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The Where: Constructing an effective writing environment

Once you know what you need to work on, establishing an environment with the right atmosphere, tools, and resources necessary for completing the project is equally important. In the previous article, we explored the first W – The What: Defining a research project.

In this article, we will focus on The Where: Constructing an effective writing environment. This discussion began with a self-reporting of participant writing environments and continued with discussion of ways to improve them.

Q1: How would you describe your current writing environment?

“When we write, we need periodically to rethink where, how and with whom we do so, suggests Nate Kreuter” in an article for Inside Higher Ed where he addresses the importance of not only the physical environment in which we write, but also the social environment. The participants in our TweetChat event, however, focused their responses on the physical environment.

Eric Schmieder shared his current writing environment as “A nice large desk with plenty of workspace, multiple computers, good lighting, natural light from a window, and access to music when desired.”

Janet Salmons shared pictures (see below) from her writing environment described as being “By a window! At our Rocky Mountain cabin, or at home, next to a park.” She added, “My writing space is comfortable because I have my books, pens, computer, and I can get up and walk around if needed (See As George said, show me that I’m everywhere, but get me home for tea.”

Janet Salmons writing space  Janet Salmons writing space

Janet Salmons writing space

Lindsey McNellis shared, “I have a nice study with a good size table. I use a laptop. I am surrounded by the books I need. It’s great. I still don’t write much.” In response, the chat moderator asked, “What holds you back from writing more, if not the great environment you have set up?” McNellis offered the following, “Reading some of the articles you’ve posted, it might be the clutter – I have unfinished filing and shredding projects all over the office, mocking me.”, re-emphasizing that our writing environment is more than the physical space where we write.

Ali Luke, blogger for Aliventures, published the following tips in her article, “Six Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing Environment (and Get More Done)”:

  1. Turn off your internet connection during writing sessions
  2. Play music (or ambient noise) through noise-cancelling headphones
  3. Tidy up…but don’t procrastinate
  4. Get physically comfortable
  5. Remove things that distract you
  6. Consider using scents or aromas

Q1a: What makes this environment a place you feel comfortable writing?

Schmieder shared that his environment is comfortable because “I can have multiple applications running simultaneously. I can keep notes and resources spread out while actually working on the manuscript, and I can remain focused on a task without distractions.”

Gaelen Foley offers a number of suggestions for Creating An Environment Conducive To Writing, with three key principles: get organized, avoid clutter, and develop healthy habits. Some specific suggestions for making the environment comfortable noted in the article are:

  • Lighting
  • Positioning
  • Tools at your desk
  • Methods for dealing with noise
  • Using smells to help trigger your creative state

The Author Unlimited editorial team proposes that “If you ask 100 different writers where they prefer to write, you would get 100 different answers — or more.” As a result, they focused their energy on environmental elements best suited for different types of writing activities in an article titled, “The 3 best writing environments for productivity, analysis, and creativity”. In this article, they make the following three writing activity-related generalizations:

  1. When your aim of the day is to produce results, i.e., when you want to get words on a page as efficiently as possible, then comfort should be the top priority when arranging your writing environment.
  2. An analytical environment is what you need when you’re focusing on editing, doing challenging research, analysing data, or working on your marketing. And, the number one rule of an analytical environment is no distractions.
  3. Planning your outline, creating plot lines for chapters, case studies and stories, brainstorming ideas, and working on your writing flair is creative work, and creative work needs its own specific space.

As a final source of consideration for developing a comfortable writing environment, Janet Miller, blogger for writehacked, claims that the 10 Elements of the perfect writing environment are:

  1. A place where you can wear comfortable attire,
  2. a clutter-free space,
  3. a space where you can make it personal,
  4. Zen-like,
  5. a focused space with minimal distractions,
  6. comfortable,
  7. plugged in with access to the resources and accessories you need to write,
  8. equipped with a focused plan for your writing session,
  9. in a location conducive to your mental processes, and
  10. with suitable background noise for your preferences and productivity.

