is that I will work on it . . . after checking my email and floating around social media for awhile. (You see, even before I’ve approached my paper for the day, I’m already trying to take a break from it!) But that day, I couldn’t: the internet was not working.
When I look back on it now, I find it strange that I didn’t try too hard to find or fix the problem. Rather, I calmly accepted the fact that the internet wasn’t working, quickly adjusted my frame of mind, and bravely chose to see this absence of the internet as a positive thing.
Now, you’re right: I could have just used my phone for the internet that day. But when the internet didn’t work that day, I decided not to replace my computer internet searches with ones on my phone. Besides, I think of my phone primarily the way I think of my computer: as a device used for the function it was created for. I use my phone almost exclusively for calling and texting (neither of which I do that often). Probably better not to get into the habit now of using it for internet searches.
During a normal writing session, I get distracted by numerous notifications that pop up on my screen, and I get sucked into browsing for longer than needed on social media. But it I didn’t realize just how much time all of these unnecessary “breaks” took up until I could not do them any more.
The surprising thing I found during the day was that I didn’t miss the internet. Not after that initial attempt to try to “check” my email and social media. Rather, I just worked ahead with my writing. It was one of the most productive days I’ve had in many months – both in my writing and my day in general.
I still came to mind blocks – but when they hit, instead of relying on the internet to let me forget the difficulty of writing for awhile by getting lost in information, I picked up a book. Actually, I picked up several.
At one point, to soothe my accustomed need to open new tabs and/or be distracted by social media, I opened a book that had nothing to do with what I was writing about, and began to flip through it at random and read. I caught myself in the act, and realized why I was doing it. As I think about it now, it seems absurd to me that I’d do that as a coping mechanism: and yet, I do that daily, multiple times even, on the internet. I scroll through and find videos or short texts that have nothing to do with what I’m writing about, and yet I turn to these things when I run into writing problems.
What came of my non-internet day — no longer being able to rely on the internet to distract and pacify me — was a realization that I needed to return to some primary sources. I found these books on my shelves, left my office, and curled up in a comfortable corner to read for awhile. Not browse, not skim, not flip through pages the way I scroll through my newsfeed. No. Read.
Yes, I realized that I needed to take a few steps back and do a bit more reading before attempting to write more. That was the core of my writing problem: yes, I had lots of ideas, but perhaps not enough solid grounding to let them take root. Taking the time to read and think about what I read — rather than just flitting about, in a panic, because I still haven’t written the paper and the conference is coming — is exactly what I needed to move forward. And I was able to finally come to this conclusion by eliminating the distractions which pacified my panic and let the solutions remain on surface level only.
And another thing (because, I started this essay, after all, claiming that my need for the internet when writing was not to check my email and social media, but rather to use the internet as a resource) : when I was still working on the writing part of my paper that day, and found the need to look up some little bit of information, instead of doing so, I would 1) look it up in a physical book, 2) determine to look it up on the internet later, or 3) realize that it probably wasn’t that essential, after all.
How did I get by for a day without the internet? Surprisingly well, actually.
Now, I’ve not sworn off using the internet for research, or even for distraction now and then. But I can’t help but see how much more I accomplished by having an internet-free day, one where I didn’t just have a mind block, but found a real way around it, by reading.
Turns out, the internet wasn’t actually “down” that day – my computer just wasn’t connecting to it automatically the way it usually does. Which is an interesting thought: what would happen if I were to re-wire my brain so that when I go on my computer, or have a writing problem, I don’t automatically connect to my email and social media. What would happen if I, metaphorically, turned that off?
Question: What changes have you seen in your writing when you’ve eliminated or minimized the internet or other resources / distractions?
Yes I do get distracted while writing something else. It so happens very often that I am making re-search on some topic but shift to reading something else. Also it makes me feel like I am getting addicted to internet which I don’t want to . I prefer hard copies of books over pdfs and the other sources. This essay was useful to me . Thank you. Can you tell me kindly that are you a professor of literature? since it seemed so as I was reading role of imagination in creative non-fiction.
