Tools & Tricks for Writers with ADHD

Howard Tayler, Writing Excuses Podcast:

“Word count equals motivation times focus.”

If it’s motivation and focus I need, I thought, no wonder my word count hasn’t budged in weeks.

This past summer, my son was diagnosed with ADHD. And the more I learned about ADHD—the more I unlearned what I thought I knew about ADHD—the more I understood my own brain’s struggles with trying hard things, getting started, and following projects through to the end.

It’s not laziness. It’s not a lack of intelligence. It’s not a matter of not knowing what to do.

It’s a gift (curiosity! humor! creativity! intelligence! fervor! ) … and a curse.

Watch This is What It’s Like to Have ADHD on Facebook

Whether hyperactive or inattentive (me) or combined (my son), ADHD can make writing long works difficult and make multiple rounds of revision feel impossible. But when people with ADHD get published, it’s because they fought for it with an unrivaled passion unimaginable by neurotypical writers.

If you have ADHD, hopefully some of these tricks can help you get those words on the page.

Much thanks to all the users on Twitter who sent in their tips and tricks, quoted below.

Got ideas not mentioned here? Please share in the comments!

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Understanding ADHD’s Hurdles for Writers

Both motivation and focus are difficult for brains with ADHD, thanks to executive functioning disorder. But ADHD also affects writers in other ways. It’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to get started on the task because of ADHD’s connection to perfectionism and the fear of failure.

The stereotype of people with ADHD is that they are messy and disorganized because they’re too lazy or unmotivated to get organized. In reality, many people with ADHD are perfectionists.

“I’m an all-or-nothing type of person.”

“If I can’t do it perfectly, I’m not going to do it.”

“I have organizational systems for my organizational systems. None of them work!”

First drafts are, by definition, not just imperfect but often hot steaming excrement. For a writer with ADHD to get through that step of writing is frankly a miracle that we should celebrate a whole lot more.

People with ADHD also often struggle with a debilitating fear of failure and rejection.

Nearly everyone with ADHD answers an emphatic yes! to the question: “Have you always been more sensitive than others to rejection, teasing, criticism, or your own perception that you have failed or fallen short?” This is the definition of a condition called rejection-sensitive dysphoria.

…The term “dysphoria” means “difficult to bear,” and most people with ADHD report that they “can hardly stand it.” They are not wimps; disapproval hurts them much more than it hurts neurotypical people.

…[Some] find that the pain of failure is so bad that they refuse to try anything unless they are assured of a quick, easy, and complete success. Taking a chance is too big an emotional risk.

ADDitude Magazine, “The Fear of Failure Is Real — and Profound”

Rejection-sensitive dysphoria plays less of a role during the actual act of writing than the career aspects of writing. Recreational writers can write for fun. Professional writers have to submit their work to people who will have an opinion about it.

Knowing that RSD is an actual thing—with a name—can help writers with ADHD better prepare for and cope with rejection.

Knowing that perfectionism and RSD can prevent writers with ADHD from even getting started on a project will better equip them to overcome them.

Let’s look at other obstacles and how writers with ADHD have learned to hurdle them.

Removing Obstacles

The two most common obstacles to writing with ADHD are 1) the internet / apps and 2) distracting environments.

I touch type alone in the dark with my laptop lid closed (Bluetooth keyboard) so I have absolutely no other input that could distract me. I can get about 2 to 3 hours of focus like that before my brain hurts. Then I go back the next day and fix all the typos. —Jared Gray

I often write in my car at a park. It cuts me away from some of the distractions of the home. The Library also works really well. —Andrew Valorson

I know I just said that apps can be one of our greatest distractions, but certain apps can also be our greatest tools. Check the resources at the bottom of this post for recommendations.

Implementing Tools

Because of the stigma surrounding mental health, many people are wary or judgmental of accommodations or medical treatment.

And yet we don’t criticize someone for correcting their nearsightedness with glasses, or scoff at a person with asthma for using an inhaler.

Many people with ADHD find relief through therapy, training, and medication. And oftentimes we find our own accommodations and tools to help us get things done.

Writing the old-fashioned way not only removes the distraction of the internet, but it also gives sensory input, which can improve focus.

