finding the right writing time/place

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it, the rest of me is on the draining board.

This is how Dodie Smith began I capture the castle, a journal-style novel about a teenager living in a decaying English castle. It’s a killer opening and we should all be so lucky to write something so immediately attention-grabbing. However what interests me about it today is the notion of a place for writing being important enough to write about.

One of the things I learnt while doing my PhD was that it was important to set up a distinctive routine around writing. I found one that worked for me. I got up at 5 or 6 in the morning, pulled on a pair of track pants, T-shirt and perhaps a cardigan, made a cup of tea, and then went into my office where I wrote solidly for at least three to four hours. After that I could have a shower, get dressed, have breakfast and begin the day proper. During the day I often got myself ready for the next morning’s writing, by assembling various references and bits of data and analysis. I jotted down notes reflecting on what I’d done that morning and ideas for the next. If I was about to start a new chunk of writing, then I’d plan that out so I knew where I was going.

I’m lucky in that I don’t find it hard to write but I also don’t expect the writing to be perfect first time round, so I don’t agonise over it. I just sit down and do it. It was no real bother for me to crank out a couple of thousand potential thesis words a day using this early morning routine. And, writing in the early morning also allowed me to do other things – not only reading, but I could also go to lectures, meet people, go for walks, do bits of paid work including working on other research projects and so on… I had a life as well.

I still write in this way. In fact I am writing this blog early in the morning with a cup of tea, sitting in my office, and wearing track pants, T shirt and cardigan. But what’s important I think is that it’s not only the time but also the place that matters.

My preferred place for writing is my office. It’s a loft separated by a twisted staircase from the rest of the house. It feels cut off. This helps me to maintain a separation of my writing/working space from other parts of my life. I am irritated if my space is invaded during writing time either by my dogs or my partner or the phone. “ If I’m up here I’m not at home” is my refrain for any interruptions.

Christina Nippert-Eng (1996) studied the ways in which people keep (or not) their work and home lives separate. She found that professionals – count researchers in here – as compared to blue and pink collar workers, maintain very blurred separations between the two, with work conversations, phone-calls, email, and work accoutrements spilling into most parts of home life space/time. Nippert-Eng didn’t however study academics and I suspect that we, as a group, might maintain some separations around writing and reading. For example, I keep my work books separate from my fiction collection. I don’t have everyday things in my office. I do maintain an arbitrary and probably illogical division between the two, even though work and home are in the same domestic building.

I also have a preferred way of arranging my work space. There is a skylight above my left shoulder where the generally grey East Midlands daylight seeps in. There’s a silkscreen print of silvereyes and geraniums on the wall just to my right, reminding me of a former life in Australia. My books are behind me, with those that I am using for my current papers heaped in piles on the floor. I have the option of music if I want it but this is not a necessary part of my routine.

Of course I can write in other places and I do. The most recent book was half-written with my co-author in a Singapore apartment and the other half in her Melbourne office. We worked all day writing and managed to churn out a draft chapter every two days. So it is possible for me to write elsewhere – but I just don’t like it as much, and I’m sure that if my co author hadn’t been there I would have found all manner of excuses not to write much at all.

When I did my PhD I wrote everyday. I don’t have that luxury now. However when I do write in the morning, which is generally once or twice a week, I can immediately get into the right frame of mind if I am in my office with everything in its place. Writing has become like riding a bike – an activity which is so strongly habituated that I can simply move myself to the right place at the right time to get going.

It’s for this reason that I’m glad I didn’t start writing with my feet in the kitchen sink, sitting on the draining board. It would be a truly inconvenient place to establish the habit of writing.

Do you have a writing place/time? Where is it and does it work well as a way of supporting writing and if so why and how? And yes, I really do want to know!!

