If You Want To Write a Great Book, Interruptions Are the Devil

May 15, 2024 | Better Writing

“Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.” ~ Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Over the centuries, the devil has gone by many names. Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistopheles come to mind. But if you’re a writer you know the only one that matters. It’s “interruptions.”

Interruptions Are the Devil

Interruptions prevent you from doing good work. Most people who write seriously know that intuitively, but some good research supports the idea.

Cyrus Foroughi from George Mason University investigated the impact of interruptions on the quality of student essays. He and his colleagues found that interruptions significantly reduced the quality of the essays, even when extra time was provided to compensate for the interruptions.

Gloria Mark is a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and a visiting senior researcher at Microsoft. Dr. Mark observed knowledge workers in real offices. She and her colleagues found that even a short interruption significantly delays the total time required to complete a task.

Eliminate Interruptions

Many famous writers chose to work in places where they would not be interrupted. Mark Twain wrote in a shack a long walk from his house. John Cheever wrote in a storage room in the basement of his apartment house.

You may not have a separate building where you can go or a convenient storage room, but you can do things that eliminate possible interruptions. Start by closing the door. One of the greatest unsung heroes of effective writing is a door you can close.

Tell people that you’re going to be writing and don’t want to be interrupted. If you work at home, that might include your family, especially your children. Some writers hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on their door. If you write at certain times of day, your clients need to know so they don’t expect you to respond to their emails or texts.

Speaking of emails and texts, eliminate them from your space while you’re writing. Your smartphone is the source of many interruptions that can slip past your door. Don’t just silence it or even turn it off. Put it in another room altogether.

Your smartphone is certainly something that could interrupt you, but it’s also the source of many distractions.

Don’t Interrupt Yourself

When you interrupt yourself, we call it a distraction. To minimize these, you need a strategy that includes several things.

You are more easily distracted when you’re hungry or tired. Getting good sleep and staying in good shape can minimize the times you feel distracted.

Willpower can help but don’t depend on it. The best thing to do is remove temptations, not devise strategies to overcome them. Save your cognitive energy for writing that book.

Maya Angelou knew about the power of distraction. She wrote in a hotel room she rented for months at a time. She’d get up at 6:00 AM, Take her Bible and writing tools, and go there. She instructed the hotel’s management to remove all the pictures and decorations so they wouldn’t distract her. She had them restrict housekeeping to emptying the wastebaskets when she wasn’t there.

What are your distractions? They’re different for each of us, so identify the toughest for you. Maybe it’s the internet. If so, use a computer that doesn’t allow internet access or use apps that will restrict your access. But if you write effectively when you use the internet as you write, apply some of your willpower and good writing habits to avoid frivolous internet use.

Be ready to write when you come to your writing space so you don’t spend time wondering what to do. That’s the kind of soil where distractions grow. If you know what to do, you can get right to work.

Consider what I call the Raymond Chandler Rule. In a letter to journalist Alex Barris in 1949, Chandler shared his rule for writing time. After stating the need for designated writing time, Chandler said this.

“He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try.  He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor.  But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks.  Write or nothing.”

Well, if it’s “write or nothing,” that ignores a whole bunch of the work of creating a book. After all, only writing is writing. Research, outlining, and planning are not writing. They need their own time. Chandler isn’t the only one who uses this strategy; Neil Gaiman and other writers do, too.


You’ll do your best writing if you concentrate your writing time into large blocks of productive time. Eliminate all the interruptions you can. Identify the distractions that trouble you most. Then, develop the willpower and habits to deal with them.

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