I'm opening this node by saying that if you do indeed suffer from ADHD I know what you're expecting. There's no shortage of well-intentioned but useless advice provided to you and I by armchair psychologists. We are constantly inundated with exhortations to try harder, organize, and generally get our shit together. I believe that it should go without stating that we would if we could. A lifetime deficit of focus, short term memory, and impulse control is not the way we choose to live but the way that, unless we carefully manage ourselves and regularly consume powerful medications, we must.
I hope that you understand that you and I are in the same kind of shitty, persistently leaking metaphorical boats and that I understand the exhausting metaphorical bailing that that has to be done to keep from being sunk by your ADHD. I also hope that you understand that although this guide is very long and dense, it contains very real and very helpful advice. My goal is that it will will show a useful enough awareness of reality that you will set it apart from the innumerable other articles and “tips and tricks” that you’ve received over time and thereby keep reading. Whether it does or does not, I would appreciate that if you have an opinion about this node or if you just want to talk, you would send me a message on Everything2.
With all that out of the way, let's talk about writing with ADHD. Obviously, it's a struggle. Writing is something that requires immense focus and personal discipline that many "normal" people lack, let alone those with impulse control issues and a curtailed short-term memory. Personally, I have pursued writing as my only hobby but, over time, the struggle between my ADHD symptoms and the demands of being an adult have made it more and more difficult to write effectively and efficiently. Because writing is my passion, I've tried endlessly to get around my roadblocks with drugs, fancy notepads, and even meditation. But after several years of trial and error I believe I have finally arrived at a few successful strategies for balancing the needs of good writing with the difficulties of ADHD and I've become capable of writing structured pieces on a daily basis.
To save you the trouble that I had to go through to learn all of this, I've synthesized it into a series of steps and written them out here with explanations and justifications. All of these steps are designed with you in mind and I have tried to excise anything that I felt wouldn't apply to a broader audience with ADHD but I realize it may be a bit much to read through all at once. My first piece of advice then, is to grab a notebook or open a word processor and take some notes on this massive wall of text so you can distill all this down into something more personally useful and reliably retain it. Alternately, print it all out and read at your leisure.
Remember: If you forget, I've wasted a ton of time.
Touch typing is valuable skill for any writer but for you, it's essential. Typing is a complex activity that requires the coordination and timing of approximately 50 muscles extending up into your arms while your brain simultaneously attempts to create a pleasing flow of words relevant to the topic at hand. As you can imagine, this is an extremely focus intensive task that individuals with ADHD are easily derailed from. So you’re going to have to relieve your brain of some of that burden.
Before you start to moan and groan, know that you should find that learning to touch type effectively will have an almost immediate effect on your productivity, decrease your chances of becoming distracted, and play an essential role in achieving the much sought after state of hyper focus detailed in Step 2 of this guide. Of course, by “almost immediate” what I really mean is “after some practice” so I have included some free typing games and programs that you can delve into right now! Go ahead, play. This write-up will still be here when you come back.
Had a good time? Good. Hopefully that little break rejuvenated your attention span.
Now, I was tempted to make this step into step 3 as improving your drafting and outlining is arguably more important to the process of actually writing but I changed my mind on the grounds that you’re going to need to enter a state of hyper focus or at least something close to it before you get down to brass tacks. Hyper focus, along with all the touch typing you just did, is just something you’re going to have to get under your belt before you can push your grand work out of your mind and into reality.
Once again, I know what you’re thinking. Hyper focus is a rare and elusive state. If I could achieve it all the time, I wouldn't have ADHD in the first place. Lediablerouge is a big dummy and he doesn't understand my problems. Wah wah wahhhhh.
Well, I say to you, didn't you read the first paragraph of this WU? Didn't it convince you that I understand? I know you can’t will hyper focus even if it’s something you desperately want to achieve. I know that in your mind you've ascribed it near-mythical proportions of power, like you’re accessing your super Saiyan heritage or summoning a nine-tailed fox demon that was sealed inside of you decades ago as a child whenever it happens. But let me tell you the truth.
