Understanding Writers with an ADHD Brain
You want to write a book. No problem, right? For some people, sure, but even the simplest tasks are more nuanced when it comes to people with ADHD brains. I’m Jackson, a soon-to-be college graduate. I was diagnosed with ADD as a kid, but a few years back the American Psychiatric Association morphed ADD and ADHD into one diagnosis. Now ADHD is a spectrum.
That being said, ADHD brains are not all the same, so my experience might not be the same as yours even if I share a diagnosis with yourself or someone you know. If you aren’t part of the club, then read on for a peek into how I manage my train wreck of a headspace as a writer.
Let’s jump right into the stereotypes. I saw Limitless when it first came out a few years back, as well as the Netflix series. I know NZT, the pill that makes you a super-genius, is based on Adderall and similar medicines generally used to treat ADHD. It always shocked me to hear classmates bragging about popping Adderall to cram for exams because it helped them stay up all night. They talked about ADHD and the medicine like it’s a superpower. I wish ADHD was a superpower.
Sure, some of it doesn’t sound so bad, especially if you’re a writer. Superman’s powerset includes heat vision, super strength, flying… Let’s take a look at my “powerset”:
Hyperfocus: The ability to concentrate wholly on one task and grind on it until completion.
Creativity: My brain is a constant stream of unorganized thoughts. Sometimes, two thoughts mesh together the right way and I think of a unique idea no one else does. Problem-solving is a facet of creativity ADHD brains also tend to thrive at since it’s all about concocting many solutions and choosing the best one for the situation.
Perseverance: If I’m interested in something, I will bundle this power with Hyperfocus to learn everything I can about it and work at it until I’m “Jackson The All-Knowing Great and Powerful For Random Niche Subjects.”
Keen Observation: In the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, most of the kids at Camp Half-Blood have ADHD. They see it as an advantage since it’s easier to stay alive on a battlefield when your attention is constantly shifting to make you ever-aware of your surroundings.
With the above superpowers I’m shaping up to be a formidable foe. But even Superman is affected by Kryptonite, let’s take a look at some of my weaknesses:
Delayed Task Initiation: Alright. Sitting down at my desk. Time to get to work. After I watch a YouTube video. Well, now I’m hungry. I’ll get a snack. Okay, done. What was I doing again? Right, this task. First I’ll check Twitter… If you don’t have strategies in place to help you get started, this can go on for hours at a time. It’s frustrating. I usually know I’m doing it, but it’s a mental block against starting.
Short Term Memory: Some of you might be thinking: Strange. I’ve never heard of this facet of ADHD. Even people with ADHD aren’t always informed how far their symptoms extend. A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology by S. Dovis, s. Van der Oord, R. W. Wiers, and P. J. Prins asserts that “in children with ADHD visuospatial working memory is most impaired.” According to the study, these cognitive deficits yield motivational deficits that serve as a positive feedback loop to further impair working memory. (So, the worse you perform, the worse your motivation becomes, the worse your working memory becomes, the worse you perform, etc…)
Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD): “But I thought ADHD just meant you had too much energy!” Sometimes. But ADHD has far-reaching effects that seep into emotional regulation. William W. Dodson, MD said this in Emotional Regulation and Rejection Sensitivity for Attention magazine, “RSD is an extreme emotional sensitivity and emotional pain triggered by the perception of imagination by the person with ADHD that they have: been rejected, been teased, been criticized, disappointed important people in their lives…” He goes on to say that most people with RSD try to cope by becoming people pleasers or give up on trying anything unless success is assured to avoid the intense emotions that accompany their failure.
Medicine: A common ADHD treatment is prescribing stimulants. Stimulants generally hype a person up (like a nine-year-old who drank too many sodas). Stimulants tend to have an opposite effect on ADHD brains and slow them down instead. While it personally helps me focus and stay task-oriented, it comes with a massive list of common side effects like: muted personality, loss of appetite (which leads to not eating enough and feeling tired, weak, or getting headaches), dry mouth, nausea, anxiety, upset stomach, and more… Note: This is not a comprehensive list of ADHD symptoms, but rather a subset I thought was especially relevant to writers.
Okay, so you’ve got a better idea about the ADHD brain, but how can someone like me overcome these weaknesses and finish that manuscript? Having the right tools is important. The first thing to keep in mind is that ADHD brains are often drawn to the most engaging thing in the room. Whether it be your phone, laptop, a game, other people… Figure out whatever those things are and remove them from your environment. This doesn’t just mean physically. After all, I do my writing on my laptop. There are all kinds of writing software to help you stay focused when you write that are more practical than getting your friends to unplug the router and hide the cables.