Yes, I hear you about reading something else while in the middle of research! I’m glad you found this post useful! To answer you question, no, I am not a professor (though I’m flattered that you thought I might be!), though I was a graduate student who taught a bit, and studied both English literature and creative writing. Thanks for your comment!
I have that same urge to break away from the sentence/paragraph/page I’m working on, and I’m trying to break the habit of allowing myself to turn to email or something else on the computer, because I finally learned that those pauses mean my brain is working on something. I’m far more likely to figure out how to solve the problem or fill the gap if I stand up and look out the window, go for a short walk, or even start a load of laundry: anything that will give my mind the time it needs without giving it an excuse to wander off topic.
I found your comment so helpful and have kept it in mind as I’ve been writing the past couple of days. I think you’re right that the “pauses mean my brain is working on something.” That thought struck me, and I’ve been experimenting with it since I read it – and have, for the most part, succeeded in resisting the urge to check my email or social media when I want to get away from my writing. And you know, I’ve found that more often than not, I’m able to continue thinking through it, slowly, instead of distracting myself by reading or watching something else. Great tip also about doing something else not related to reading or writing. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom!
Heather, what’s strange and maddening is how often I’m inclined to pull up the online universe when I’m working on writing, rationalizing it to myself as “research.” I know better, but I still regularly fall into the trap. When it’s especially bad, I disconnect my internet connection altogether.
An editor tried to convince me I should get in the habit of writing directly on the computer (and I do this sometimes). But I find that sitting in my recliner and writing by hand in a tablet seems to unleash creative parts of me that don’t come out onscreen.
Hmmm – it makes me wonder why that editor wanted you to write directly on the computer? I seem to remember a study that showed we write differently on electronics than when we write by hand. Glad to know that writing by hand is working well for you – it certainly seems like a relaxed way to write!
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It can be way more convenient, too!
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So good, Heather. The changes that happen to my writing when I set aside the internet are that I write SO MUCH MORE. Gah. I’ve now been trying to set aside some time in the morning for my writing and I don’t look at the internet until the last fifteen minutes. I’m trying to note things that I might need looking up and do that during the day – but by setting aside that guarded writing time, I’m hopefully going to see more actual work being done…I have so much research, inspiration, reading, and notes EVERYWHERE, I’m trying to get a system down to my madness.
Thanks, Amy! Yes, isn’t it amazing what happens when we set the internet aside to write? It’s like THE secret to get a lot of writing done. It makes total sense theoretically, but on an application level, I’m just figuring it out now myself. Your morning ritual sounds like a great writing strategy – and I like the idea of permitting the last 15 minutes to look at the internet. Also great to begin the day writing and let the ideas percolate throughout the day. I too have varying degrees of madness in my writing – most of it currently in the form of trying to organize too many drafts of the same thing! Thanks for sharing a bit of your writing process!
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An interesting concept: not use internet resources when writing. What would I do without Google, for example? Or the thesaurus “button” on the computer? The book I used to rely on fell apart years ago. Actually, I have blocks of writing hours, appointments with myself, to meet my (self-imposed) writing deadlines, a trait I developed back when I was a newspaper journalist, whether writing on Word Document or WordPress — or even by pen in my writing journal.
Yes, “what would I do without Google?” It’s a great question! – for me I realized I got along better than I thought I would. 🙂
That’s great to have blocks of writing hours. I like how you put it, “appointments with myself.” I find that, for me, the time I intended to write can be taken over by more pressing needs, if I’m not careful to guard it. Thinking about it as blocked out, “appointment” time like that I think is a great idea. Thanks for sharing!
I’m sure you are busy living “real” life outside of the blog-o-sphere, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve missed you! 🙂 Hope all is well and you are getting lots of writing done, friend.
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I’m so glad you commented, Amy! I’ve missed chatting with you, too! 🙂 I’ve been busy finishing my L.M. Montgomery paper – in its final stages it was the only writing I was able to focus on, and I sadly had to leave out all blogging in order to get it done (I also had to ban myself from Netflix). But I gave my paper last week and am back home now, blogging again. Am looking forward to catching up on your posts that I’ve missed! 🙂
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