Nippert-Eng, C. (1996). Home and work. Negotiating boundaries through everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Smith, D (1948/2004) I capture the castle. New York:Vintage Classics

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, office, place, time and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to finding the right writing time/place

  1. Simon Bailey says:

    I used to have a very similar routine to yours, 6am, pyjamas, coffee, and my lovely home office in the loft – which also had a bed in it, I could just roll out and start writing (though this might not have aided the work/life distinction!) This routine now makes up part of my doctoral nostalgia as it doesn’t fit the demands of contract research, particularly with a commute. So I have tried to devise an alternative by setting aside Friday as a writing day and try and get ahead on everything else in the rest of the week, doesn’t always work and even when it does I don’t write nearly as much as I used to.


  2. Simone says:

    Hi Pat,

    I have recently started my PhD-related fieldwork, which involves almost four hours of trip by train each day. I’ve discovered that I can do a lot of work during these trips, especially writing. I usually enjoy writing, but when I am at home (or in the uni’s spaces for postgrads) I find writing more difficult. It takes me time to start, I tend to take little breaks, etc. Also, I’ve never been able to contain it in few hours of the day. The train keeps me focused, avoids the breaks and, in a way, takes the anxieties about ‘starting’ away.

    Very interesting post, thanks!



  3. I tend to find that I need variety for writing/reading. I find one place good for a while, but once the distractions start creeping in I go for a change of scene. So I move between home office, work office, , sitting in bed (dangerous…) garden (when it’s warm enough), cafes… Perhaps if I could exclude the distractions from one of these spaces then it would become *the* writing environment. I also like the change of scene in my screen writing environment – sometimes writing in blogs, sometimes in word processor, sometimes using software like scrivener. However, I do admire and aspire to the constancy you describe of a writing routine in time and space.


  4. ailsahaxell says:

    i hate my office/s both work and home. I write in my lounge, I write with or without music. This is my space from 10-5 and from 10-5 in the morning if i want it. When others are around or i cant control my urges to surf or email or fb or twitter, i write at starbucks where i dont wifi, there’s a charge, I write for 2 hrs, then the free carparking runs out. I recognize the error of my ways but i write by meandering a river then form the structure. Stupid i know. Stupid also is that i polish as i go. cll it thinking time. Then im as likely to rewrite into a structured form. Some cut and pasting some not. Its a lot of writing, but i think when writing, not before.


  5. Karenmca says:

    I’m a music librarian 9-5 and a musicologist the rest of the time, so I write at home in the dining-room by night and at weekends. Ours is a stone end-terrace; the dining-room would originally have been the kitchen. There’s an alcove which would have contained a bed, and that is now fitted out with bookshelves and desk. That’s where my PhD was written and my book manuscript is now being revised. If I need to spread out books, I turn to use the dining-table; I only type at the desk and only write at the table. Sheldon-like (Big Bang Theory), I seem to have special “spots” where I work, and it doesn’t occur to me to sit in any but those two particular chairs. Sitting in the lounge with a book is disastrous – it’s too tempting to sleep.

    If the urge takes me to do a bit of quick reading in a lunch or tea-break, I either hand-write or use Evernote on my android, in the cafe-bar at work. Evernote is cloud-based so I can synch it and access it anywhere,,android or computer.


  6. Marilyn says:

    I had a routine/place very much like yours, Pat, when writing for my doctorate and for papers and books as an academic. That was a while ago and I remember the glow of knowing I had logged several hundred words -even if they had to be revised or removed the next day. I also found long train journeys good, setting a word target (by the time I get to … , I’ll have xxxx) often moved forwards something that felt a bit stuck. Then I took very late gap year from academia (now a decade long and rather permanent, I think) and in between some consultancy I started writing poetry.
    Two thoughts on this. There’s a great deal of fuzziness in the border bewteen scholalry and so-called creative writing -the topic of a workshop I do for mostly new academic writers. I need pen and paper much more for the poetry -often, most often, they are essential if something other that just description is to emerge and are key to seeing what I am looking at, at the slant that poetry demands.
    So my poetry wriitng places are diverse. A place worth some attentiveness & the small notebook & pencil that are always in my pocket, then the early morning, preferably in the sun, with bigger notebook, pen, where I write to join the seen with what that has bought to mind (its always a wonderful surprise to read the words that arrive on the page at this stage). Finally, as now, on my laptop. on my lap, feet outstretched on the sofa, I move words to screen and begin the very long process of forming the poem. No surprise, that this takes time. Like a good loaf of bread, poetry works best if the ingredients are fresh, your heart is in your hands as you knead it into shape and long. slow proving is improving.


