writing home and away


I’m working away from my desk, as my out of office assistant puts it. But I’m still very much working.

I’m writing out of place. I don’t have my usual working set up. And not just for a couple of days but actually for quite a lengthy period of time.

I’m writing on a netbook and not my big computer with the giant screen. So I’ve done all of the obvious things you do when you’re planning to work somewhere else. I have everything stored on cloud and backed up on a USB. I have the most likely books I need to use, in digital versions of course. I can access the library journal collection via Browzine. My marking is sitting on Moodle and I don’t even have to download the assignments.

So this all ought to be fine right? Well no. I’m grumpily realising that there are some compromises that I actually don’t like making.

For a start.  My netbook mirrors my desktop screen. Good eh? Well no.  I have a very particular way of naming and positioning folders on my screen so that all of my current work is bang in the centre – I can’t help but see the do-it-now folders when I first turn on the machine. These are the reminder list you have without having to make the reminder list. All the regular tasks are  placed on either side. The middle says THIS IS WHAT YOU ARE DOING NOW. The three columns with space in between looks OK on the big screen and this arrangement works for me.

Organising your screen display can be useful.  Knowing where things are really helps your work mood.  It’s like having your kitchen benches organised so that everything is in its place and you don’t have to waste time trying to find the kitchen towel.

So just imagine taking a tidy big screen – and then shrinking it. Shriek. Gasp.

This is not tidy writ small. It’s actually really hard to find things as they are now in new places on the screen. What’s more, there’s too many folders and they overlap. It’s hard to read the file names.

This visual disorder puts me in a slightly agitated state whenever I sit down to write – that is, every morning. I now begin my day by hunting out where I am in the crowded file display in front of me. Yes, yes, I hear you say, just combine some. Of course I could just sort things further, but then I’ll have to do the same in reverse when I get back. But I might have to do this if I continue being jarred by the very look of my workspace.

And next. The screen itself is small. Working on a big screen means that you can get a lot in front of your eyes at once. Working on a tiny netbook means the reverse. As I am writing this, I now can’t even see where this post began. While this lack of overview doesn’t matter so much for blog posts, I find it is pretty irritating for more sustained writing where reading back over what you’ve written to check for flow is an important part of composing – well it is for me anyway.

So do I lash out and buy an additional screen? Well probably. Eventually. Maybe sooner if I keep getting bothered by this limited see-scope.

And just don’t start me on the space I’m working in. I’m on a table shared with other people, eating, reading, listening to music I don’t like, there’s even television on some occasions. I’m sitting on an ordinary chair. I’m absolutely used to a posh Aero chair which keep my back sorted, and a proper solitary office. I really don’t do this new arrangement well.

Of course it’s manageable. It’s just not what I usually do. I realise that, like a tennis player- yes that’s been on while I’ve been trying to write –  I have a set of routines and rituals associated with writing. I notice when they are missing. I can’t help but feel out of sorts  when my accustomed ways of writing, thinking and reading change. I’m very much a writing creature of habit.

I’m just not sure how people who write in coffee shops actually do it, but I guess this is its own kind of ritual where change rather than same-old-same-old is the norm.

As is often the case, a change of scene has been a bit of a disruption. I’m thinking about the embodied practices of writing. I’m remembering that how we write, where we write, the kit that we have and how we organise it, underpins how we feel about the writing that we do. And perhaps how we actually do it.

And I’m thinking that some of the writing advice about developing a daily writing practice focuses rather too much on time, rather than space, stuff and body.

But that’s enough of that. I clearly can write, albeit a little out of sorts. And there is of course one compensation. On good days I can work outside on the balcony. There is still a table and a crappy chair.

But there is The View. And bird song. And once a day, sunrise.



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, academic writing as work, office, space, writing routine and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to writing home and away

  1. Claire Coleman says:

    I am similarly in a lovely spot to write but out of sorts with the compromises of the travelling academic. Appreciate your honesty on this and on the complexity of having not only having the space but being in the space to write.


  2. Muhammad Aledeh says:

    Reading Pat Thomson from time to time has actually made me dust my brains and my hands and my minds. Although I get to see here once in a coloured moon, there is ofcourse motivation lying in the nuances.
    Thank you Dr. Thomson for your regular feeds!


  3. aspiringjuggler says:

    Perfect timing. I’m away and extending my stay to write. Needed this post to remind me I’m not alone in seeking the comforting rituals that get me started each morning. Here in Coimbra (a beautiful University) I’ve located the library which is a bit imposing but will hopefully inspire. And as you say, new views and new inspirations! Sometimes challenging the comforts are inspiring too!


  4. Orchid says:

    Perfect timing for me as well , although different circumstances. I currently doing my PhD amendments at home . My partner has had fairly recent major surgery. This post has really helped me reflect on how a slightly different working pattern impinges on your productivity.


  5. Pauline McGonagle says:

    ‘some of the writing advice about developing a daily writing practice focuses rather too much on time, rather than space, stuff and body’. This rings so many bells with me who has tried to work with some success but limited results in a variety of places over the years. This also reflects some of my criticism of writing workshops where the company is inspiring, the nudge and leadership is motivational and the food glorious- but the furniture, light, access to power points and organisation of space can be unsuitable for long periods.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. sylviahammond4gmailcom says:

    The view is very similar to Noordhoek, Cape Town 🤔


  7. Elizabeth Mathews says:

    I’m so grateful for your posts. Thank you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s