Q2: What physical characteristics are necessary in an effective writing environment?

We shifted the conversation with the next question slightly to identify essential physical characteristics of an effective writing environment.

Schmieder said the things he needs to write effectively are “space, paper, pen, laptop (most of the time for me), and minimal distractions.”

According to Chanel Vargas in their article, Set Up The Perfect Writing Environment For NaNoWriMo With These 7 Tips, “having everything you need nearby will keep you from having to get up and grab a charger or a pen every 15 minutes — which could totally throw off your writing flow. Keeping laptop chargers, phone chargers, headphones, a bottle of water, snacks, pens, paper, reference books, and anything else you need within arm’s reach is a huge time saver that will make your writing nest feel more complete.”

In her article, How to Create a Productive Writing Environment, Anne Lyken-Garner, suggests two categories of characteristics necessary in an effective writing environment: stimulation and tools.

Discussing a stimulating writing environment, Lyken-Garner states, “You’ll find that you’re more productive if your working area is surrounded by things you like, enjoy or find relaxing.” Some specific examples provided are:

  • Hang pictures you find relaxing or inspiring on the wall in front of you.
  • If you have a window with a view, make sure you can see it from your chair so that you can take breaks and look out to nature regularly throughout your working day.
  • If scents inspire you, have scented candles burning nearby.
  • Collect your favourite inspiring or relaxing music on an album and keep them specifically for playing while you’re writing.
  • Even herbal teas or the occasional wine can inspire you.

Regarding the need for proper tools, Lyken-Garner says, “Nothing will sap your confidence  and productivity quicker than frustration. If you can’t connect to do your research, you can’t complete your work.” Tools she suggests having on hand for writing are: library of books needed for your work, memory sticks to back up your files, and a comfortable chair.

Q2a: What things should be removed from your environment to encourage writing?

While some things are essential to include in an effective environment, some are equally important to ensure aren’t part of the environment. While decluttering your physical environment is certainly an essential element in encouraging writing, it’s only the first of Ten Ways to Declutter Your Mind and Free Up Mental Space presented by blogger Marelisa Fabrega. The other nine are:

  1. Write it down
  2. Keep a journal
  3. Let go of the past
  4. Stop multi-tasking
  5. Limit the amount of information coming in
  6. Be decisive
  7. Put routine decisions on auto-pilot
  8. Prioritize
  9. Learn to meditate

Jeff Goins also acknowledges the physical space as an important place to declutter, but challenges that our writing itself needs to be decluttered as well in his article, It’s Time to Declutter Your Writing. In speaking of the actual writing, he says, “Erase all the lazy words and phrases, which fluff up your writing but add nothing to the content.” Further, “Cut your writing down to its purest essence. Turn a 500-word article into 250 words. If you’re brave, convert 1000 words into 300. Take away everything but exactly what you want to say.”

Q3: What tools and resources do you need to have on hand in an effective writing environment?

As mentioned earlier, having the proper tools and resources are necessary to complete our writing projects. For Schmieder, the necessary tools include “relevant research materials, notes, to do list, scratch pad for other ideas, and a laptop.”

Salmons has different tools for different environments. “I use a desktop, because I like my big monitor, when traveling, a laptop. Also make notes by hand, to complement typing.“ In an article for SAGE MethodSpace, Salmons highlights tools for academic writers including word processing software, a bibliographic manager, flexible ways to get words on the page, a tool for capturing wild ideas on the fly, and a backup system for their work.

Joanna Penn, owner of The Cretive Penn shared a list of tools and resources for authors and writers categorized for writing, editing, and publishing purposes. Noting the overwhelming number of options available online, Sarah Darden compiled a list of 21 online tools and resources for academic essay writing for LifeHack that may also be useful.

Q4: In what ways do you personalize your writing environment?

According to a study conducted by psychological scientists Gregory A. Laurence, Yitzhak Fried, and Linda H. Slowik, “Individuals may consciously or subconsciously take comfort from the items with which they surround themselves at work, and these items may help employees to maintain emotional energy in the face of the stresses that come from their work and the distractions and difficulties inherent in working in a low privacy environment.”