I do all my brainstorming with paper and ink, for the tactile aspect. Helps me work out plot tangles, too. —Joan Albright

Writing by hand. Like longhand. Pens. Notebooks. It’s still super hard to convince myself to *start* writing, but it reduces the distraction count to basically zero. And it keeps me from falling into the seductive trap of editing. —Ben Brainerd

I use an Alphasmart or Royal typewriter which takes the internet away. I also enjoy getting up and walking around while thinking things through with a dictaphone. —Alexander Keane

Making writing into a game or competition can increase interest by introducing a sense of urgency.

I set short timers, word wars with others (one of many reasons I write during nanowrimo time,) non-food bribery (new pen/notebook at 10k 4ex) —Karen T. Smith

I set a screensaver to activate after 60 seconds so if I get distracted it kicks in. —Ty Schalter

An ADHD brain craves stimulation. I take non-stimulant medication, so my stimulants of choice are chai and Hot Tamales cinnamon candy (the latter I discovered while trying to stay awake during Western Civ homework).

Music helps me focus. Energetic heavy metal or Orchestral stuff. But it’s what I write that matters. I have to be doing something tight in and sensory. It has to feel like I’m living what I’m writing. And Caffeine. Stimulants help with ADHD. Ritalin is a stimulant.
I also use tools like Habitica to show myself progress beyond wordcount and keep me accountable. Habitica is wonderful. The widgets are super handy. (At least on Android.)—Andrew Valorson

It takes time and lots of trial and error (under the supervision of a trained physician) to find a medication and dosage that works for ADHD, because every brain works differently. I have tried several combinations and am now (in 2019 anyway) on Wellbutrin. But my son started thriving on the very first stimulant we tried for him.

This is not a medical blog and cannot be considered medical advice. See a medical professional to discuss the best options for you, and do not take ADHD medications without a prescription from a doctor who is informed of your medical history and present concerns.

The most difficult and crucial part is getting proper treatment. I struggled undiagnosed for YEARS. Find what works for YOU. I’ve seen the timer (Pomodoro) method mentioned, which really helps me. Weirdly enough, writing in public (library, cafe) helps too, though it seems it would be distracting. I can’t sit still at home. Oh, and meds and coffee. —Elizabeth Perry

Allowing Certain Distractions

I believe in accepting that my attention will be misplace and allowing controlled distractions. At my house, the distractions are never controlled because I have small, unpredictable children and am randomly reminded of chores.

At work, a controlled distraction might be having a podcast or Netflix show playing in the background while I’m working on nonverbal, autopilot tasks.

At home, I might listen to an audio book while doing chores.

When I’m writing, I’ll go to a coffee shop or library, where the comings-and-goings are expected. I can’t listen to stories or watch a show, obviously, but I do listen to a playlist that evokes the right mood.

Routine and rituals are helpful. When I know what songs to expect, I can tune my playlist out just enough to focus on writing. But if I accidentally turn on shuffle, that control is gone. I’m distracted when a song is played out of order.

I like playing music (without lyrics) to engage the part of my brain that likes to wander.—Joan Albright

Undoubtedly, inevitably, I still get distracted by ideas or my internal editor while writing, so I give myself permission to write annotations—otherwise I’ll be consumed by them for fear of forgetting them later. If I’m writing longhand, I leave about a one-inch margin on the edges for notes. If I’m typing, I mark notes with three slashes /// so I can find them later (It’s easier for me to find three lines than “TK” when I’m scanning through a document).

Harnessing Hyperfocus

Hyperfocus can be how and when you get the words down. I usually end up writing in big marathon sessions.

The other day when I was working from home, I got a great idea during a midday  shower. As soon as I got out, I wanted to write my ideas down. Before I knew it, it was two hours later, the sun was nearly set, and I hadn’t had lunch yet. Also I was still in my towel. I definitely did not clock eight hours of work that day.

Sometimes you can trick yourself into hyperfocusing by removing obstacles, gathering all of your tools ahead of time, and setting a timer. If you know that you’ll take a break once the timer’s done, you’ll be more likely to allow yourself to focus during “focus time.”

timer method. though, part of my problem is I have a hyperfocus problem and can write for 10 hours without moving/eating/anything which pisses my doctors off. —Jasmin Nyack

For physical, visual timers, I highly recommend the Time Timer, which was recommended to me by two different therapists my son was seeing as well as his summer camp director (who specializes in ADHD and child development). We have two of them, the classic and the magnet. The classic I bought from Lakeshore Learning; you can get it from Amazon, but if you do, please use to benefit the nonprofit of your choice. The magnet I had to order direct from Time Timer. Yeah, the price is kinda steep for a timer, but with half of my family with ADHD and half unable to tell time, a visual timer like these was desperately needed.