Hyper focus is easy to achieve and it’s entirely possible that you lapse into it without realizing it at least once a day. Anytime something grabs and holds your attention and you lose the ability to consciously disengage from it, you’ve entered hyperfocus. Likely venues for this include web browsing, video games, television, and anything sufficiently bright, shiny, and detailed enough to scintillate you into a hypnotized state. Hyper focus is just a symptom of your brain seeking external novelty, so anything that consistently provides you with that is going to lock you in. It’s not a superpower and it’s generally not even a boon unless you channel it very very carefully. The upside is that if you can, you can work for hours upon hours on end without thinking of anything else. So here’s some more steps to tell you how to do that.
Create a distraction free workplace - This generally means quiet and free of an internet connection although I realize finding somewhere without one is getting harder everyday. I personally have more or less given up on writing my outlines and first drafts on a computer of any kind and bought a cheap but effective Brother ML-100 typewriter to do the bulk of my work on instead. If you simply feel that a typewriter is not for you, I recommend a cheap refurbished laptop or maybe an Alphasmart Neo. If you don’t want to have to splurge on a dedicated writing device at all (though I cannot understate the value of having one for early drafts), I recommend using any number of free web blockers available on the internet.
Make sure you did your touch typing practice and feel comfortable with your abilities.
Mentally identify what it is you want to write about and write it out- This is possibly the most difficult part of the entire process but it is essential. Writing, fiction writing in particular, is an almost entirely internal process and your brain is wired to be interested entirely in external stimuli. If you want to have any hope of starting up the process you need to take something from within yourself and externalize it on the page. Write a paragraph or sentence summing up your idea or ideas as best you can. It can be as vague or abstract as you want; details are for outlines. It just has to be something you find interesting enough to mull over and build off of. Consider it your hardpoint.
Begin a stream of consciousness - Start to write whatever comes to mind after your hardpoint. The longer this goes on the more you will produce so don’t allow anything to interrupt it. As you progress you should grow closer and closer to a state of hyper focus as your work naturally increases in length and complexity. The increase in variables and details will give you something to constantly think about and adjust to, much like the progress of a game or a movie. Despite this, it is very important that you do not stop for anything. Do not go back to edit and do not rewrite. You can do that later. Just keep writing. You’ll know you’ve entered hyperfocus when you completely lose track of time.
Note: I personally find it useful to talk to myself during this part of the process, muttering the words as I go along to see keep my flow alive. Finding out how they sound when read aloud is a useful bonus.
Step 3 - Outlining and Your First Draft
I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I hate outlining. Maybe it’s just a symptom of having spent just about my whole life flying by the seat of my pants but I find it super difficult to follow plans, even the ones I lay for myself. As a result, I’m dependent on drafts to shore up the quality of my work, with the first few going utterly off the rails. A lot of my posts on E2 are in fact embarrassing examples of what my early drafts look like, having been written in a lackadaisical state of mind and rushed to production before any kind of real refinement can take place. I hope that this revelation doesn’t trouble you too much in regards to this piece though, as it is on at least it’s fifth draft as I type this.
In order to prevent you from turning out like me, I’m going to recommend some outlining strategies that have actually worked for me in the past. And trust me, if they worked for me, they should work for just about anyone.
Write out your hardpoint - Your hardpoint, as described in the previous section, is the rock off of which you construct whatever it is you are writing. If you are writing non-fiction, it may or may not be your thesis or hypothesis. If you are writing fiction, it may or may not be your first major plot point. In any event it is safe to think of your hardpoint as your opening paragraph, even if you know full well you are going to replace it later or don’t even structure it is a paragraph. The important thing is that you have some kind of pilot light sitting atop your work that is going to guide it in the direction you originally wanted to go when you started.
The whole purpose of the hardpoint outside of helping you achieve hyperfocus is to prevent you from branching outside of your desired subject matter, so it’s a more or less mandatory part of outlining as well. I would also advise, maybe on a separate piece of paper or maybe right under your hardpoint, writing out an endpoint. You may initially find this constraining but if you’re writing fiction, which is significantly less self-containing than non-fiction, this will help you bring things full circle in the end. Just remember to leave yourself a lot of room for whatever happens in the middle.
Organize your outline - You should always try to have some kind of fixed format for your outlining. I strongly recommend the kind of letters and numerals outlining that you may have learned for taking notes in middle school but, in case you weren’t paying attention, I have included an example below:
A. Part I of Topic
1. First event
b)who was involved
2. Second event
b)who was involved
B. Part II of Topic
1. External stimuli involved in the events of part I
I. what it was like
II. what caused it
I. what it was like
II.what caused it
As you can see, this format leaves a lot of room for detail but also neatly orders things in a way that you can quickly reference to see what round you need to cover while writing out your first draft. In fiction, just replace “Topic” with chapter and you should be able to create a neat skeleton of your events.
