16 Writing Tips for ADHD Brains
“There’s no rule on how it is to write… Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” — Earnest Hemmingway on Writing
Writing when you have ADHD is particularly onerous. Sometimes you’ve been ruminating or feel inspired and the words just flow on to the page (much like this blog post). Other times just the thought of working on a writing assignment sends your brain into a tailspin. So how can you make progress when the deadline isn’t in two hours and getting words on the page feels like fishing barehanded?
This post contains 16 suggestions split into two sections:
- 9 ideas for emergencies and
- 7 ideas for planning ahead to make consistent progress on large projects.
Some of these are things that have worked for me, others are suggestions from other ADHD writers. Remember: your mileage may vary (depending on the project, your brain, hormones, etc).
If you’re stuck and need help right now:
Adapt the pomodoro — Set a timer for 20 minutes and try to type a few sentences (consider starting with the Freewrite Method if you need). Write extraneous thoughts on a spare sheet of paper to get them out of your head, which can help attempts to refocus. Once you get going, dispense with the timer except for when you STOP writing (bathroom, food breaks), then set it to remind yourself to get back to writing.
Put your headphones in/on — If that doesn’t work, start a good playlist. I find that I prefer certain music when I’m writing, another when I’m coding, etc. Find the genere that feels inspiring and try to feed off of its energy to get started. Here are some of my favorites, most of which have no vocals.
Go off grid — Turn off notifications, wifi, everything, then sit and stare at the page. If you aren’t writing, you aren’t doing anything else either so you might as well write.
Find what’s possible — This is particularly helpful with larger writing projects that have multiple pieces in varying stages of completion. Maybe putting words on the page is impossible today but tackling comments from your advisor is doable. Revisions and edits are valid, important parts of the writing process, too.
Start small — Identify the smallest, most specific writing goal(s) possible and frame it as a question. Answering that question may naturally lead into more. E.g., what are the characteristics of Bacillus anthracis? (Answer: B. anthracis is a gram positive, spore-forming bacterium. It is the causative agent of…)
Embrace stimulation — Find a mindless task (washing dishes, driving, folding laundry) and do it in silence instead of playing the radio, tv, or your phone. Think about what you’ve written so far and what you would like to write next. Think about your project until the words are itching to get on the page.
Harness novelty — Go somewhere new to work, whether it be a coffee shop, library, or co-working space, find and control novelty in a place with the right amount of stimulation to let you focus on your writing.
Try freewriting — This writing method can really help if your brain feels stuck since writing about what you’re having trouble with can help get you to what you’re supposed to be writing.
Go for a walk — Letting ADHD bodies move often allows their brains the space to create. The problem is that you can’t walk and write at the same time. Or can you? Consider using Google Docs, a recorder app, or some form of dictation software to record yourself writing out loud as you walk. When you get back to the desk, transcribe/transfer it to your manuscript and now you have something to work with.
Tips for Writing Ahead
If you’re thinking about how to make consistent progress on a project without leaving it to the last minute:
Rotate projects — Executive function isn’t exactly a strong suit for people with ADHD this may seem a counterintuitive suggestion, but consider maintaining multiple projects. Because our interest in a project can come in fits and bursts, having multiple projects that you can pick up and put down as your interest varies means that even if one seems impossible to tackle, you may have the brainspace or inspiration for another of your projects. Rotating through them can satisfy the need for novelty while maintaining momentum (and fostering incubation 1).
Body double — Find an accountability buddy or group that you can co-work with, either in-person or online. People with ADHD tend to be socially motivated. Having another person trying to focus while you’re trying to focus can sometimes enhance your ability to focus!
The Set-up method1 — Plan ahead and stop while things are flowing. Leave a word, sentence, or paragraph unwritten so that you know right where to start next time. As great as it can feel to get words on the page, it can help to stop writing before you burn out.
Keep the trash — Instead of completely deleting phrases and/or paragraphs that don’t work, keep a separate document for each of your projects where you can move those snippets. When you feel stuck, skim through the “trash” for anything that inspires.
Make a checklist — In other words, make an outline. Check off or cross out each topic as you cover it so you know what’s missing and avoid feeling the immense overwhelm of WRITING with smaller topics. If long checklists overwhelm you, split it into smaller bites that you can then allocate to different writing sessions.
Embrace spurts1 — Keep the document open on your desktop. When a good sentence, phrase, etc. pops in your brain, tab over and write it down before you forget! This could be particularly helpful for people who work at the bench. Repetitive tasks allow your mind to wander and “write” as you work. Having the document open enables jotting those thoughts down as they occur, making progress easier.
Allow processing time — All brains need time to process and digest information after gathering it. I suspect that ADHD and other neurodivergent brains need a bit more time so consider allowing yourself a week or two between when you finish prewriting and start drafting.