7 Writing Environments and What You Can Learn from Each One

For part two of our NaNoWriMo workshop, we’re mixing things up. Start by taking the fun assessment below.

Afterward, read the corresponding section below on your ideal writing location to learn how knowing where you will write is actually much more effective than building your motivation to write.

Last, see the assignment at the bottom of the page, and post your ideal writing environment and your writing intention for NaNoWriMo in the comments.

Before you skip ahead

What were your results? Do you agree? Disagree? Can you picture yourself writing in that location during NaNoWriMo?

Hopefully that was a fun little quiz for you that gets you thinking about your ideal writing spot for NaNoWriMo. But of course, the reality is that it doesn’t really matter where you write. What matters is that you’re writing.

What matters far more than your environment is your intention.

A researcher from Columbia University said:

Deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal can double or triple your chances for success.

Visualizing where and when you will write your daily word count for NaNoWriMo is one of the effective ways to ensure you finish NaNoWriMo.

So regardless of whether the assessment picked your ideal writing spot, spend some time planning out where you will write in the month of November.

With that in mind, let’s go through each of the seven writing environments in the assessment. We’ll look at the benefits and dangers of that location, but also what you can learn about the writing process from that location, regardless of whether you were associated with that writing spot or not.

Busy Café

There are several benefits of writing in a café:

  • The first and most obvious is… coffee. Your brain uses more energy than any other part of your body, accounting for 20 percent of your body’s energy use, and when you’re doing deep work like writing a book, your brain is consuming even more energy. When your brain begins to run out of energy, a chemical called adenosine is released, causing your brain to slow down. The caffeine in coffee, though, causes the adenosine receptors to bond with the caffeine molecules instead. The result is that you get more focused and feel less tired for longer. That means coffee is great for productivity, when you need to put your butt in the chair and get the words on the page.
  • Alcohol on the other hand, which can be found at many cafés, can also be useful for writing, if used in moderation. Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, discovered that if he drank 1 ½ units of alcohol per hour, he wrote more code than if he was sober. Studies afterward have found that moderate drinking makes you less focused but more creative. It’s especially useful for first drafts, to lower your inhibition and quiet your internal editor so you can write faster. (It goes without saying to always follow the law and common sense and use in moderation.)
  • Distraction shaming. Personally, this has always been helpful for me because I’m much less likely to check Facebook or play a silly game on my phone if people are looking over my shoulder judging me.

There are also several dangers of café writing:

  • Overindulgence. The first danger is overindulgence in caffeine or alcohol, both of which can really hamper your writing.
  • Conversations. Also, if you go to a cafe where you know people, you run the risk of getting into distracting conversations with people.

I’ve written in dozens of cafés all over the world, so here are a few tips to get the most out of your cafe writing:

  • Buy something and tip well. First, make sure to buy something every few hours and then tip well so the staff feel fine about you taking up space for a long time.
  • Headphones. Don’t forget headphones so you can cut off. Finally, don’t be a lurker, but also don’t be afraid to eavesdrop on conversations of the people around you. I’ve often gotten writing inspiration from the conversations of my neighbors at cafés!

Treadmill Desk

The second writing environment is a treadmill desk, or really any environment where you walk and write at the same time. You might not own a treadmill desk, but light exercise while you write can still be really effective.

The benefits of a treadmill desk:

  • Moments when you feel fidgety and want to check Facebook every two minutes. You know what I’m talking about—when you have 29 tabs open on your browser and you’re switching between applications every two seconds. Light exercise can release some of that extra energy and allow you to focus on your writing.
  • Kickstart your brain. The state of your body and the state of your thought processes are tightly connected. When you move your body, you can start to get your brain moving. Personally, I’ve been blocked before and completely unable to focus, and then have gone on walks and written hundreds of words.

There isn’t really any danger to this, except maybe tripping, injuring yourself, or walking too fast on a treadmill.

A few tips for this environment:

  • Writing apps. If you don’t have a treadmill desk, you can use your smart phone with Evernote, Scrivener App, or Google Docs App, all of which will sync so you can switch easily to your desktop word processor when you finish your walk.
  • Assess your body. No matter what your ideal writing environment, a good lesson from this is to assess your body. If you’re feeling fidgety or easily distracted and unable to get focused on your book, you might benefit from a walk.
  • And if you want to invest in a treadmill desk, you can find one here.

Dedicated Office

The third writing environment is the Dedicated Office.

The biggest benefit of a dedicated office is:

  • Space. Space to spread out your writing supplies, put up your whiteboard or corkboard outlines, hang pictures of your main characters, and create a whole environment focused on your novel.

The dangers of a dedicated office:

  • You can get into a rut. Sometimes if you don’t get out of your comfort zone, you can lose your creative edge.
  • Lack of accountability. If you don’t have someone looking over your shoulder you can spend hours on Facebook or reading election coverage and not working on your novel.
  • If you don’t have a space like this. You can feel like you just can’t write like you want to unless you have your own space. When I feel like this, I’ve found the best antidote is a walk around the block to brainstorm with Evernote opened on my phone.

A Comfy Spot

Whether it’s your bedroom, a plush chair in a quiet room, the couch, or somewhere else, this is any comfy, quiet area.

