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How to Get in the Zone: Writing and Creativity

Posted in Creative Writing, creativity, finding time to write, get in the zone, how to be a prolific writer, Learning to Write, mindfulness, motivation for writers, Productivity for creatives, transcendence, writing and creativity, writing life, and Writing Tips

How to get in the zone

Getting in the Zone Makes Writing Easy

Some folks will tell you writing is easy. Others will tell you it’s damned difficult. Sometimes, the same writer will tell you both things at different times on the same day.

Both are true. But all good writers will testify to an experience that’s known as “flow” or “being in the zone.” Knowing how to get in the zone is important to long-term productivity and success as a writer.

Whatever you call it, understanding this experience, and how to induce it, is key to understanding writing and creativity. But what do writers mean when they talk about being in the zone?  What is it?

Being in the zone, or experiencing flow, is a subjective psycho-emotional state of complete, immersed concentration, and heightened, effortless creativity.

Sounds good, right? It does. And it is.

The benefits of being in the zone are so many it’s hard to list them. Here are a few I can testify to from personal experience:

  • Being in the zone is the happiest, the purest buzz you’ll ever have
  • When you’re in the zone, you do your best work
  • Working in the zone is easy and blissful
  • Working in the zone is the fastest way to create good work

Before I explain how you can induce the experience of being in the zone at will, let’s look at it more closely.

It’s Not Mystical, it’s the Most Natural Thing in the World

Many writers describe it as being like a trance state. Your focus is absolute. You are not writing about things, you are living them as you write. You don’t struggle for the words to express what you want to say. The words and the meaning become unified. Your body, your thoughts, and your heart work as one. Everything comes together in a coherent, happy, flow.

The thing I find most frustrating about trying to communicate this,  is that it all sounds so woo-woo, so flaky, so mystical. But it’s not. There’s nothing supernatural about it. It’s one of the most natural experiences.

I wanted to share famous writers’ quotations about being in the zone. But you know what? I couldn’t find any. At least not in the time I’ve allowed myself to write this post. But I’m sure it’s not only me.

If you know any quotations from, or references to, famous authors talking about the experience of flow, please share them in the comments or shoot me an email. I’d love to know!

Children Get in the Zone All the Time

Still, I hope by now you have the idea of what being in the zone is and why it’s such a beautiful thing to achieve. It’s almost time to share with you how I’ve learned to induce this state of working mind. But first, it will help to give an example of how natural and common the experience is. Writer or not, you know this experience already. I’m sure of it.

Do you remember…

…when you were a child?

Do you remember when you were playing an imagination game, so enthralled in the world of your own invention that you didn’t hear your parents calling you to table as it was supper time? And you ignored them not because you weren’t hungry; you didn’t hear them.

You were in the zone.

Do you know what it’s like when you’ve got one of those rare books that utterly transport you? Anything and everything is an annoying distraction from getting back to the book. The world melts away around you and even if the house was burning down, you wouldn’t notice.

When you’re reading like that, you’re in the zone.

Have you ever engaged in any activity or experience so completely that you lost track of time and had no idea how long you’d been doing it?

That’s the zone.

How to Get in the Zone

It’s the ideal state to be in to write your best work. Let’s look at how to get in the zone. These are the techniques I’ve developed over time. They guarantee to get me there. I don’t know if they’ll work for you, but I suspect our brains are sufficiently alike that they will. Experiment and see what works for you.

There’s Power in Purpose

Know what your purpose is before you write. Don’t challenge yourself with a blank page and a blank mind.  Ask yourself:

  • What kind of piece is it? Formal, conversational, instructional, fiction, challenging, opinion, personal or professional in tone?
  • Who do you want to read it? Friends, family, blog readers, book fans, children, teens, older people, professionals, geeks, a particular community?
  • What effect do you want it to have? Inform, entertain, shock, inspire, encourage, challenge, disturb, delight?
  • If you could sum up what you want to write in a few keywords, a single sentence, what would that be?

You can write these down if you wish. I make bullet point lists in my writer’s journal. Use whatever structuring technique you prefer. If you have a powerful visual imagination, you may do it all in your head. I like to jot down notes because it helps the intention to become more solid. But there’s nothing carved in stone. The idea is to connect with your purpose and ease you into the zone. Once you’re there, your unconscious mind will take care of the rest.

Getting in touch with your purpose helps in three ways:

  • It’s a starting block you can push off from as you write
  • Removes “what shall I write?” anxiety and releases energy
  • Helps you keep focus and direction
  • Gives you a yardstick to measure your progress. Is what you’re writing fulfilling your purpose?

Purpose Leads to Passion

Another result of connecting to your purpose is it inspires motivation. A purpose is a thing which matters to you. Caring is motivating. Once you know what the purpose of your piece is, you’ll feel passionate about getting it done and doing a good job.

Your mind will buzz with ideas. You’ll be excited. You’ll be keen to put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. This motivation is the rocket fuel which will give you lift-off to reach the zone. Once you’re in orbit, you can stay there as long as you please.

