I admit it. I drool over Pinterest pictures of dreamy libraries and studies. Sometimes I google “writer’s offices” for inspiration about the best places to write, in search of that perfect writing space that will magnetize me to my desk and make me want to stay curled up with my work-in-progress for endless hours of storytelling.
Of course, it doesn’t really work that way. Even though I’m a neatnik sort of person who enjoys interior decorating, my office experiences never quite look like the Pinterest version. There’s dust, there’s crumbs. Even worse, there are distractions. There’s, you know, the Internet. And no matter where I write or how I design my writing space, there’s always the reality that writing isn’t actually all that glamorous.
But that’s good news, actually. The very fact that writing does not require a high-maintenance setting means we can, in fact, do it anywhere. As nice as a study lined with bookcases of leather-bound first editions might be, or a little desk on a porch overlooking a beach—these aren’t necessarily the best places to write for most of us. After all, the best place to write is any place we actually do write.
So how can you optimize your writing space to help you get in the zone and stay in the zone? Colleen F. Janik brought this up recently:
I would love to hear a discussion of what the perfect writing area looks like, one that draws you there every single day. I have an office with a desk near the window, which I thought was perfect. But it’s not. I’ve made a very crafty, pretty memo board to put all my notes. That didn’t do it. I collected some great black and white World War I photos and had them framed and matted and put on my wall. That was good for a while.
I guess what it comes down to is that my characters become strangers to me and I am barred from entering the land where they dwell. How can I maintain that close relationship with these humans I so lovingly created?
Now, first of all, I’ll admit we can sometimes blame our external settings for writing blocks that are the result of other problems—whether personal issues like exhaustion or burnout, lack of motivation, or just good old plot block. But certainly our space can play a role.
Because I’ve experimented quite a bit with different writing spaces over the years, this topic immediately tickled my fancy. Today, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned in optimizing my own space.
TLDR: Honestly, my single biggest takeaway is going to be that what’s best on one day may not be best on the next day. Although it’s nice to have a dedicated writing space set up just how you like it, using your imagination to create flexible options might be the best solution.
5 Ingredients to Create Your Optimal Writing Space
Some writers can write anywhere. Some are particular. Some prefer silence. Others prefer background noise. There is no one perfect formula that suits all of us. But there are some common factors we can each consider in tweaking our available spaces to support us in our writing goals. Here are my top five.
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1. Optimal Lighting
Lighting is a powerhouse contributor to ambiance and mood. Consider whether you feel more inspired on bright, sunny days or gray, rainy days. Although you can’t do anything about the weather, you can recreate lighting patterns within your space by choosing bulb wattage and tone (warm or cool) to help you get into the right mood.
You need to be able to see what you’re doing and to protect your eye health. (At the same time, you might consider blue-light glasses or a blue-light filter for your computer to help with the glare.) The right desk lamp can make a huge difference in controlling writing spaces that otherwise offer limited options for change. Even just adding candles (preferably soy or beeswax to avoid air pollutants) can raise the vibe of your room and signal to your brain that it is now entering “writing space.”
If you can, you’ll also want to consider your proximity to a window. For a while, I had a desk that faced a gallery of windows. On the one hand, I loved it. But aside from the distracting squirrel that liked to dive-bomb off the roof, I also dealt with major glare for a few months in the early winter when the sun hit the windows just the wrong way. Depending on the orientation of the room, putting a window at your back can also be problematic, since the sun may then glare directly off your computer screen.
Desired degree of privacy is subjective. Some writers do their best work in crowded spaces, such as trains or restaurants. But if you get distracted easily or lose your train of thought when interrupted, you’ll probably do best in a closed-door environment where you can filter out visitors—or at least slow them down.
3. Visual and Auditory Control
Being able to control noise—both visual and auditory—can be important. Some writers prefer silence; some prefer music; some like the TV on in the background; some like people talking around them. Whatever the case, you want to be able to “turn it on” when you’re ready to write. Music has always been key for me. My brain is so used to hearing certain types of music when writing that I have a hard time dropping in without it.
Visual noise can also be important. Some writers thrive in cluttered spaces; others prefer clean minimalism. Either way, you’re looking for efficacy, not aesthetics. Although a Pinterest-worthy office can be gratifying, if it interferes with grounding in and writing, then it’s not worth it.
4. Comfort and Ergonomics
By the same token, value comfort over style. Make sure your desk, your chair, and your computer are the right size for your body and ergonomically placed. If your writing space looks great, but you hurt when you spend time there, you’ll end up writing in the living room or the kitchen instead—or, worse, not writing at all.
5. Availability of Tools and Resources
Finally, you’ll want a space that keeps all your most-used tools and resources at your fingertips. This might mean bookshelves or files. But it can also mean having all your files available on your computer or in the cloud, so you can access them easily without having to break your train of thought.
5 Ideas for Awesome Alternative Writing Spaces
The above ideas cover the standard writing space, the sort that usually comes to mind when we think of a writer’s office. But what if the “standard writing space” just isn’t working for you? What if, like Colleen (and me, on many an occasion), you show up at your optimized desk—and you just can’t settle in?
As much as I love a functional office, the following five alternative ideas are actually some of my favorite places to write. For me, they’re not feasible or even preferable all the time, but whenever they’re right, they’re right. I’ve done some of my best writing by leaving behind my designated writing space.
