Why You Should Always Write With the Internet Off
You see it all the time on Twitter—writers giving blow-by-blow updates, using the #amwriting hashtag. The thing is, if you’re on Twitter, you’re not doing any serious writing. If you’re even online, you’re not doing any serious writing. Here’s why.
First, a quick clarification. We all know there are lots of great reasons to be online, and the internet has some advantages. The point of this post is not to bash the web or say writers should avoid it altogether, but to show that when it comes down to the actual creative process, you’re better off without it. So by all means go online when you’ve finished your work for the day. But during your allotted writing time, just keep it switched off—and keep your phone and other devices off too, if possible. You’ll notice a big difference in your focus, concentration levels, and creative output.
OK, now we’ve got that out of the way, here are five reasons to write with the internet off.
1. Avoid Distraction
The internet was built to make it easy to skip from page to page, always finding something new, often something unexpected. These are great qualities, but not when you want to focus.
We’ve all experienced that frazzled feeling when we’ve spent a long time online, with loads of browser tabs open—it’s all interesting stuff, but we’ve got distracted from what we set out to do.
Even if you use apps to block the most distracting sites like your favourite social media or gaming sites, you’ll never be able to block out every possible distraction. Just being online opens up a whole world of possibilities. Writing a book is hard enough, and often we’ll cast around for distractions to pull us away from the challenge of grappling with a book-length manuscript. The internet allows you to follow every thought to its distracting destination. Turning it off limits the distractions and helps you concentrate.
2. Go Deep
Writing a book is a creative process. Whether it’s a complex literary novel or a how-to non-fiction book, you’ll need to detach and go deep to reach into your well of creativity.
You’ll also need to be able to concentrate for long periods of time and to follow long thought processes to their logical conclusion.
Being online fills your head with noise, news, opinions. It’s fascinating and stimulating but inimical to depth, as Nicholas Carr showed in his ground-breaking 2011 book The Shallows, which raised disturbing questions about the ways in which our thinking processes are being changed by spending too much time online.
Going online can help you learn and be inspired. It can provide great fodder for your next book. But when you’re ready to write it, switch the internet off.
3. Be Original
All of that noise, news, and opinions we talked about in the last point have one thing in common: they belong to someone else. When you’re online, you’re wallowing in other people’s voices. You’re taking on their opinions, their views of the world, their language and expressions.
When you’re writing a book, the number one commandment is to be original. This is your chance to express yourself for 100,000 words or so. It’s critical that you have some space on your own, just staring into space and being quiet, so that you can allow some original thoughts to come in.
4. Separate Creativity From Research
Often, writers will go online during their writing time for quite legitimate reasons, such as looking up a detail or fact they need for their book. Even if you can accomplish the Herculean task of avoiding distractions and manage just to find the fact and go straight back to your work, it’s still a problem. Here’s why.
The creative process and the research process are two different things, and they should be kept separate. The creative process, at its best, can feel like a trance, with the words flowing easily and time seeming to fly past. When you come out of composition mode and go into fact-finding mode, you’re disrupting your writing rhythm. You’re switching to a completely different type of activity.
So when you’ve found your fact and are ready to go back to writing, you’ll probably find the process is not as smooth as you’d expected. You slot in the new detail, but the writing doesn’t come as easily as it did before. You may get back into that trance-like creative mode, but it will take time and effort to return to where you were.
It’s better to avoid the disruption in the first place. Avoid the cost of task-switching, and just stick with writing when you’re writing. Make a note of what you need to find out, and do the research later.
5. Do the Important Work First
Here’s the thing about writing a book: even with the best planning, it’s quite likely that large amounts of your book will change as you write it.
That scene that seemed so important later appears extraneous. The subplot that seemed to add depth now looks like a distraction from the main events. Sometimes, whole chapters or sections can disappear in the next draft.
What that means is that a lot of the things you go online to look up may not, in fact, be needed. All that time you spent searching online, distracting yourself and pulling yourself out of the creative process, later turns out to have been wasted, because the sentence or section ends up getting cut anyway.
So that’s just one more reason to leave the research for later. By the time you actually come to look up that all-important detail, it may turn out to be less important than you thought, or that section is no longer in the book.
Keeping the internet off allows you to focus on what’s important: the shape of your manuscript and the words on the page. It helps you to avoid a lot of wasted time by only looking up the less important details when you really need to.
But What About…
Even with all these reasons to write with the internet off, there will be plenty of people reading this thinking, “But what about…?”
For example, what about backing up your work? One of the great features of the best book writing software is that it allows you to save your work automatically to the cloud, so that you don’t have to worry about losing any of it.
This is indeed a useful feature, but you don’t need to be constantly connected for it to work. The best apps, like Scrivener, allow you to write offline and save automatically to your hard drive as you type. Then, whenever you next go online, you can have your work saved to the cloud and sync to other devices. This is safe enough for 99.9% of all cases. If you’re really worried, you can always turn the internet on while you take a break—which you should do every hour or so—and have it sync then, before turning it off to start writing again.
Research is a big part of any type of writing. Even in completely invented fictional worlds, you’ll probably want to look something up, just to make sure you get the details right and make it sound realistic—or perhaps to check that you have the right word.
But on the internet, research can quickly become distraction. You go on to find out what time of year blackbirds lay their eggs, and then you read articles about blackbirds, and nature in general, and then you see some intriguing clickbait in the sidebar, and before you know it, half an hour has gone by and you’re way off target.
It’s better to just make a note in your manuscript to look up the details later. Stay focused on your creative process. Then set aside a specific time later on to look up the details you need.
Some authors like to rely on the writing community to help them stay motivated. All those Twitter hashtags keep them motivated through the writing day.
Again, you can do all of this without having the internet on constantly while you write. You can contact your writing buddies online before you start work and again afterwards (and again in your breaks if you want). You can do the same with Twitter posts, or blog posts, or however else you want to stay accountable. But you don’t need to leave yourself open to distraction while you write.
But I Can Control It…
True, there are plenty of apps out there to allow you to block time-wasting sites. You may think that if you’ve blocked your favourite social media sites and any other personal temptations, you can safely go online to do research and other worthy, writing-related activities.
As we’ve shown in this article, most people can’t do that. The internet is built to make it easy to surf around from page to page, to follow links, to disappear down rabbit holes. It’s impossible to block every site that could ever distract you. For most writers, going online is antithetical to the kind of detachment and deep thinking required for true creativity.
With that said, if you’re the exception and you can go online without any problems, good for you! The rule with all writing rules is to do what works for you. Writing with the internet off is best for most writers, and it’s definitely worth trying for an extended period of time, just to see what happens. But if you get better results with that WiFi switched on, go for it!
For more writing advice, check out the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community by Gabriela Pereira. It’s full of ideas to help you focus on your writing and achieve better results.