The ADHD Guide to Writing

Tim says: I was having lunch in Portland, OR a few weeks ago with my good friend Ryan McRae and he was telling me all the ways he manages his ADHD and still gets a ton of writing done. His word count puts me to shame!

Right then and there I asked him to share his tips with us as part of our Summer Blitz: Get Your Writing Done and he agreed. I got a ton out of reading this and I’m sure you will too!

Ryan is the author of Ordering the Chaos: Simple Ways to Organize Your ADHD Life and the creator of The ADHD Nerd where he helps adults with ADHD be more productive.

Enter Ryan…

First off, let’s just clear the air.

Let’s all just be on the same page.

Writing is really hard. Sitting down, coming up with “stuff” to write, and finding the time, well, it’s brutal.

Also when you’re ADHD and your brain keeps distracting you with thoughts and other things you should be doing, like going to the dentist, or stopping by the DMV to say hello to those lovely people… writing grinds to a halt.

You stare at the empty page, discouragement sets in and then later, down the road, probably after you’ve watched a few TED talks, no writing has been done

You decide to try again.

You get another new journal. A new pen. And you’re back at it.

And the cycle keeps going. I get it. I really do.

I’m about as ADHD as Comic-Con is nerdy. I was diagnosed at 18 and had to figure out how to manage this so I could get stuff done. I have a passion for writing, a deep thrill of getting words on the page, but my ADHD can get in the way, like a four year old constantly wanting a snack.

I had to figure out a way to get my ADHD to align with my love of writing.

I knew that if I spent my time fighting it, I’d never get anything on the page.

So I have to figure out how to make my ADHD work for me.

Here’s my methodology for getting a ton of writing done whether or not you have ADHD. I suggest you give them a try.

1. Take Three Steps Back

Before your fingers start sweeping over the keyboard, ask yourself a couple of questions such as:

  1. How long is this piece I’m planning to write? Is it for a blog? A novel? What is the length?
  2. Who is my audience? Who are the ideal people I want reading this work? For example, on my blog,, my audience is comprised of adults who have ADHD that want to be more productive.
  3. What is the main point of this piece? After someone finishes reading this, they will feel/think about ______________?

You want to understand the scope of your writing, what you are going to cover. And you want to figure out your audience. These are the guardrails when it comes to your writing. When you get stuck, you can remind yourself of these two guidelines so your writing doesn’t derail.

This doesn’t mean that if you are writing a large novel that you have to have every piece of dialogue figured out—oh contraire—you simply want to have an idea of where you are going.

2. It’s a Fine Time To Outline

Unless, I’ve decided to riff on poetry, I have to have an outline to get work done.

Let me be clear: I have to outline my work before I get started. This is a non-negotiable.

My ADHD will balk at sitting down to write 250, 500 or a 1,000 words. My ADHD will say, “No way, we should fire up some Candy Crush. 1,000 words is way too hard!” and then I wind up rearranging a sock drawer and the writing doesn’t get done.

Your ADHD loves making outlines. It’s like a list, a magical list of things you are going to write. You make notes in the margin. You jot down your ideas. Isn’t that easier? Yes, yes it is .

Whether I’m writing a blog, a short story, or a non-fiction book, an outline is mandatory because otherwise my ADHD will cry out, “This project is too big! Let’s take a nap on the couch instead!”

3. Small Goals. Small Steps. Big Results.

Once you have your audience, scope and outline done, this is where you get down to business. This is where you start writing your piece.

But let me warn you.

You are going to be very shocked by how long it actually takes you to write. Yes, I’m sure you aced Ms. Hoolihan’s typing class your junior year and the ribbon is still on your bulletin board.

If you think that sitting down to write 500 words is going to take you 1/2 hour, you need to multiple that guess by four.

Yes, any estimation you have about how long it will take you to write something, you simply multiply it by four.  One hour? Try four. Three hours? It’s twelve.

I know that seems harsh and we have been getting along great up to know, but I’m afraid that’s the ADHD truth. After awhile, when you get better at writing and your process is smoother, you might change that multiplier to three, but let’s pump the brakes.

I say this because your ADHD mind wants breaks. It wants a drink of water. It might check Facebook (which we will talk about) and it could use a snack. But you want to plan for getting derailed and accept it rather than fight it because this swill cause you less stress and more production in the long run.

Also, now that you have an outline, you can simply look at it and decide what you want to write. Just decide you are going to bust out the scene in the outline of Captain Tremeré meeting the forbidden Space Princess Alalaha. Just that scene.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Now, for those of you who are a bit advanced on managing your ADHD, I’d let you choose: decide either the section or scene you want to write or decide on the word count. But you will need to decide on what you are going to get accomplished so you have some push back when your ADHD says, “Oops, we are stuck. We have no idea what to write now. The muse is napping. Let’s take an early lunch and then tackle that laundry. Because anything is better than writing.”