FocusWriter: A free, full-screen word processor without distracting tools at the top. It’ll help you focus by immersing yourself and removing temptations from easy access. It also comes with timers, alarms, daily goals you can set, and optional spell-checking.
Cold Turkey Writer: This one is a little more hardcore. It blocks everything on your computer until you meet your writing goal, a fantastic option for those who need to force themselves to focus.
Keep Writing or it Disappears Apps: There’s an abundance of writing apps for the most hardcore writers who need that sense of urgency to stay on target. Apps like Flowstate, The Most Dangerous Writing App, and Sadistic Writing App will delete your work if you stop typing for too long… Yikes, not the right option for me, but I understand the usefulness!
Let’s be honest. Most writers need a deadline anyway. But ADHD writers double need a deadline. Anxiety gets a bad rap. Sure, too much is debilitating. But everyone needs a little bit of anxiety to give ourselves a sense of urgency to complete the work that needs to get done. That’s where a deadline can help.
If you’re an ADHD writer, give yourself a firm deadline and tell the world about it. Go on Twitter and announce you’re going to finish your book by x date. Promise yourself you can get that new game if you can knock out enough words in a week and publicize your goal in ways that will keep you accountable. A deadline can create a sense of urgency, but if you’re trying to hold yourself accountable, chances are you’ll cheat from time to time. If you can artificially create deadlines and make promises to your friends, you can leverage that fear of letting others down and use it to propel yourself forward.
Remember how ADHD brains don’t have the best visuospatial working memory? That’s one of the key places writing software can help. The biggest lie I tell myself is: I don’t need to write that down; I’ll remember it later.
Once I started using writing software to keep track of all the details, I found myself spending more time writing and less time wracking my brain trying to remember details I promised myself I wouldn’t forget. Even though I’m a pantser, once I began using writing software to keep a story bible, I started writing faster and the entire process felt smoother since it was easier to stay focused. (If you don’t know what a pantser is, check out Campfire Technology’s blog post on the different types of writers.)
In general, writing software is intuitive, engaging, and stimulating due to its visual nature. The more ways I can view something (through visuals and through text), the easier it’ll be to remember the information. Additionally, it’s harder to get distracted by the internet, games, or your phone when using writing software than it is when you’re trying to concentrate on a blank word document. Although, it’s easy to tunnel vision on worldbuilding in writing software. The biggest pitfall to avoid here is spending too much time putting details into your world. I recommend setting a timer to help you gauge when enough is enough and it’s time to write.
How can I help an ADHD writer I know?
There’s a fantastic channel on YouTube called “How to ADHD” and it’s chock-full of videos with tips for living with ADHD. McCabe does an excellent job of supplying resources as well as crediting her videos with where she finds her information so you can rest assured they’re reliable.
One of her videos, “How to Help Someone who has ADHD,” is perfect for anyone trying to learn more about ADHD. At the beginning of the video she goes over some symptoms I didn’t cover above, so I highly recommend watching the whole thing. In case you don’t have time to watch, here are two of my favorite tips from her video:
Touch: When I get invested in something, I am full-on tunnel-visioned in on it. Someone will be talking and I won’t hear them, that’s how focused I get. Use a touch on the shoulder to ease an ADHD writer out of “the zone” if you need something from them, or if they haven’t eaten a meal yet that day. (Because that’s kind of something we do. Oops.)
Distractions: If we’re having a hard time staying focused on a conversation, it might be because our brain is drifting off to think about the manuscript. Hand us something to mess with or go for a walk to help us stay grounded in the conversation.
She doesn’t cover rejection sensitive dysphoria in this video, so here are my two cents: RSD is especially tough as a writer since all writers are bound to receive an abundance of rejection letters across their careers. I’ve found the best way to cope with this is by getting ahead of the game by setting reasonable expectations before even sending out those query letters. Most writers want to be the next bestseller. It’s okay to want that and work for it, but is it realistic for your first manuscript?
Hopefully this blog post has helped you learn a little more about yourself as someone with ADHD or about others with differently-wired brains. This post comes from Campfire Technology, so if you enjoyed it, be sure to check out our blog, we have new posts going up every Monday. Also be sure to check out our Discord channel where you can ask questions or just hang out with other writers!
Jackson Dickert is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is pursuing a degree in Kinesiology with a minor in Creative Writing. He likes to read, play games, and spend time with friends. Find him on Twitter @SwagXMcNasty.