Remember that the benefit to outlining as opposed to drafting is that it is much easier to add or subtract a sentence in an outline than it is to rewrite an entire page of a draft. The maxim of writing with ADHD is that minimizing drudgery will always improve your productivity and enjoyment. However you feel about outlining, try to keep that in mind.
Writing your draft from the outline - Turning your outline into drafts can be either a joyful experience or an extremely painful one. Remember that you’re trying to color within the lines and that, however tempting it may be to exit them and follow your heart, you’re trying to make something structured and enjoyable for other people to read. The pitfalls are there in every subject or work of fiction, usually in the form of subtopic or subplot that you suddenly realize is really interesting and decide to dedicate a little extra space to. Before you know, you have a page and a half about the divine origins of the monarchy inserting itself into your short biography of Elizabeth II or a romance between two minor characters completely sidelining the greater conflict with the Dark Lord Ultimax in your fantasy novel.
Always be vigilant and ask yourself if you’re following the outline you set for yourself. If a subtopic or subplot is really so interesting that you feel you have to include, go back and rework your outline to accommodate it. If not, cut it short and try to return to the flow of the draft. You’re going to find that these diversions will vacillate in size in later drafts until finally balancing themselves out into the flow of the piece so don’t worry too much if it seems awkward at the time.
With draft in hand or at least partially finished, you should relax a little and get ready for step 4 which is…
Step 4 - Take a Break
Yeah, that’s right. Get ready to walk away for a little while. But not yet. You still have ADHD, so chances are if you get up right now and leave you’re not going to retain much about where you were going when you left off. Sure, hopefully you have your outline to go by but that’s not representative of exactly where your brain was at just before you got out of your chair to do whatever it is you were *really* supposed to be doing. So leave yourself a note. As someone who usually works without an outline, these are basically mandatory because without them I’ll come back to something with no idea of what my plan was. Here’s an example from the first draft of this node:
Author’s Note: Departed here to prepare for work.
Thus far covered:
Need to cover:
2. Stopping and starting work
As you can see this is pretty short and vaguely resembles my outlining style in format. Since the node is non-fiction I didn’t include any notes on tone or where the plot was going or concurrent events that may be occurring in the plot or even just in my head, so this is by no means the most thorough note I’ve ever left for myself. But when I came back to the draft a few days later I knew exactly where I was and what I had left to cover and was able to resume the piece without any significant breaks in tone or material. If you’re the kind of ADHD writer who regularly punches out excellent but incomplete pieces on a whim, this is going to save you from piles upon piles of unfinished and unfinishable pieces and maybe turn around your entire writing life. For everyone else, leaving a recap at the end of your writing is just a useful habit and will save you tons of time. Do it religiously.
Step 5 - More Drafting
If you were paying attention earlier, way back in the section about hyperfocus, I told you not to turn around and edit your work until its completely finished. I’m standing by that advice now. Don’t start editing until you’ve reached your “final” draft. What makes a draft “final”? Well, that’s arbitrary. As mentioned, I’ve submitted a lot of things before their time was really right. Part of that is impulsiveness, something I’m sure you and I are both familiar with. A brain with ADHD, when confronted with any kind of reward or gratification system, is going to want to cash its chips as soon as possible so in a way, Everything2 is a completely awful place for it. But in the real world, the reward we usually seek is praise. Most of us are going to try and create the most appealing piece we can in the shortest amount of time and push it out the door so we can reap all that sweet attention. This is obviously a really terrible strategy that produces half-baked writing and, counter-productively, invites negative criticism that’s going to shut down your brains urge to write. Remember, the only thing as awful as positive attention is great is negative attention. So draft.
It’s not all that bad, really. As repetitive and boring as drafting sounds it’s actually a really stimulating task and I find it as enjoyable, if not more, than writing the very first draft. Reworking phrasing and flow is a challenge and almost entirely external by nature, since you’re working from pre-written material. You’re going to feel better and better each time you smooth out the jagged edges in your writing and by the time you reach your “final” draft you’re going to feel it in the form of warm satisfaction. So draft, draft, draft. And don’t come back here until you’re done. Trust me, you’ll enjoy it.