For virtual timers, see Forest and 30/30 in the resources below.



Here’s a list of apps and sites that might be worth looking into:

  • 750words.comFirst month free, paid membership following. Turn writing into a habit with this cloud-based writing software that tracks your progress and challenges you to write 750 words each session. If you can write during work breaks, use your work email and turn on daily email reminders. I set the notification to come before a peak writing time, and set the text color of the writing window to light gray so I’m less likely to read what I’ve written.
  • Cold Turkey WriterFree download. Pro version $30. This app doesn’t let you do anything else on your computer until you’ve written a set amount of words or for a set amount of time. It’s good for hyperfocus, but not good if you have to consult notes or change music. The pro version has some swanky advanced features.
  • FreedomFree trial. Monthly, Yearly, and Forever pricing. Freedom blocks the internet, social media, and apps across your devices. Sign up, and once or twice a year, they do 50% off the Forever pricing. I did this … but I keep forgetting to turn it on before working …
  • HabiticaFree with in-app purchases. Habitica is turns your life into an RPG by rewarding you for establishing good habits. I was introduced to it by Susan Dennard originally. It was too complicated for me, and I lost interest too quickly, but the interface is great, and with no price tag, it’s worth trying.
  • ForestFree with in-app purchases. It has abit of a learning curve, but this app goes beyond a simple timer and motivates you to keep working, both with little quotes and with a bush or tree that grows as long as you keep working. (Hint: The circle around the tree is how you increase/decrease time.) Having happy little trees on my screen did keep me from checking my phone for texts, Twitter, or Facebook for an hour. I think it would work well at work, too, if I remembered to turn it on, but keeping my phone in my bag is just easier.

Further Reading


Tools & Strategies for Writers with ADHD |

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Using Spreadsheets to Track Your Revision

I use spreadsheets to track my editing progress as I work my way through a manuscript. It shows me very clearly how much progress I’ve made and how much left I still have to do.

I tweaked the spreadsheet I created for myself to make it into a template anyone can use (in theory—let me know if you’re unable to save a copy for yourself!).

Here’s the spreadsheet in Google Sheets. Go to File > Save a Copy to save and modify your own.


(The Google Sheets version also has formulae if you don’t want to work chronologically!)

Spreadsheet tracking revision or editing progress

If that doesn’t work, I’ll walk you through the steps to make your own.

First open up a new spreadsheet and include the column headers (Project, Project Name) and row headers (Total Pages, # Complete, Section 1, 2, etc.) as seen above. If you have more than one project, create more rows for that.

Each project is three columns, with its first two rows each merged into one cell, which is why Project Name and the number of total pages are both centered. So merge B1+C1+D1 into one cell and repeat for B2+C2+D2.

Then in B2, enter the total number of pages for your project. In this example, I’ll use 300 since it’s a nice round number.

total number of pages to revise or edit

I filled B3 with a dark gray and turned the text white to remind me that when this template is all set up, that’s the only cell I need to update. I also set C3 and D3 with bold text and a very light gray fill, to set that progress apart as the total progress.

Decide how many sections you want to divide your project into. We’ll do three for this example, but you can add as many as you’d like.

Find the page number that Section 1 ends on. That’s the number you’ll put into B4. For example, if Section 2 starts on page 109, then Section 1 ends on 108, so enter 108 here.

Repeat for the remaining sections. Your last section (Section 3, or B6 here) should have the same number as your total pages (B2).

The total percentage completed (C3) is easy enough: it’s the number complete divided by the total number of pages. So in C3, enter


This is where the formulae get a little tricky. We want to make sure that the numbers in column C stay between 0% and 100%.

The percentage finished in section 1 (C4) is the number of pages complete divided by the total pages, maxing out at 100%. So in C4, enter


The percentage finished in section 2 (C5) is the number of pages complete (B3), minus the number of pages in Section 1 (B4) divided by the total pages (B2), with a minimum of 0% and maxing out at 100%. So in C5, enter


(Yeah, I definitely had to do some digging to figure that one out!)

