writing on the fly

New year, new me. Well probably not. But 2023 me has been in a new place, working away from home and from the office. And I’ve been reflecting on what I want and need in order to write.

I’m quite well set up for mobile work. The house where I am staying – yes the view the view – has good internet access almost all the time. I have a couple of mini devices – tablet and MacBook – with me, and they speak unobtrusively and easily to each other. Every file I have is in three different cloud storages. My bibliographic software and library are online. Access to journals online all OK. And I have enough ebooks to keep me going for the time I’m away. My partner understands I still need to work and can’t go out to party every morning. So everything ought to go swimmingly.

Alas. I have discovered something I couldn’t bring with me. I discovered I am addicted to a big screen. While I can put up with a little screen for a little while, I’ve become fed up with it pretty quickly. Both the MacBook and tablet are too tiny. I often find myself squinting at them. Their little screens just don’t hold enough. It’s tortuous toggling between several open windows. Yes I can cut and paste from my tablet to my book, but its really not the same as having it all there in front of me. It really does just takes longer to do pretty basic things like write and search in parallel.

It’s not just the screen. My chair isn’t great either. I have to get up much more often to make sure I don’t get too sore. I couldn’t bring my super comfy chair with me.

Being away from my usual work situation does have a down side.

So perhaps this is why I’ve been reading about mobile work, and what Gray and colleagues call “corollory work” – the unseen work you have to do in order to do the work you are expected to do. Their book “Made to work” focuses on three groups of workers – in the finance sector, the IT industry and academia. Gray et al’s interest is in understanding the tangle of humans, artefacts and processes in mobile work. And so they pay careful attention to exactly the things I am concerned about at present – the kit you work with, where you work, and how you make all of that work.

Gray and collegquges suggest that those of us engaged in knowledge work of various kinds invariably become “reflexive” about all of the stuff we do to get the work done. So it’s no surprise that I’m thinking about my situation. And no surprise that I understand that the concern I have with my screen and chair are not just mine, but fit into a much bigger picture – one where doing the work to make the work work is inevitable.

I’ve done the corollary work. And I’ve resolved one of my issues – the tiny screen. As I am parked in one place for a while, I have been able to acquire a monitor which I can now connect with my MacBook. I’m just about to set it up and I am really looking forward to no longer looking down at a tiny screen. The screen will be at eye height, the font will be bigger, and there will be at least two windows open so I can drag and drop at any time. Yippee.

I realise that this doesn’t make me a very good mobile worker. I already knew I didn’t like working in cafes and I thought it was because of the noise. Yes, I know a lot of you love this – I see you in cafes all the time, with your coffee and laptops open, typing and scrolling away. It’s just not for me. But I do also know that I can actually work through noise and not be too distracted. Noise is not the problem. I now realise the real issue – I have tiny screen aversion. Working away from the big screen is my problem. Give me a big screen and I’m happy. If there’s a café which offers temporary access to big screens I’m there.

But the implication is that I’m more than a bit limited in where I can work. Office writing is possible although there are generally other work things that get in the way. Home is good for writing. Actually home is great. Home is best. Because I don’t have children at home and have a discrete home office – the privilege which comes from being old, and permanently waged – I can happily write most days at home with my big screen. Timetable permitting of course.

However, it’s taken quite some degree of corollary work to get close to home now that I’m away. But today I have the screen, yay. Although the corollary work isn’t finished, the chair is still an issue.

2023 me has come to a realisation. I’m a good worker from home. WFH all OK. I’m not so good at mobile. And as it’s not really possible to drag around a big screen with me all the time, let alone a chair, I have to just accept that there is a limit to the amount of desk work I can do on the fly.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in corollary work, mobile work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to writing on the fly

  1. So relatable, I’ve recently discovered this about myself… And has even negatively affected writing retreats which is such a shame!


  2. Madeline Taylor says:

    Snap. I mentally equate screen size to thinking and work type. Small is fine for admin but I need big screens, ideally multiple, for expansive thinking.


  3. Thea says:

    The list of ‘must haves’ for mobile work most appreciated. With one year left of my PhD programme, I am just about to get stuck into the big, official write-up. At this same time, my husband, kids and I will be slowly traveling around our homeland; staying in new and different places for intervals of time! I sure do hope that enjoy working away from home a bit more than you. Perhaps with no other alternative, I will! Thanks for all the sharing you do: your blog has been a nice companion on my journey.


  4. Sara Cotterall says:

    I SUFFER FROM SSA too ….

    I have been staying with friends for three weeks while working on the final draft of a book chapter with my Japan-based co-author. For the most part, it worked as we completed our respective sections and volleyed successive drafts back and forward.

    But, while I discovered I could get up early (my preferred time of day for writing) and work happily for up to 2 hours without being bothered, I hated the small screen and the “flimsiness” of my laptop.

    But I am home now and it’s three days to the submission deadline, so my SSA (Small Screen Aversion) is no longer an obstacle. In fact I can’t wait for tomorrow morning so I can walk to my (home) office, switch on my pc, settle into my ergonomic chair and start work.


  5. Cathy says:

    Great post – as always! I have to travel a lot right now and find it very hard to work on my small screen.

    I’m considering 2 ideas – the portable monitor, something lighter and not quite as big as an at-home monitor that can fit into a backpack or suitcase. There is also a FOPO monitor, basically 2 wings of extra screens that attach to a laptop.

    Neither are that practical for sitting in a cafe for a few hours, but for a day at a shared office space or a weekend away it might work. A laptop with integrated screen extensions would be great.


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