The biggest benefit of this environment:

  • The quiet. Some people can only create in quiet seclusion, and if that’s you, it’s important to be intentional about creating that environment. It can also allow you to fully immerse yourself in your imagination, especially important if your novel relies on heavy world-building.
  • Naps. Short naps reset your brain, giving you more energy and focus. That’s essential to creativity, not to mention your emotional and physical health.

The danger of this environment (and naps especially):

  • If you nap too long. The ideal nap should be 15–30 minutes. I usually shoot for 20 minutes. If you’re feeling sleepy, make sure to set your alarm before you fall asleep on your own. And if you don’t trust yourself to wake up when your alarm goes off, drink a bunch of coffee right before you fall asleep and hopefully the burst of caffeine you get in a few minutes will help bring you to full consciousness.
  • Comfort can make you weak. Another danger of this environment is that comfort can reduce your willpower. That might lead you to avoid conflict in your novel, or simply cause you to be more easily distracted. It’s a good idea to set a timer and take a short walk every thirty minutes so you can re-energize your body.

Cabin in the Woods

This environment could be a cabin hidden away in a forest, or really any writing environment close to nature.

The benefits of this writing environment:

  • Inspiration. Years ago, I lived in an apartment with a window overlooking a huge field with a small forest behind it. Looking out at the trees, I felt connected with nature, and it made me feel more inspired and creative. The benefit of being experiencing nature is that it heightens your senses, making you a more vivid, descriptive writer.
  • Exercise. It also gives you plenty of opportunities to exercise, like the treadmill desk environment.
  • Few Distractions. Finally, there are much fewer distractions in nature. No people and often no internet. Throughout history, the great writers have written some of their biggest masterpieces while in remote places, surrounded by nature.

The danger of this environment:

  • No accountability. There might be fewer distractions, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to find a distraction if you want to.

A tip for writers, regardless of whether you were identified with this environment:

  • Great for NaNoWriMo. Consider planning a weekend writing retreat this November to get some focused writing time in nature.

The Library

Whether a public library, a private library, or any place where you can be surrounded with books, a library can be a great place to write.

The benefit of this writing environment:

  • The nearness to books. “Books are made of books,” said Cormac McCarthy. Creativity is a process of synthesizing ideas from many different sources, and that means you need access to a lot of sources. As T.S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
  • Quiet accountability. Most libraries have people in them, and so a second benefit is distraction-shaming, like we talked about in the busy café section. However, you also have the benefit of quiet and fewer distractions than you might experience at a café.

The dangers of writing in a library:

  • Research can be a form of procrastination. If you’re spending too much time researching and too little time writing, you can miss your word count goal and lose momentum on your novel. It can also be paralyzing to see what other writers have written and then feel like your writing doesn’t measure up.

If you write in this environment, here’s a tip: Read everything you want, but set aside time for your writing as inviolable, and always make sure to stay until you’ve hit your word count.

In a Foreign Land

In other words, any place you write while traveling.

The benefits of writing while you travel:

  • Resets your paradigms. I’ve travelled—and written—all over the world, and the benefit of this environment for writers is that it resets your paradigms. Creativity requires openness to new ideas, and travel can open you up.

The danger of this environment for your writing:

  • Clearing your paradigms can create something of a blank slate. What this means is that it can be hard to figure out what’s important, meaningful, and interesting when you travel. Everything is new, and therefore everything can feel important, even if it’s just a plastic bag in a beautiful fountain or a woman in a black scarf crossing the street. Storytelling requires a narrative. It needs to be going somewhere. Good stories stack blocks of meaning on top of each other until they combine to build a new, more meaningful construction, but random observations don’t a narrative make.

Tip for writers during NaNoWriMo: I don’t recommend writing your NaNoWriMo novel while you travel, but if you do want to write in this environment, I suggest observing everything. Write it all down, even what seems the most mundane. BUT don’t try to compose a story until you settle in back home and you can process your experience and form it into a coherent narrative.

A Note About Music

There are numerous benefits of listening to music while you write:

  • It inspires
  • It energizes
  • It opens you up emotionally to your characters and the story you’re telling

The main danger of listening to music while you write:

  • Distraction. To avoid this, some writers choose to listen to classical music, or any music without words in it. Others only listen to music that they know really well and can tune out.

One tip about listening to music while you write: Create a playlist specifically for your NaNoWriMo novel, and only listen to that playlist while you write. The benefit of this is that you’ll be able to quickly tune it out after you’ve heard it several times, but also, it creates something of a Pavlovian response. Whenever you hear that playlist, you’ll think about your novel, and your brain will be primed to write.

Assignment

Set your writing intention for NaNoWriMo. Imagine when, where, and how much you will write. Visualize yourself in your ideal but practical writing spot. What time is it? Visualize the steps to get to your writing spot: Will you have to wake up early? Will you have to drive, or just walk down the hallway? How will you prepare for writing once you get there? What is your word count goal, and how will you stay focused until you reach it?

Spend at least five minutes visualizing and setting your intention (need to set a timer?).

Then, share your ideal writing spot and your intention in the comments below.

Have fun and happy writing!

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