There are two desks in my office. The one closest to the door is L-shaped and contains a laptop and external monitor. Next to my screens are a microphone, a pair of Bose headphones, and a notebook to-do list. This desk is where I run the administrative side of my freelance writing business. I take calls, respond to emails, track income and expenses, and deliver work to clients.
Against the far wall is the second desk. This one is smaller than the first but vastly more important. On it, you’ll usually find a large open notebook, one or two pens, and a few dozen books. This is my device-free workspace. No computer. No phone. The only electricity flowing here is to an antique lamp that illuminates my work from the right-hand side. This is where each day, pen in hand, I write.
Computers and access to the web are vital to the success of any modern freelance writing business. But I also believe that spending too much time at a computer holds writers back from reaching better clients and producing their best work. Here are six arguments for why freelance writers should spend less time at their computers.
1. Write without distraction
I don’t think I need to build a case for why the internet is distracting. To stay focused at any task online requires uncommon willpower, special software, or a rare hit of motivation. I mean, just look at how many tabs you have open while reading this article. Working from a computer, most of us have several things constantly going on at once.
I’ve tried many hacks and software over the years to reduce my internet consumption while working. Here’s what I’ve concluded: Nothing works better to ward off distractions than simply shutting down your computer and opening the blank page of a notebook.
2. Slow your writing process
Faster production is a good goal for an assembly line. It’s a short-sighted one for writers. I have no doubt that you can type much faster than you can write by hand. That’s exactly why you should write by hand.
Slowing down your writing process gives you time to think. Great writing is difficult to produce because it requires depth and craft. When you write using pen and paper, you are more likely to pause and think through an idea before putting it on the page. This slowed process during the first draft, in my experience, greatly improves the quality of my final work.
Author Robert Caro learned this same lesson during a creative writing course at Princeton. Caro writes:
We had to write a short story every two weeks, and I was always doing mine at the very last minute; I seem to recall more than one all-nighter to get my assignment in on time. Yet Professor Blackmur was, as I recall, complimentary about my work, and I thought I was fooling him about the amount of preparation and effort I had put into it. At that final meeting, however, after first saying something generous about my writing, he added: ‘But you’re never going to achieve what you want, Mr. Caro, if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers…’ That was why I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand.
3. Consume higher-quality media
Great writers read.
Foundational to maturing as a writer is reading the works of great authors. Steven Pinker describes reading as a foundational part of mastering the craft of writing. He writes, “Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. This is the elusive ‘ear’ of a skilled writer.”
My third argument for spending less time at your computer is to raise the quality of media you consume. Sure, there is outstanding writing to be discovered on the internet. The challenge is sifting through the abundance of mediocre or bad writing—especially found on social media—to uncover the hidden gems. Rather than wading through a noisy newsfeed, start your search for great writing away from the computer screen.
Author Haruki Murakami was once asked why he doesn’t use social media. He said, “Generally speaking, the quality of writing isn’t very good. Reading good writing and listening to good music are incredibly important things in life. So, to phrase it from the other way around, there’s nothing better than not listening to bad music and not reading bad writing.”
The fastest way to find high-caliber writing is to pick up a book, newspaper, or magazine. You at least know these works have gone through the revision and vetting process of an editor.
4. Write for editors
The average person spends 147 minutes per day on social media. For writers who use social media to promote their freelance businesses, I wouldn’t be surprised if that figure doubles. It’s one thing to scroll social media when you’re bored. It’s another thing to post, interact, track engagement, and DM editors like your career depended on it.
One way to spend less time scrolling and more time writing is to change where and how you promote your business. I’m talking about making social media secondary.
I believe that the best way to promote your writing business is to keep writing. But not all writing is equal. Where you publish matters. If you want to get more out of everything you publish, then I believe you should seek to write more often for editors than for social media.
Social media has an extremely low barrier to entry. There is no gatekeeper telling you that your story needs another revision, a better hook, or a stronger argument, let alone that you missed a typo.
One of the best ways to promote and simultaneously improve your writing is to pursue publication opportunities. Editors are a writer’s best ally. They strengthen your work and require much higher standards than you see on social media.
The obvious catch is that getting your work published can be difficult, even painful. Seeking publication means you’ll be forced to revise sections you love. You’ll face rejection for work you’re proud of. But those costs seem small when you consider the benefits of publishing in popular blogs and magazines:
- Your work will be published on a website (or magazine) that has its own built-in audience
- You’ll grow your reputation as an established writer by appearing in respected media—which will make it easier to get published again in the future
- You’ll often receive backlinks to your website (which can improve SEO and drive traffic to your website)
- Everything you publish in a respected magazine or blog doubles as a hot writing sample
- Regarding social media, you might receive two or three points of distribution: you, the publication, and your editor can each share the article to your respective networks
- Since some publications pay writers, you can effectively get paid to promote your writing business
So, instead of coming up with creative tweets, imagine if you spent those same 147 minutes per day writing for respected magazines. The upside seems too good to ignore.
5. Distinguish your writing voice
Every writer is influenced by the tools they use, the media they consume, and their creative process. By changing any one of these factors, I believe we change our creative output. Not necessarily for better or worse. Not necessarily to be more or less interesting. But these factors cause change.
The internet is convenient. You can research at the click of a button, write and edit quickly in Google Docs, and easily track down the trendiest article or idea of the day in a matter of clicks. It’s great! Except for one glaring problem: most other freelance writers are leaning on those exact same conveniences.
I believe that the writer who chooses pen and paper over Google Docs, books and phone calls for research instead of the top Google result, and a distraction-free work environment instead of a tab open on Twitter, will over time begin to produce work that stands apart.
In a world where everybody writes, craftsmanship, voice, and a differing opinion go a long way.
6. Seek experiences that inform your writing
It’s hard to drum up original stories and big ideas while staring at a blinking cursor. The best stories begin in real life, by meeting interesting people, visiting peculiar places, and putting yourself in situations where stories can unfold.
Charles Darwin was a highly successful writer. His most famous works—from The Voyage of the Beagle to On the Origin of Species—were inspired by first stepping away from a desk to see the real world. He spent years traveling, worked and performed thousands of experiments as a naturalist, and maintained an active network of influential scientists and thinkers. He was a great writer—but his writings are remembered because they contained substance. That substance was born from activity and work he performed beyond his writing desk.
Darwin didn’t have a computer. But the principle still applies. Getting away from your computer enables you to find your own ideas and stories worth telling. It allows you to read great books, spend time with friends (or strangers), explore your city and beyond, and ultimately discover content of substance.
Yes, time spent diligently improving your craft behind a computer screen is vital to improving as a writer. But so is telling a truly epic story. That’s why freelance writers should spend less time at their computers—and more time in the real world.
See you out there.