  7. Harry Ferguson says:

    Wittgenstein said that the best place to write is a train station. I know what he means. I often seem to be at my most productive when I’m active, in the literal sense of moving around in ways that make typing possible – waiting between trains, on the train. But given that I don’t spend that much time on trains I do find it valuable to have a designated space in the home to write in, but I do not seem to need the level of order you describe in your study Pat. I envied you and admire how you achieve it but I appear to be tempermentally incapable of achieving it. Some chaos fires my productivity. So it’s a study characterised by organised chaos that works for me.


  8. Simon Bailey says:

    These stories are fascinating. I found this on a friend’s blog; Henry Miller’s approach, and links to many others:


  9. Place to write: I’d say the cloud forest or the dental surgery – depending on the situation…

    Ideally, I’d lock myself in a confined space, cutting out distractions from the outside, particularly noise. I may even draw the curtains closed. A pair of comfortable tracksuit bottoms is always a plus. I would do all this but I realise how unhealthy it is in the long run. So this is where the idea of the cloud forest comes in…

    Must admit my attempt at writing in the cloud forest didn’t prove entirely conclusive (i.e. virulent bug et al…). But I remain convinced it has a lot to offer due to the daily routine that the cloud forest imposes on all its visitors: Mornings of clear skies are ideal for a wander into the wild and a good stretch. Afternoons attract wet and cloudy weather though. This is a time to take shelter and let the rain serenade you into writing… (well, if only it could be that simple but still!)
    I think there’s a distinctive quality to the cloud forest though, more to it than rain… On some days, the hillsides are drenched in fog. The sensation of being wrapped in a linen of mist creates the illusion of a protective shield. As I’ve experienced it, my sense of privacy is total and yet, I remain connected to the outside world. I am indoors outdoors and part of the same fabric that unites all life forms caught up in the mist and rain.
    At this time of day, animals take shelter. The forest slows down and seeps into its unsocial hours and writing no longer feels a chore, it is not a factor in my isolation but a communicative and leisurely activity.

    Now, the dentist (on quiet days)…
    that story compares little to the above and only has to do with coping in an inhospitable, clinical environment. I often go there and have needed to occupy my mind with lesser evils than the prospect of surgery – seems some rather focused writing emerged! (There could be an amusing ‘Darwin award’ type theory about structured procrastination to support that behavioural pattern… but I best say no more…)

    I believe writing produced in these two extreme environments must markedly differ. I couldn’t say how and why but I learnt during my stay in the cloud forest that beauty does away with anxiety…


  10. Ben says:

    I love the idea of getting up so early and getting started. I think I’ll give it a try. In reality I’m more of a night owl. I like the tranquility at night, it really helps me focus.

    As for place. At night I’ll normally write in my living room at a table. However I do find that during the day I’m stimulated to write more by changing my working environment frequently. I tend to go from room to room at home or the office. I’ll also mix this in with trips to cafes.


  11. tezenzi says:

    I divide my day into two writing sessions, first, anytime between 11am and 6pm for about 1-2 hours, and second, between midnight and 3am for about 2 hours. I don’t know if I do the right thing. I have a daily writing goal and try to reach it. but I should write more because I’m a PhD student 😦 I sometimes feel like studying in the office with a few other PhD students, sometimes in a quiet coffee shop (especially at weekends), and sometimes at home.