You have to say, ‘We will do laundry and get ice cream when we finish this scene.” I wouldn’t recommend saying that out loud, especially if you are in a coffee house with headphones on. It’s not going to earn you any free drinks.

But if you keep doing this, chipping away at your outline, getting your 250-1,000 words down, you are going to see big results.

4. Write in the Same Place.

Your ADHD loves ritual and things being the same. I’ll bet when you order food, you get the same thing. You like parking in the same spot. Because the rest of our brain is so chaotic and random, we do like the things that we can count on. When it comes to writing, being in the same place brings comfort and it tells our brain, “This is where the writing happens!” Your ADHD is going to get in the “writing” mode faster. You’ll find that you quickly reach a writing zone than when you write in random places.

There’s a certain coffee shop that I like to write in, with a certain drink and a certain table. If I can’t have that, it doesn’t excuse me from getting my writing done. I have to press on, but if you don’t think I’m keeping one eye on that table—you are mistaken my friend.

The Best Music to Listen to

Here’s a rookie move when it comes to writing—music selection. You might have it in your head that you can listen to anything while you write and I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. I get it. You want to listen to some Taylor Swift, you know, her new album. But this is when your ADHD goes off the rails.

When you listen to music, your brain, whether it is ADHD or not, cannot parallel process. You can’t take in new information and create new information. You can’t listen to new lyric while you’re writing an article on the newest oatmeal craze. It’s impossible.

You want to listen to music that has, at best, zero lyrics: acoustic guitar, piano music, etc. [Tim’s note: I love listening to music without lyrics during writing. My two favorite groups for this are Dawn of Midi and Break of Reality.] If you must listen to music with lyrics, you need to pick something that you know cold. Maybe you are really into Nickelback. You have the shirt and you understand their obscure linear notes. That’s fine. Your brain isn’t memorizing or learning so you should have smooth sailing when it comes to that. But take my advice, just as you want to write in the same location, you also want to listen to the same music every time. This reminds your brain: “Oh, I know this song! This is where we use our (long pause) imagination.” And I can’t suggest headphones enough. Get a nice pair of noise cancelling. You’ll thank me in the introduction of the book you are about to write.

5. Keep a Piece of Paper Besides You

I know I’ve been bagging on your ADHD. But it can be helpful. My ADHD is a creative little engine, but I’ve never found the on-off switch. Randomly my ADHD will shout out ideas such as:

“Don’t forget to call the dentist!”

“You should start a band!”

“Let’s go to Vegas. Are there any deals right now?”

“Did you call Amanda? She’s going to be super pissed.”

Then and there I either put that in my phone as a reminder or just jot it down on a piece of paper next to me. Once I write it down, my ADHD shuts up about it because I won’t “forget it”. I do my best to immediately act on it. Some of my ADHD material is very relevant and some if it is like, “Give me a break.” But I write it all down so I can get some peace. When I have a moment, I’ll go through it and see what is relevant and what isn’t It either goes in Evernote or my calendar. It helps keep my ADHD from overloading me with the same message over and over.

This way I can focus on my writing and get to my list of sane and somewhat crazy ideas.

6. Allow the Breaks

If you are writing for more than 50 minutes (and to you I say, congrats), I implore you to get up from your keyboard and take a break for 10 minutes. Take a walk. Call a friend. Do some dishes. Whatever you want, but don’t sit in front of your computer for your nice 10 minute break. If you are still in front of your computer, your brain will not register that you took a break. Do some push ups. Clean your bathroom. But take a break and get refreshed.

7. Celebrate Often

When you hit a milestone, like writing for 7 days in a row or hitting a 5,000 word count, you need to acknowledge and celebrate that. Maybe you treat yourself to a new pen or journal. Maybe you get to have a little bit of dessert. But do something to reward yourself for getting your writing done. Some of you will have to camp out at 24 hour diner and some of you will retreat to your apartment building’s rooftop, but whatever you need to do, do it.

Once in awhile, a great while, you’ll look up from your keyboard, and have blown past your daily goal a long time ago; you got lost in the topic and the words poured out of you. That’s when your ADHD is on board with your writing—and that is a great day.

Ryan McRae is the author of Ordering the Chaos: Simple Ways to Organize Your ADHD Life and The ADHD Guide to Conquering the College Campus: 5 Minutes to Great Grades, Better Concentration & Student Success. He writes the blog, The ADHD Nerd; he writes, speaks and coaches around ADHD. He also is a technology addict and loves everything pumpkin flavored.

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