A writer’s routine: where to write


My friend asks:

Where do you write?

If in multiple spots, do you find any difference in your quality of work?

Have you tried writing in places that just don’t work?  (I.e. couch, bed, yard, park, coffee shop, etc?)

Do you like having windows to look out?  Or, shut the blinds?

Do you need silence or listen to music?

Are you okay writing with other people or pets in the house, or do you need quiet?

Do you have a special chair?  Writing hat or outfit?

I love having my own office space, and I think I would have a hard time writing without one. That said, the important thing is to feel detached from the world so that I can immerse myself on the page, and this can be achieved in a number of ways. When I’m travelling, for example, sharing a room, or in a busy space, I wear ear plugs and headphones.

I write on a laptop—my beloved MacBook—and usually sit on a couch with the mouse on a thick book beside me. I find that more comfortable ergonomically than sitting at a desk.

If you work at a desk, and even if not, it is important to move, stand, walk, swing your arms—do something—every hour, if not more often. I found this out the hard way. At one point my right hand was in such pain I thought I would have to give up writing. Now I set a timer. It’s shocking how quickly an hour goes by … and also shocking how serious the effects of concentrated time at a computer can be. Move. Change position. Exercise. 

Some writers thrive writing in a public space—a coffee shop or library—but I think I would be distracted. I like having windows—light!—and I prefer being able to come and go without being interrupted. I’m not at the computer then, but I’m thinking. Dreaming is a writer’s work. We mutter and pace. Dickens would have lively dialogues looking into a mirror. I think you have to have enough privacy so that you can mutter and gestulate without embarrassment, which could be a problem in a public place.

I need to feel safe from interruption at certain stages of the writing process. In my early years of writing, I would only schedule home repairmen etc. for Mondays or Fridays, so that I had a run of house-empty days in the middle of the week. I’m fairly strict about protecting my morning hours. It’s important to let your family know when you need solitude.

With time, one learns to immerse more easily, and distractions become more manageable. Professional writers, especially those who are often on tour, learn to write all the time under any circumstance.

A relevant book: The Writer’s Desk, by Jill Krementz:


This from a Paris Review interview of the historian David McCullough, “The Art of Biography, pt. 2“:

“Nothing good was ever written in a large room,” David McCullough says, and so his own office has been reduced to a windowed shed in the backyard of his Martha’s Vineyard home. Known as “the bookshop,” the shed does not have a telephone or running water. Its primary contents are a Royal typewriter, a green banker’s lamp, and a desk, which McCullough keeps control over by “flushing out” the loose papers after each chapter is finished. The view from inside the bookshop is of a sagging barn surrounded by pasture. To keep from being startled, McCullough asks his family members to whistle as they approach the shed where he is writing.”

I was charmed to learn that McCullough doesn’t allow any visitors, with the exception of grandchildren, “the younger the better.”

The ergonomics of writing often dictate where and how one writes. A number of authors—most famously Hemingway—use stand-up desks (some even like treadmill-desks). Lin Enger, author of The High Divide, had this to say on the blog The Quivering Pen:

I wrote most of this novel in a four-by-five closet, standing up. Sitting for any length of time wrecks my lower back, and so I resorted to using for my desk the top of a four-drawer file cabinet I kept in the closet of my study. Why didn’t I move the cabinet into the study itself? Because the isolation of standing in a small, windowless room helped me disappear into the northern plains of 1886.

And, perfect reading for this subject, a book that influenced me decades ago:


A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf.

I’ve long loved this image —


Other posts in this series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative headspace

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

{Illustration at top is from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.}



Put any two writers over 40 years of age together, and eventually the subject will turn to issues of ergonomics: neck, back, wrist pain. A friend took on literary jury duty because she needed a break from the computer. Another friend’s son, a musician, had to take a course in university on how to protect his body from tendonitis and other crippling ailments. Such courses should be mandatory for writers and artists as well. It’s hard to be creative if you’re in pain.

Over the years I’ve used a variety of wrist supports for working at the computer. When I’m in full-writing mode, and putting in long hours, I set a timer to go off every hour, and place it at a distance from my station so that I have to get up to turn it off. I also have an exercise routine I try to do each time.

I don’t often work at a desk—preferring to be reclined on a daybed or couch with my laptop on my lap and my wireless mouse set on a book by my side—but when I do, I make sure that my monitor is at a comfortable eye-level, and that a keyboard and mouse is close to my lap. I also use a document support (shown at right) so that the book or papers I am working from are directly in front of me and I don’t have to crane my neck. A good chair is important too: the one I have in Mexico is fully adjustable, but it’s not as good as the chair I use in Canada, and I feel the difference. I’ve a box in my storage closet full of shoulder, neck and wrist supports I’ve resorted to over the years.

Ultimately, I think the key will be to cut down on typing. A friend is sending out scans of hand-written text to be typed. Although I’ve begun to explore dictation, I’ve yet to become comfortable with it. I need to push myself in this direction—a New Year’s Resolution.

The ergonomic dangers of being a writer—and how to avoid them


There have been times when I had to sleep with my right wrist bandaged in “pain pads” and a tensor—a reminder of how hard on the body working at a computer can be. When I am in full work mode, I try to remember to set a timer to ring every half-hour: a reminder to get up and go through a series of exercises intended to relieve the neck, back and wrists.

But like most good intentions, I don’t always follow through.

A friend noted that her son, a musician, had to take university courses on ergonomic problems relative to musicians. Degree programs for writers should do the same.

There was a point years back when I was in so much pain I didn’t think I’d be able to continue writing. I tried many “solutions” over the years: an expensive and very good chair, wrist supports, wrist bandages, an ergonomic mouse, computer stands, document holders and a foot rest in addition to acupuncture, chiropractic and massage. I even looked into dictation software.

Most of these have helped, but I finally realized that what worked best for me was to stretch out on a bed (or couch and footstool) with my laptop computer on my lap and the mouse on a thick book beside me. When I need to look at marked-up manuscript pages, I prop them on my computer screen so that I don’t have to turn my head to see them. But the most important thing is to remember to set a timer—and it’s best put in another room so that I have to get up to turn it off.

I don’t often sit at my desk to work, but when I do I make sure that I’m sitting properly in my chair and that the computer is at eye level. If I don’t, I have learned that I will suffer, and rather badly.

Louise La Valliere

Accomplished yesterday: ordered a number of books related to my current area of research (17th century theatre); made bookings related to a trip to NY; posted to my research blog (and here); looked over my Sandra Gulland Inc. tax reports; began to organize my To Do lists, which include preparing for a library reading in a few days, a festival interview and CBC recording next week; sent off a photo and release form for an anthology I’m part of; rescheduled writer’s group meeting; responded to an email from someone whose grandmother owns a portrait of Louise de la Vallière (subject of my research blog); printed out the manuscript of a novel written by a friend—which I will begin reading today.

You will notice in all this that although everything is writing-related, Not One Thing has to do with actually writing. Today I have over 20 emails from readers that need to be answered (a backlog from being away). Keeping up is hard to do!