1. Writing Outside
This is my all-time fave. When the weather isn’t too cold or too muggy, I like to take my writing into the wild. I’ll set up a little bistro tale outside, maybe on my front porch or maybe in a little nook in some trees, put my coffee in an insulated mug, and head out. I’ve written outside as late as November (with the help of gloves and a down vest), until my fingers got too cold to hold the pen.
Being outside is both grounding and refreshing. I love being surrounded by trees and critters while I write, even if I’m not paying much attention. More than that, isolating myself from my normal life inside the house, including my office desk where I do “business stuff” and Internet connectivity in general, almost always sends me straight into story headspace.
One thing I will note is that taking my writing outside has always worked best when outlining, since I do that in a notebook. When it’s time to work on the first draft, I’ve tried typing on various tools (see #4 below), but none of them are ergonomic enough to stave off back and neck pain.
2. Writing in the “Dark”
When the autumn nights get cold and long and I can’t sensibly take my writing outside any longer, my next best choice is to make my indoor writing space as dark as possible. I will often put on just a single light spotlighting my desk (or fairy lights) to create a small cozy space. The sense that it’s just me and my writing existing in this little island of warmth helps me zoom in and focus.
3. Writing at a Dedicated Desk
This is one I haven’t yet been able to try, but it’s on my bucket list. Sooner or later, I need my computer in to be able write, whether it’s because I need an ergonomic setup for my keyboard or because I need access to all my notes. But because the computer also happens to be connected to the Internet, not to mention connected to all my other notes (about business or personal stuff), it’s also the single greatest distraction to my writing.
This is why, at some point, I plan to create a second writing space with a smaller desk that is ergonomically favorable for writing by hand and a second computer that contains only writing programs and notes. The idea is not only to remove myself from all the other distractions at my work desk, but also to train my brain to recognize this dedicated space as writing space (rather than a space for also checking email or blog comments, or browsing YouTube or Pinterest, or shopping for socks or toothpaste…).
4. Writing With Tools Other Than Your Regular Computer
Even when you don’t have the choice to create a writing space that is separate from the rest of your digital life, you can still distance yourself from all the distractions of your computer by utilizing other tools. This is one of the main reasons I enjoy writing my outlines longhand in a notebook. Even if my computer is within reach, the act of writing rather than typing puts a degree of separation between my mind and all the other things I could be doing on the computer.
I’ve also played around with digital typewriters, including the old AlphaSmart and the FreeWrite. The big drawback to both is that they aren’t particularly ergonomic. Even if you position the keyboard at an ideal height for your wrists, you still have to bend your neck to look down at the little screen. These tools can also be annoying when you’re trying to reread or edit what you wrote. I don’t use them frequently, but I’m glad to have them for those occasions when I either need a break from my computer and/or want to take my typing on the go.
5. Writing in Public
Finally, you may want to try taking your writing on the road with you. Writing in cafes and other public spaces is part of a long literary tradition. This isn’t my favorite approach, but I’ve tried it with success on several occasions when writing at home just wasn’t working for me and I needed a change of scenery. Earphones and the same tools I use when writing outside are all I need.
5 Tools to Help in Less Than Optimal Writing Settings
Not all of us get to write in those swoony offices/libraries on Pinterest. Even if we do have the chance to create a writing space that is exactly how we want it, we can sometimes find that, in fact, it isn’t as ideal as we imagined. So in the interest of #reallife, let’s round out the discussion with four simple tools that can help us block out distractions and zone in on our writing even in situations that are not the best places to write.
1. Sound-Proof Headphones
Can’t beat this one. Whether or not you’re into listening to music while writing, sound-proof headphones can be a WIP-saver. They’re also great for when you take your writing out in public because you want the company but not the noise.
2. Do-Not-Disturb Apps
If you find your greatest distraction when working on the computer is… the computer, any one of a host of do-not-disturb apps can help you create a writing-safe space on your computer. When writing, I always turn my phone to airplane mode and will often disable my Internet connectivity altogether (it’s off right now). I have previously used the app Freedom to schedule Internet blockages at certain times and from certain websites. Lately, I’ve been looking into Forest, which helps you track your progress, as well as giving you the incentive of real-life planted trees.
>>Click here to read Creativity vs. Distraction: 13 Tips for Writers in the Age of the Internet
If your space is particularly limited and you’re unable to access privacy, you can always do it the old-fashioned way and find a corner. For me, putting myself in a small space is helpful in itself. Facing into the corner will also help block out visual disturbances (as well as cluing in others to the fact that you really don’t want to talk to them right now). Add in sound-proof headphones, and you may not even know you’re not alone.
Don’t have a corner handy? Grab your hoodie and blinker yourself from distractions. This isn’t foolproof, but it does give off those “leave me alone” vibes that come in handy for all writers sooner or later.
5. Flamethrower and Machete
Okay, just kidding (mostly). But my metaphorical flamethrower and machete (plus liberal threats) have always worked wonders for me.
Creating the best place to write will be an entirely subjective experience for each one of us. We each have to get real with ourselves about which elements help us write and which ones don’t. From there, we must work with what’s available to us in our personal spaces and immediate vicinity. The perfect writing space may vary day to day depending on your mood. What’s important is coming up with a suite of one to three feasible options you can easily slide into without much thought or preparation whenever it’s time to start writing.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your best places to write? Tell me in the comments!
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