Crafting Scholarship — How Successful Writers Work: Place and Ritual

by Robert Milardo, Ph.D., University of Maine
NCFR Report
Content Area

Robert Milardo, Ph.D.

To write, we need a place of our own. It need not be palatial; comfortable and free from distractions will do. In this article we'll take a look at where writers work and how they manage space to suit the requirements of their writing. We'll continue similar themes in the fall issue of Report and explore forms of writing groups and the all-important rituals in which writers engage. By understanding our personal needs for writing comfortably and productively we can mindfully adjust for preferences, social circumstances, and the requirements of particular projects.

Writing place

Faculty write in their university offices, in home offices, in public places, and in group settings. Some have rather austere requirements. Paul Silvia writes daily at home with the simplest desk and chair and no Internet access. "The best kind of self-control is to avoid situations that require self-control," he says. His desk is uncluttered and rather more like a table without drawers. The walls are unadorned. Paul speaks of his early years writing a slew of journal articles from a folding chair and matching folding table. I wrote him recently and asked if his writing place has changed, particularly after becoming a parent to two children. He responded:

My writing space has actually become more spartan over the years. When I got babies, they took over the writing room and turned it into a museum of sorts for dinosaur and truck toys. We don't have an extra room, so I put an old lounge chair and ottoman at the end of a big passageway that links two parts of the house. So now there isn't even a desk or a door to shut. (For a snapshot of Paul's office, see the Crafting Scholarship Facebook page.)

For Paul, a room with a view is not at all essential; a printer on the floor is nice. Not all writers are quite so spartan in their space requirements (or nearly as productive). Successful writers characteristically select comfortable writing spots, often facing a window with a view. They frequently display favored objects or art in their writing spaces. My colleague Denise displays pastoral watercolors by a local artist we both admire. I write from a home office. The room has a desk (with drawers), comfortable seat, bookcases, comfortable reading chair, photos of friends, some art, and heaps of stuff. The view is of a forest, a snippet of lawn, and off to the southeast, a field with a blanket of snow in the winter and in summer a riot of black-eyed Susans. There are by some standards plenty of potential distractions, but somehow I find the space all the more comforting. It's an easy place to work. More recently I have been writing from my campus office and from unoccupied seminar rooms, which I scheduled for this purpose simply because there are no distractions and no objects in the spaces imbued with emotional ties. Sometimes spartan surroundings, or at least surroundings in which we have no particular emotional attachments, are a very good idea.

In working on my book and later this article, I spent time talking with many authors. Bill Marsiglio and I talked via Skype for well over an hour. Bill was at his home office where he does most all of his writing. At the end of interview Bill turned the camera linked to his computer around so I could witness the Floridian view from his window, the same view he has while writing. The picture was of a rural countryside, including a barn, a lawn interspersed with native plants like palmetto and surrounded by a copse of flora common to north-central Florida landscapes. Perhaps Bill, like I, found a room with a view comforting.

Oddly enough, nearly all the writers I spoke with prefer writing from places other than their university offices, although there were exceptions. Harry Reis writes from his university office and never before 10 am. He prefers late afternoons and early evenings, when child care responsibilities permit. Faculty who typically write from home offices or in some cases public venues are far more typical. Paul Amato shared:

I have a complete division between my home and university office. My home office is for my writing. I have everything set up here. I have all my books, files, data files. My office at the university is for teaching, committee work and meeting with students.

The reasons faculty preferred writing at home were simple enough. A university office was associated with too many distractions, interruptions, and in some cases an unpleasant atmosphere. Heather Helms explained, "I need to go to a place where my mind feels clear and uncluttered." When I asked if that were ever her university office, she just laughed. Given that writing is part of our professional assignments, it is a bit peculiar so many find such work impossible at our places of employment.

Not all faculty write from offices or desks. Anisa Zvonkovic prefers to write from common spaces in her home.