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  13. mandlods says:

    I am so glad I found your blog. I am just starting out in my PhD and have struggled with the writing aspect which fortunately or unfortunately is a big part of being a PhD student. I have been frustrated with everything from English being a second language for me to figuring out what exactly will help me to write. I recently went on a writing retreat which was really great, I was away from family and able to focus 100% on writing from the time I woke up to when I went to bed. I found myself able to write so much and was actually surprised as I had convinced myself that I didn’t have what it takes to write. The retreat also showed me what it takes to write and I have been trying to figure out how to write more. Which brings me to my home situation, I have a toddler and live in a small house, I don’t have a home office. I do have working space on campus but sometimes there are a lot of distractions there too. So your post has helped me to identify that one of the sources of my frustration is to find a good writing space and writing time. My writing has been all over the place, if I am not too tired I sometimes stay up from 10pm when everyone goes to bed to 3am but that leaves me exhausted the following day and I then have to sleep early and so loose momentum. I have also found that waking up at 3am and working till 8am is better and I plan to develop that routine and hope I will have good news in a few months time. Thank you for a very informative blog. I have found it very useful since finding it.


    • pat thomson says:

      It’s very difficult combining all of these demands at once. I hope that your morning routine works for you. Just don’t forget to sleep somewhere in there! And do let me know how it’s going. Pat


  14. mandlods says:

    Reblogged this on Mandlods's Blog and commented:
    They say if you want to eat an elephant cut it into small chunks, I think this is one of the small chunks to solving my writing dilemma..


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  17. vickyteinaki says:

    The problem with offices is that they often favour the early bird. My colleague would be in at uni by 7am and out at 5pm (which tied in well with their 6am-9pm hours). Me as a night owl however (I happily work to 1am but like to be able to leave my laptop at uni/work in such cases since I have to walk home) was screwed. Even the 24 hr library during the uni year is problematic as you have to watch your stuff like a hawk. Thank goodness a tea shop has opened up that doesn’t shut until 1am, though it’s going to cost me a fair bit of money in tea in the short term….


  18. marijapilley says:

    It is really helpful and inspiring reading about your experiences. I have started my PhD and i have my first literature review essay in two weeks time. I have written two pages so far :(. Terrible. It is difficult for me to find discipline in writing, although I have completed MPhil and I still remember how was it to write – mostly during the night before tight deadlines. Interestingly enough, I enjoy reading about “how to write” and sometimes I “start my writing session” with reading about writing – which usually doesn’t end up in writing. Somehow, I feel that academic writing presents a cage for me – not being able to write freely, not even one paragraph, as it seems that I always need to write references, and someone else’s words, not being even able to express my own thoughts without referring. I feel it is wrong and I admire people who can actually just write – no matter how many of these words will they edit or delete later. Preparing the whole day to write ends up at writing at late evenings, if I’m disciplined enough and decide to write instead of being with my family.
    Thank you for your posts, Pat, it has been really helpful.


  19. Reblogged this on jessebaltutis and commented:
    This is something I struggle with – finding a comfortable space where I can concentrate my mind to tackle the tasks I need to do. I’d love to have a solid, old, and heavy as a chevet desk at which I could read and write. Inspiration would ooze from its worn surface, my mind would tunnel vision into my work, and the early morning light would dance across the surface of this desk. I would sit at it with my cup of coffee in the early morning hours, cloistered away from distractions during my productive hours. It would be at this desk that brilliance would form, take shape, and come out on the pages of my laptop.
    But, unfortunately, we are not all lucky enough to have such a set up. Instead, we must make do with libraries, shared office spaces, or kitchen counters. But, the essence of what we need can be found within….usually after a cup of coffee or two.


  20. Carol Mills says:

    Like you, I love to write before anything else happens in the day, but that doesn’t allows happen. Now I am moving interstate to finish my PhD (without my husband but with his support). I will be housesitting and working in “other peoples’ spaces”. So interested to see if this will work. As my University is a long way from where I live, I have found visits away from home very productive. I will be interested to see how this will work.


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