On writing: Creating the perfect writing atmosphere

When writing, one of the most important aspects for being productive is the atmosphere or environment. It is common for a writer to have a particular set-up for writing. Whether that is a special place in their home, such as a desk dedicated to only writing, or just cultivating a particular writing atmosphere, where and how writing takes place is quite important.

George Bernard Shaw's writing hut newspaper article 1929Where writing occurs can be essential in creating a productive writing atmosphere as documented in the case of many famous authors: some authors such as George Bernard Shaw and Roald Dahl had dedicated writing spaces in the form of a writing shed, separate from their home. Maya Angelou was known for renting a hotel room where she could go during the day to write, free from the distractions of home.

Even if they did not designate a specific space for writing, other authors have focused on how they write. It’s common to sit at a desk, but Ernest Hemingway and other writers have preferred standing up while writing, while others like Mark Twain and George Orwell swore by lying down to write. Vladimir Nabokov wrote on index cards so he could rearrange the cards if he wanted to change the sequence of events. Other authors prefer writing longhand, moving to typewriters or computers for later drafts.

Most writers don’t have the kind of flexibility that famous authors do in creating the perfect writing atmosphere. But you can still try to create a more productive writing environment starting with these strategies.

Writing in seclusion or at home?

Secluded writing shed (Photo by Paul Itkin)As discussed already, some writers absolutely require seclusion when writing. Are you this kind of writer? Do you find yourself easily distracted while at home or at your desk? Do you live with other people who do not understand the meaning of a closed door, or the request to give you some quiet time while you write? If this sounds familiar, you might need to a secluded writing spot away from home.

Now, I can’t imagine many readers will have the luxury of building a writing shed à la Shaw or renting a hotel room à la Angelou, but you can still get out of the house. Try finding a public space where you can work uninterrupted. There’s the cliché of writers at coffee shops for a reason: some people need to get out to write, whether that’s because they need to find some outside inspiration or they just can’t get any writing done at home.

If coffee shops aren’t your thing, try your local library to see how it feels. If you’re lucky, your library might have small meeting rooms you can reserve. I’ve also gone to quiet bars occasionally to get some writing done. (And sometimes a beer helps break through writer’s block, too.)

At home writing spaces

So, let’s assume you’re staying home to get your writing done. Where in your home is best to write at?

Type away numero dos by Alejandro EscamillaWell, you could write lying down in bed or on the couch like some, but most people are going to be working on some kind of surface. So what kind of space should that look like? Clean or cluttered? I like looking out a window, but some writers swear by facing a blank, distraction-free wall. It really depends on you, but I believe the most important part is that you dedicate a space for your writing.

I go between a few different spaces when I write at home. A short writing session, research or note-taking might be done on my couch, where I can just slouch about. For these activities, I’m generally not concerned about focusing too much, so I allow myself to be a bit more relaxed. When I want to focus but I am feeling tired, I write at my kitchen counter where I can alternate between standing and sitting. This keeps me awake, but gives me the option to sit down when my feet get tired. (One of these days, I’ll get one of those adjustable height sit-stand desks.)

But, when I really want to be productive, my primary writing area is a small table next to my desk. It’s big enough for my laptop, which is where I do almost all my writing, but small enough that I can’t clutter it with anything. (My main desk is an absolute cluttered nightmare.) I have a couple small games installed on my laptop for when I need a break, but for the most part I only use it for things related to my writing. Though I have a much faster, much better desktop computer, I don’t use it for writing because by only writing on the laptop, it puts my mind in work mode when I’m on that computer. Having the small table as a separate desk is important too because, again, it cultivates a different mindset to sit facing my “writing desk” rather than my regular desk.

So, if you can, create a writing space separate from your regular work space. Whether that’s a little table or a full desk, that separate space is important for creating a place where you can put aside life’s distractions and focus on your writing.

Listen to music or focus in quiet?

The need for music or peace and quiet is a debate among writers and, like many things, it ultimately comes down to personal preference. I will almost always have some music on while writing, though for editing it’s a bit different and I will sometimes turn off my music in favor of quiet if I’m really trying to concentrate.

Music for writing (Photo by Corey Blaz)If you’re not sure which is best for you, do an experiment over the course of a couple weeks. One week write with music, and for the next week write without. Keep track of your progress over these two weeks and compare the two. Pick one or two ways to measure success for those weeks. Did you write more words during one week over the other? Did you feel like you did better writing during one of those two weeks? Did you work for longer sessions or longer overall each day? You might need to repeat this experiment once or twice to see a measurable difference.

If you’ve decided to write in a public space, you’re naturally not going to be working in a quiet environment (unless you find a very quiet library). Because of the inescapable noise around you, it might be best to plug in with some headphones and listen to music as you write. This will keep you from being distracted by random noises or overheard conversations.

Start with these steps to develop your work space and a good writing atmosphere. In a follow-up post, I will continue with a few more tips on how to be more productive when writing. (UPDATE: Follow-up post here.)

What kind of writing atmosphere do you write in? Do you have a dedicated writing space or do you just write wherever, whenever the mood strikes you?

Photos: Scan of August 1929 newspaper article | Paul Itkin (Creative Commons Zero) | Alejandro Escamilla (Creative Commons Zero) | Corey Blaz (Creative Commons Zero)