The Deep Work of Writing, part 3 of 3

“Concentration” by Arend (CC BY 2.0)

Before we move on from Cal Newport’s Deep Work, I want to share some of my thoughts on the book, what I like most about it, and examples of what a commitment to deep work might mean for writers (or at least this writer).

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I’ve followed Cal’s work for years. Deep Work continues themes and approaches from his earliest writings, including a willingness to defy common wisdom, reliance on research, and an emphasis on rules and strategy.

I could never and would not want to schedule my days as minutely as Newport. I value passion more than he does. I also came away from his latest book feeling there is another part of the story to tell, one that includes more female examples and voices. These caveats aren’t meant as criticisms. Rather, they offer support for how, even so, I continue to find value in his insistence on the efficacy of a structured workday, in his argument for why “follow your passion” is not always the best advice, and in his example of how to live and work in ways that cut against the grain.

What I like most about the concept of deep work can be found in a Study Hacks blog post titled “Resolve to Live a Deep Life,” in which Cal posits these commitments to deep living:

  • You systematically train your ability to concentrate intensely.
  • You build your workweek around protecting and supporting many occasions to work deeply.
  • You take bold measures to demonstrate respect for your attention. Read more

Let’s reword these commitments a bit to focus specifically on writing:

  • Train our ability to write with more concentration and intensity.
  • Build our days and weeks to protect and support the deep work of writing.
  • Be bold in respecting our attention and writing.

These commitments as part of a DIY summer writing retreat would go a long way toward not only getting more words on the page, but also adopting a new mindset so that we continue to write more and with deeper meaning once summer has ended.

How might we train, support, protect, and respect the need for deep writing? Here are just a few ideas I’m trying and hoping to put into practice:

  • Schedule writing appointments with ourselves, giving them high priority. Write them in pen. Draw bold circles or squares around writing time. If we are part of a larger household, post our schedule in a public place.
  • Practice for how to respond to requests on our attention that interfere with our scheduled writing times (I can’t make it then—I’m booked solid that day—Not a good day for me).
  • When we are waiting in line or otherwise have time to spend between this and that, resist the urge to check social media or email or the internet. Instead, think about a current writing project, what we will write next, what revisions we’ll make. Allow ourselves to become mentally obsessed with our writing, so that we can’t wait to get back to it.
  • Refuse to apologize for, explain away, or downplay our writing.
  • When we do write, engage as fully as possible with our own work. Log off. Sign out. If necessary in the beginning, use apps designed to block digital distractions. This is a relationship between us and our words, between us and our life’s calling. It matters.
  • Remember that research, reading, revising, and editing can also be deep work when we approach them with “distraction-free concentration” and at our fullest abilities.
  • We can continue to train for deep work even when we have no time to write, by consciously refusing to use our phone to alleviate every twinge of boredom, by scheduling for shallow (and, yes, fun) time on social media so that it doesn’t expand to fill the entire day, and by being more mindful in general as we go about daily activities.

One more aspect of Deep Work that is worth thinking about. Newport argues that, for knowledge workers, the ability to concentrate and work deeply is a rare but valuable commodity at the moment. We writers have been told (and told) how important it is to have a brand or platform, and we can easily fool ourselves into thinking that all time spent on social media is a good investment in our writing. Some of it may be, but—speaking only for myself—I would gladly exchange many hours I’ve spent scrolling newsfeeds for stories, poems, and novels.

Questions for reflection:

  • What does it mean to you to be bold in respecting your attention and writing?
  • Do you talk about your writing with the kind of respect you hope to get from others?
  • Does your writing time always take a back seat to anything else that comes along?
  • What are the biggest distraction temptations while you write? How might you plan to avoid them?
  • What are some ways that you nurture the deep work of writing?

See Also


DIY Summer Writing Retreat graphicThis post is part of the DIY Summer Writing Retreat blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.

3 thoughts on “The Deep Work of Writing, part 3 of 3

  1. These three posts were very interesting, and for me at least, very timely. Even though I have a lot on my plate at present, I am guarding my writing time religiously. I write in the mornings, until noon, and then I work on other things. If I get up and out of bed early (set an alarm) then I have several hours to work. If I am a slug and sleep late, then I have less time to work…and I refer to it as work not as “my hobby” or “play time” even though I enjoy the work so much. Maybe it’s because I feel I have waited so long to be able to do this and that I’m feeling a good amount of pressure to do this before I lose mental acuity, but it seems to be working well. Thanks for the reinforcement.

  2. This is the encouragement I need right now. I am more about good intentions than I am any productivity but have scheduled time coming up this week.
    I find that I am often distracted and not just in my writing world. I’m hoping that beginning to train for deep writing will have the added benefit of adding focus in other areas of my life.

  3. Aleta, I am definitely looking forward to how we can encourage each other, and I look forward to hearing what works for you. I think that being careful to practice self-compassion (in terms of not feeling guilty for what we haven’t done) is also a big part of the equation. Cheering you on from here!

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