Where Do You Write? How Routine, Ritual and Environment Matter to Writers

Writing is the running of creative practices. It can be done anywhere, with minimal supplies or special equipment. To run you just need a path and a pair of shoes. To write, all you need is a place to sit and something to write with, whether computer or pen and paper.  Or that’s the minimalist ideal, anyway. Personally, I’m not sure that I would get much done if I was simply plunked down in a white cube with a pen and paper.

I like to write in public, usually at a coffee shop, but sometimes a quieter pub or bar. This works partly because if I’ve packed up my computer and books, dressed to leave the house, and taken the bus somewhere, I will do what I set out to do. I can’t just turn on Netflix in the middle of the coffee shop! Mainly, though, I find that the noise and stimulus of a public place helps me focus.

Some might find my routine to be counter-intuitive, preferring to do focused work in libraries and home offices that are by-design distraction-free. (How I envy those home office-workers for the money that they save on coffee and muffins, and the time they save on transit!) Other writers place more significance on having the right tools, such as a favourite type of pen or paper, a comfortable chair, or a mug of tea. So yes, you can write anywhere, with very basic equipment, but most writers have a routine or set of tools that support their practice. You can simply grab a pair of running shoes and get going, but stretching, planning a route, and maybe putting on a podcast will give you better, and more enjoyable, results.

Why do environment and routine matter? Some aspects of a writer’s routine may have clear practical benefits to productivity, but I think it is mostly a matter of ritual. A ritual is a deliberate and habitual set of actions which are imbued by the doer with deeper significance than their immediate, external impact. A ritual can be a religious ceremony or be as mundane as putting on makeup in the morning before work because it makes you feel “put together.”

Rituals of all varieties function to induce a changed state of mind, such as receptivity, calm, or focus – all of which are important states for different stages of the writing process.

Going to a particular place or using a particular pen, notebook, or chair signals to the brain that it is time to work. The preparatory process gently shifts your mental gears into the right state of mind for the task at hand.

So, how do you put together a writing routine or ritual that will finally kick your motivation into gear? I’m not sure that you can just build and institute the right routine and have it work immediately. My routine seems to have naturally developed from habits begun in university. Writing papers at coffee shops and the UVic Grad Lounge started as self-bribery, giving myself a treat to offset the struggle to be productive. Over time, the coffee shop, with its low-key noise and distraction, simply became my best work environment through habituation.

What you can do is think about how you work best, based on experience. In quiet, distraction-free environments, or surrounded by stimulus? In cozy comfort or with a certain degree of physical rigor? What items do you have around you that really help you complete and enjoy your task, versus the ones that are distracting luxury? Say, a cup of coffee rather than full plate of sandwiches.

Build on these observations. Experiment and be mindful of how you respond to different approaches, but don’t get overly involved in crafting the perfect writing ritual at the expense of writing. The key is to do the thing and evolve the support system – environment, routine, even superstition – as you practice. You can put together the best stretching routine, buy the best gear, and find the most idyllic 10 km running trail, but you won’t get very far if you haven’t also been going out and doing the training.


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Curatorial Assistant at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

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