For C6, you can copy and paste C5. Thanks to the trick Leigh suggested in the comments (adding the $), that first cell will stay B3 even when you copy and paste.

You can continue copying and pasting, but make sure that the formulae in the percentage column always start with the total number of pages. In my template, those cells are shaded dark gray.

Now for column D, the bar graphs. This is something else I had to look up and modify to fit my needs.

All we’re doing is taking the percentages in column C and turning them into graphs, with one vertical line (shift + the key under “backspace” or “delete”). We want 1 line for each 5%.

editing or revision progress graph with spreadsheet

Start with D3:


Then copy and paste down the column. The C3 will adapt for each cell, changing to C4, C5, etc.

One last thing: quickly enter the total number of pages into B3 so you can see how much 100% is, then rescale the D column to fit. Otherwise 100% won’t look like 100% 🙂

If you save a copy of the template I created, you can copy and paste the H–J columns to create more projects.

Now that you’ve got your spreadsheet all set up, update B3 with how many pages you’ve completed, and watch the bars fill up!


xo Lara

How Improv Can Improve Your Writing

Wednesday on the MS Editors blog, I applied Tina Fey’s rules of improv to writing first drafts. Check it out!

You can't be that kid standing at the top of the water slide overthinking it. You have to go down the chute_Tina Fey

MS Editors

I’ve mentioned before (in 7 Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue) that trying improv (the art of performed improvisation) can improve your writing.

Well, currently I’m reading Bossypants by Tina Fey, and in it she gives the rules of improv and describes how these rules have changed her life. The rules are as follows:

  1. Say “YES”
  2. Say “YES, AND…”
  3. Make statements
  4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities

Applying these rules to your writing will help you soldier through a crummy first draft by shutting up your internal editor. The trick is to improv against yourself.

Say “YES”

Stop arguing with yourself and start writing. Stop saying you can’t do it, or it’s too hard, or you need to learn more before you can start. Just start. Your improv partner (you) might be crazy, but go with it. In fact, craziness usually translates into energy, so embrace the crazy and hammer out that…

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On the Death of a Genius

A writer friend texted me the news this morning.

Immediately I wished I was in a courtyard with wand-wielders. As a poor substitute, I watched a scene from Half-Blood Prince and made this.


This afternoon I was swiping through old photos of me (which my aunt texted a few weeks ago).

I guess with Alan Rickman’s death, I’m getting all “I open at the close”—trying to decide how to live more truly to my child self. The silly, creative girl who didn’t limit herself, didn’t compare herself to others, didn’t fear failure:


Rickman didn’t get his big break until his forties. He gave us almost thirty years of brilliance—of character immersion so great, people are mourning not only him, but also the various fictional characters he loaned his soul to.

On Tolkien’s birthday, I posted about how long it took him to find success. Earlier this week, I retweeted this from Saladin Ahmed (though I usually don’t share tweets with cursing) because it felt relevant to what I’ve been feeling and reading this year thus far:

I’d like to think I’ve got time, but what if not? What am I doing that will leave a legacy? How am I moving toward my creative goals?

As a student, I always gave myself this deadline age of thirty-three. I’d tell myself, nobody was more influential than Jesus, and he didn’t start recruiting disciples until he was thirty-three. Why expect I’ll make a difference before thirty?

Well, some people do. Some people find fame as teenagers.

But those people aren’t me. And maybe they aren’t you.

So what do we do? We acknowledge that no two paths to success are the same, and those paths can often change. We acknowledge that there is no “right way” or “right time” to do creative things—just the way that makes most sense to who we are and what season we’re in.

We each have obstacles in our lives. The point is not giving up. That’s why we read stories. Characters can’t control their inciting incident, but they can decide how they will move forward. Either way, they’re active:

“Folk seem to have been just landed in [adventures], usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.”

(Sam to Frodo, The Two Towers)

Maybe you need more experience or training before you can move forward. Maybe you are a caretaker; someone is dependent upon you. Maybe you have a job that leaves you overworked or exhausted, but you need the income. Maybe you need time for self-care.

But maybe you need to distinguish between what is necessary and what is important, and prioritize accordingly.

So where are you standing right now, en route to your creative goals? What stands in your way? What can you do about those obstacles? How can you work around or despite them? Comment below.