Challenge Yourself

If you’re a writer, you must enjoy a challenge. Set yourself a challenge with the writing you’re about to do. The most common and practical challenges are word counts and deadlines. That might seem counter-intuitive when we’re discussing how to get in the zone. But launching yourself into the zone is all about power and purpose. Anything you can do to add an edge is worth a shot. The trick is to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, but make the challenge achievable.

Choose Your Work Space

There are two kinds of writers: those who love silent seclusion; and those who can only concentrate amidst the hubbub of daily life.

The former will either have a dedicated, sacred writing space in her home or hit the library when she needs to write. The latter considers a laptop to be a portable office and will work best on the train or in a busy coffee shop.

A few writers are hybrids. I need silence and seclusion for certain kinds of work and moods, and the background noise of the coffee shop for others. It doesn’t matter which you prefer, but if you want to get in the zone you need to know, so you can get yourself to the right place.

Disconnect to Connect

You may not enjoy physical seclusion when you write, but as getting in the zone is about achieving a state of optimal concentration and creativity, distraction-free time is vital. You must disconnect from the world to connect to your inner power.

That means disabling your internet connection, switching off your telephone, locking the door. When you’re in the zone, none of that will matter and all of it can wait. You’ll find everything you need within you.

And because the zone is a “flow state,” once you come out of it, you must start again to get back. With time, practice, and experience, the lead-in time can become shorter, but the quality of flow in the zone increases and deepens with time.

Choose Your Tools Well

Part of learning how to get in the zone is recognizing the need for simplicity.

If you can write by hand (since the dawn of the digital age, many people have already lost this skill) then a pad of paper, a pen, and ink refills are all you need. You don’t need books, rulers, paper clips, high-lighters, post-it notes, plastic wallets, or any other stationary. All you’ll do is write, so keep the tools simple and fit for purpose.

The same principle applies if you’re writing on an electronic device. Whatever program you’re writing in, it must work offline. Often, complex word processors such as Scrivener can make everything other than the page and the words, vanish from the screen. If you’re working in Word, you can minimize the ribbon. Why not write in Notepad? It’s a good, clean work space. That’s what you need.

Don’t Think, Do

So you’ve identified your purpose, you’re powered by motivation, you’ve set yourself a challenge, you’ve chosen the best place to work and your tools are ready. Now you write. Just get started. If you want to get in the zone, acknowledge it will take a few minutes, even half an hour of writing, before you feel the shift and flow begins. So relax and write without a care.

That’s how to get in the zone. Do it. The results will astonish and delight you.

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If you’ve enjoyed this post or if you haven’t, I would love to read your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments below. Please share this post on your social media. That would be a lovely thing to do.

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Image credits: all images (apart from the book covers of my novels and the photo of me) are in the Public Domain and were sourced via the Creative Commons. Click on the image to reveal the name of the artist and the work in the address bar.

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4 Comments

  1. Burgess’s Clockwork Orange made me go into the zone. Awesome book! Sad when it ended because it was pretty much perfect from beginning to end – the mark of a fabulous tale!

    March 2, 2017
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Farrah.

      Yes, the experience of being in the zone can happen reading or writing. In fact, when you’re writing in the zone, in many ways it seems as if you are reading. The story, or essay, or whatever it is, unfolds almost of its own accord and you are simply immersed in it.

      Thanks for reading and taking time to comment. Always appreciated!

      A.

      March 2, 2017
      |Reply
  2. Excellent blog, as always. 🙂 I definitely have a ritual for getting into the zone, and aside from evolving throughout the past few years, it has more or less stayed the same. My most utilized system is to sit down, familiarize myself with the outline of the scene I’m about to write, and put on a specific tracklist with songs that either convey the mood of said scene, or of the character whose POV the scene will be written from. The other way I enter the zone is while doing a repetitive task, like the dishes; I’ll go over the content in my head, and more often than not, talk out loud to myself (or my characters). Sometimes hearing it out loud is what helps answer whatever questions have been niggling at the back of my mind, and in turn, it helps to remove whatever mental blockages I might have otherwise suffered.

    I’m definitely more on the seclusion end of the spectrum, as far as getting into the zone is concerned. But on a good day, once I’m in? I’m deaf to all the noise in the background. On a typical day, a pair of earbuds and my MP3 player more than make up for it. 😉

    March 2, 2017
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Shannon,

      Thank you for your generous and insightful comments. It would be fascinating to survey working writers and find out all the different techniques we have for inducing a flow state. Sometimes music works for me and sometimes not. On the whole it works against me. I tend to get caught up in the music itself. It seems to stimulate an emotive part of my brain which is not where the words are kept! Although I found Debussy piano pieces on low volume very helpful a couple of days ago.

      I understand talking out loud. I don’t write that way, but I do a lot of background work while out walking and talking to myself. Walking is the mother of good thought, and if you speak as you think, you get a certain clarity and rhythm which helps form the ideas. I’ll often do a little radio play to myself to catch character and cadence in dialog. When I was an actor, I used to do the same to learn my lines.

      I’m usually out in the woods and hills, and so free of human encounters when I’m talking to myself – but I have been discovered on occasion. And I was doing all the different voices, too. They must have thought me mad. Perhaps they were right!

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and ideas. I’m sure they will benefit many people who read them.

      A.

      March 2, 2017
      |Reply

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