While some factors of our work environment may not be subject to our control, personalizing your writing environment can help you better connect with your work. In her article, 18 Ways to Improve Your Work Environment and Optimize Productivity, Amara Pope says, “If you feel alienated from what you are doing or simply want to improve the comfort of your work environment, bring a picture frame, change your screensaver, and make your work environment feel more like your own.”

For those who write from home, Robin Petrik suggests that you “Make a few simple changes and add a handful of items to create your ideal writing environment at home.” in her article, How to Create an Ideal Writing Environment at Home. Specifically, she suggests the following:

  • Create a dedicated workspace
  • Have the right tools nearby
  • Decorate your walls
  • Invest in some plants
  • Follow your own suggestions

Q5/5a: How does ambient noise impact your writing effectiveness? What type of noise do you prefer in an ideal writing environment?

Noise, both type and amount, can impact the effectiveness of a writing environment. As with the other suggestions for constructing an effective writing environment, the type and amount will vary based on the individual.

During the TweetChat, Salmons expressed a desire for silence in her writing environment. “While I love music, I am rarely able to listen and write. I need quiet. What a luxury silence is, in our busy world!” Nasima Riazat agreed, “Love this…I’m much more productive when it’s quiet and there is silence in my work space. Music gives me a break…but it slows down my productivity.”

According to Stephen Altrogge in an article titled, The Science of Background Noise and the Best Sound Apps for Work, Sleep, and Relaxation, “In certain situations, ambient background noise has been scientifically proven to improve concentration and creativity.” He also shares ten great apps for background noise.

Schmieder shared that “Ambient noise generally improves my productivity, but it needs to be distant from my work area. If I play music or sounds on the laptop I am working on, no matter how soft, it becomes a distraction.” McNellis agreed stating, “I’m the same – it can’t be on my laptop.”

So, how much noise is enough? According to Scott Myers in his article, Writing and the Creative Life: The Magic of Ambient Noise, “50 decibels or less isn’t enough to heighten creativity. 85 decibels or more actually can inhibit creativity. 70 decibels is the magic number.”

For most people, the noise can’t be something they will focus on, such as music. It simply needs to be an atmosphere conducive to creative efforts. This is why so many writers get more done in coffee shops or similar locations.

McNellis echoes that idea stating that music is not the type of noise she needs to be productive. “I know that if I want focus on my writing or reading, I need some ambient sounds, but I can’t do music. And I can’t work in silence. Was directed to some great vids on YouTube.” She also noted, “Strangely enough, I’ve discovered the sounds of a fireplace, papers rustling, and writing work really well for my concentration.”

For some additional background noise resources, check out Increase Your Word Count with Ambient Noise: 5 Tools to Get More Done with Sound and 5 Wonderful Background Noise Resources That Will Boost Your Productivity.

Q6: When traveling, how can you adapt an unfamiliar environment for writing effectiveness?

As academic writers, we often find ourselves traveling for conferences or other professional events and that travel can place us in writing environments that are less than ideal. The good news is there are ways to adapt to maintain our writing practice on the road.

Sarah Rhea Werner offered seven suggestions in a podcast episode titled Tips for Writing While Traveling, as follows:

  1. Make a list of writing supplies
  2. Make downtime productive
  3. Set realistic boundaries with travel companions
  4. Be as wide-eyed and open as a child
  5. Do a little research
  6. Journal
  7. Be okay with not writing

Schmieder says, “I try to identify a comfort zone in the hotel room. I adjust the chair or make myself comfortable on the bed to give myself room to work and be productive.”

Finally, in her article How to Improve Your Travel Writing While on the Road, “Travel writer Annapurna Mellor shares 3 simple exercises you can do on the road to help you get started and let the creativity flow.”

Wherever you find yourself writing, hopefully these tips and resources help you to make it a place of comfort and productivity.