Step 6 - Editing
All done drafting already? Really? You must be feeling confident. After all, that wasn’t even bad. You probably really love what you’ve made now. You’re attached to it, as only a creator can be and that’s just beautiful. You’re very nearly done and riding high on your accomplishment. Savor it right now though, because it’s about to go downhill very very fast.
It’s time for editing.
Editing is going to be the most painful part of this for you. You’re not doing any rewriting or adding anything at this point, at least not if this is really your “final” draft. Instead you’re going to have to comb through your work for grammatical errors and anything and everything that can be deleted without affecting the overall flow of your piece. It’s not a particularly rewarding or engaging process so make doubly sure that your environment is peaceful and any possibility of external disruption is minimized.
Then, shutting off as much of the critical thinking part of your brain is possible and with your outline on hand, read through your piece and look for errors. In preparation, you may want to read some sort of grammatical guide to familiarize yourself with the common mistakes you might have made without even realizing it. If you were ever made to buy a writing guide by a high school teacher or college professor, now is the time to pull it out and give it a skim.
Be honest with yourself while editing and steel yourself. As Stephen King so dramatically puts it, you should be ready to “kill your darlings”. Anything that gets in the way of the message you’re trying to send with your piece needs to go. Erase any thoughts of your word count and assume the position of a literary dictator, dramatically restructuring everything to meet his or her own needs after a bloody ascent to power. If you’re ever in doubt about anything, refer back to your outline and, if it’s not adding enough to the piece, purge it. When you’re done, re-read your whole work one more time and come back to this node.
Final Steps and Miscellaneous Advice
Greetings, Stalin. I hope everything went well during the editing process and your piece is now a polished model that writers everywhere can aspire towards. I’m proud of you.
Your final steps are going to be to turn in or get published whatever it is you’ve produced. If you’re in school, print out and staple your papers. Then run to the nearest bookstore or wherever you get your supplies and buy a folder to stuff it in before throwing it in your bag. DO IT NOW BEFORE YOU FORGET.
If you’re looking to get published, take a deep breath and think about your next few steps. You’re going to want (but may or may not need) a literary agent and you should map out all the possible venues for your work. Even if you’ve enjoyed yourself so far and just want to cash out the piece for attention on Everything2 or a social media account, remember that this is something you’ve worked hard to produce and that you should profit from it if you can. Don’t give in to impulse or be intimidated by the idea of publishing. There are plenty of people worse than you who have been published and gotten plenty rich, so don’t worry about the quality of your work at this point: it’s all going to be edited down even further by anyone you send it out to anyway.
Okay. I’m going to pack in some helpful links and resources at the bottom there, but first I’m just going to shove in some more unwanted advice that I couldn’t really get in anywhere else in this node. It might sound a bit like repetition of my opener, but try and stay with me. I mean, hopefully you have some faith in me after reading this far.
So… you, like myself, and everyone with ADHD in general, probably have a hard life. It’s a hamstringing disorder that means you’re always going to have a harder time in the “real world” than anybody without ADHD. And now that the planet is full of social media show-offs you’re going to feel depressed as you see and feel yourself falling behind and that depression is just going to crush your ability to motivate yourself and cope even more. So if you can, get medicated. I went on and off medication for many years after being put on it in middle school and I’m just trying to get back on it now. You may not like it but it’s the only way to keep up with “normies” and it’ll help you stave off depression in the process.
The other thing is now that I’ve told you to do drugs, don’t do drugs. At least, don’t do them in excess; I can’t tell you not to engage in recreational activity altogether without being a massive hypocrite. But look, it’s tempting and easy for us to fall into substance abuse as we attempt to control our disorder. It feels great sure, but it doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t help your writing and I can assure that you that I have written while intoxicated often enough to know that it doesn’t generate anything more than mediocrity that’s interesting to nobody other than you.
Lastly, whatever you do, try to control your environment. We’re naturally inclined to improvise and act impulsively and there isn’t much that can be done about that. But you can minimize the consequences of your behavior by building redundancies and reminders into your life. Try to find someone who will help you with this: a parent, a significant other, a teacher, whoever. If you can control your environment you can control yourself, and that’s the only way you or I will ever get our shit together.
Alright, it’s been real, here’s your links:
Again, if you have any more suggestions or want to contact me, do so through E2. Good luck.