As a writing instructor, one of my priorities when I teach my university’s first- and second-year writing courses is to help students become more self-aware and reflective about their own writing practices. As you might expect, this means that each semester I also find myself reflecting on my own writing practices. Sometimes even experienced writers forget to consider the physical and temporal environments within which we write. We often fall into habits, and once a habit is established, it can lull us into a sense of comfort, or stagnation. It is a lesson not only that novice student writers need to learn, but that experienced writers may benefit from.
I know that I have a pattern of falling into routines that, for whatever reason, seem to decline in their productivity over time. As a result, I have to revise my routines in order to maintain my productivity. Changing my routines might mean writing at different times of day, shifting from morning writing to afternoon writing, or shifting the locations where I write. Of course, if you have a routine for writing that works, don’t fix what ain’t broke. But you may still want to experiment. Perhaps you’re not as productive as you think you are, or not as productive as you are capable of being.
Writing is an inherently social activity — we write for others — that we most often undertake in solitude. This is one of writing’s great contradictions. We write for an audience, even if that audience is a private note to our future selves. Academic writing, though, whether it is scholarly writing or the functional writing of service obligations that keeps the university running, is always intended for far less abstract audiences. This writing too, is most often undertaken in isolation, at least initially. For this reason, not only the physical environment where we write matters, but also the social environment within which we write.
These are the two writing “environments” I’m particularly concerned with here, the social writing environment, and the physical writing environment. The two might or might not overlap, depending on the type of writing that you’re undertaking.
Let me start with the physical, sensory environments that we write within. When I ask my students about the physical circumstances under which they write, the responses tend to be quite varied: one writes in a quiet, deprivation chamber-like nook of the library, another in a relatively quiet but also distraction-rich dorm room, while a third may prefer the bustle and ambient energy of a coffee shop. Similarly, some students need absolute quiet to focus on writing, while others write, astoundingly to me, with the TV on, or earbuds in. Whatever environment students write within, I encourage them to take note, and then to experiment with writing in other environments. By being reflective about the physical spaces within which we write, we may improve our productivity, both in terms of its quantity and quality. We may find spaces better-suited to the energies required to undertake and complete writing tasks.
Personally, I find different writing environments suited to different stages of my writing process, particularly when it comes to scholarly writing. I like to do initial drafting amongst the bustle and energy of a coffee shop, and need the solitude and quiet of my home office to undertake revisions and hone my ideas and prose until they are presentable. I’m able to undertake relatively trivial writing, work correspondence, most administrative writing tasks and the like in very nearly any environment. Simply recognizing that different writing tasks place different cognitive demands upon us can be important as well.
Where do you write? Do you prefer to undertake your serious, concentration-requiring scholarly writing from a home office? Or from your campus office? Do you prefer instead the bustle and energy of writing in a coffee shop, or perhaps even your local horse track? Are you able to write on the road when traveling for conferences or research, or do you need to be within a familiar, settled environment? If you’re like most people, you may have preferences for where you write, but sometimes find yourself needing to write in an environment that is not ideal for you.
Or perhaps, as is also common, you’ve fallen into a pattern of writing in couple of environments, and haven’t really considered your surroundings, or an environmental change for your writing, in a while. Knowing our preferences or needs can help us to be more productive. Knowing, for example, that you have trouble focusing and writing on the road in a hotel room may be critical to completing a writing task prior to leaving for that research trip. Some people are able to oscillate between tasks, between work email and serious writing, for example, while others of us cannot enter into a writing/thinking rhythm if our attention is periodically being pulled in toward email, social media, and other distractions. These considerations are part of the writing environment as well.
Just as we may physically cloister ourselves in order to write, so too might we socially cloister ourselves and our writing. While a natural enough tendency, isolating our in-process writing from the eyes of others is frequently not a successful strategy for producing writing, nor for producing effective, convincing writing. On the whole, most successful writers share their in-process work with others, a trusted colleague or two, perhaps even an organized writing group, and at later stages with editors and perhaps colleagues with whom they have less familiar relationships.
Some people — of all disciplines — find writing groups helpful. Such groups may be composed of just a few individuals who share scholarly writing in various states of draft and provide feedback to one another. Several components of writing groups make them effective. The first is the obligation to others it creates. The second is that it provides regular feedback from an expert audience. Depending on the group’s membership, it can be an additional asset to have members from outside the discipline, or at least outside of your immediate area of expertise, for a fellow reader and writer whose knowledge is at the fringes of your own can often ask some of the most necessary, incisive questions, particularly about the parts of the writing that your own disciplinary perspective may allow you, problematically, to take for granted.
There is no ideal writing environment. The ideal is the set of circumstances that allows you to be productive. If you’re happy with your own productivity, both in terms of quantity and quality of writing, then perhaps your routines and environment ought not be monkeyed with. But if you’re dissatisfied with your writing patterns, perhaps a set of experiments is in order. Try working in a new environment, different in nature from where you typically work.
Try sharing your writing with a colleague at an earlier stage than you usually do. Consider the social network within which you write. Do you have a community of support? Readers who can offer you feedback on early drafts, or help you fine-tune your arguments, evidence, and prose, before making a formal journal submission? Somebody to help you parse vexing reader reports and make effective changes for an article resubmission?
Once established in our careers we often forget about the trial-and-error processes through which we established the work habits that we now rely upon. By being reflective about those habits, and perhaps experimenting with them from time to time, we can counteract some of the stultifying effects of routine, and develop habits that are more and more finely tuned to our own personalities, circumstances, and needs.
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ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, OR PROFESSOR, History of Art & Architecture, College of Arts & Sciences (9568/J0115)