When I work at home I really am a kitchen table person, and I like that but the downside is that I am kind of messy. I think writing is messy; I have stuff out all over the place.

I only had one house with a [home office] and it was a horrific mess always. As a result, I don't really look for homes with a home office and I think that is different for my colleagues. Pretty much everybody had a study room in their house. That never really worked for me. I'm from a big family. I had three brothers and we had a very loud house, very verbal, people talking all the time. We would have multiple conversations going at the same time. I get really nervous when I'm in a quiet space, and isolated from interaction. Actually a lot of noise is good. My friend Elizabeth is like that as well. She had five brothers and we talked about how we do better [working and writing] in a public place where people are moving around us. A coffee place or whatever is good because I just like to have action going on around me.

Sarah Shoppe-Sullivan writes from her home, usually in the mornings after seeing her daughter off to school. "I just sit on my couch with my laptop. I curl up and write."

Elizabeth Sharp prefers writing in a coffee shop with a clear preference for the type of shop and where she positions herself in that space. When I spoke with her she was on an extended leave from her home at Texas Tech and working abroad and writing daily. She tries to get to the coffee shop by 7:30 each morning but sometimes doesn't arrive until 8. I asked her why she preferred coffee shops for writing.

The coffee is a treat for me and especially when I'm writing. I like to have coffee and sometimes if I am really struggling I'll get myself a cappuccino, but usually just a coffee with cream. The coffee shops are a way to help me focus with just one paper, one task in mind. In the coffee shop, it is really important where I sit and so I have to have my back against the wall. I have to have a big table or two tables together, and I have to be able to see everything in the space, and the space has to be kind of big. I don't like small coffee shops.

RM: Why big?

I'm not really sure. I'm just much more comfortable. I have multiple projects I'm working on so that is the other reason this becomes useful. I say I'm just working on this paper at this coffee shop. I will only be there 2–3 hours because fatigue will set in. I could stay 5 hours but then I'm checking on email and doing other things.

I like public spaces because there are distractions but I don't have to attend to them. At [Texas] Tech there was always someone at the door visiting or an email to answer. So my use of coffee shops was partly to decrease all these distractions because I would tell myself not to touch an email while at a coffee shop. In one coffee shop I can't get on the Internet so it's built in that I can't access those distractions. I would also work at my home office in the early morning before the coffee shops open or late at night when I'm feeling inspired.

Some authors write in just plain old peculiar places. The social psychologist Zick Rubin is said to have written in a McDonald's restaurant, perhaps one nearby Harvard Yard where he worked, and therefore intellectually supersized. Much-favored novelist Jay Parini wrote in Lou's, a diner near Dartmouth College, of which he said, "What I liked about Lou's was the distant clatter of plates, the purr of conversations and the occasional interruption of a friend." Sounds charming.

There are likely many more variations in where faculty write. I recall one colleague who wrote in her car while waiting for her children to complete athletic practices. Sometimes practicality trumps preference. The important point is to be mindful of our requirements for productive writing and to act accordingly. This is true of the places we choose to write as well as the length of our writing sessions, which we consider in the next section.

Structuring time

When faculty write and the length of writing sessions vary. Most seem to prefer early mornings, and most write in bounded sessions. They may do so out of personal preference or simply in response to the available time. Elizabeth Sharp prefers to write in sessions composed of a minimum of 25 minutes of concentrated writing followed by a 5-minute break, during which she refreshes her beverage, checks her email or simply stretches. She executes a minimum of four 25-minute sessions before taking a longer break. The system actually has a name—Pomodoro—and of course an app for the iPhone or similar. It is essentially a time management strategy and means to establish priorities and act on them. Elizabeth finds the structure helpful in focusing and prioritizing her writing, particularly since she typically works on several projects at any given time. By the way, although I don't actually time my writing sessions, I typically write for about 45 minutes before taking a short break; this is nearly always been my preferred style. Twenty-five-minute sessions are too brief, and anything longer than 60 minutes is likely a bit too long. You may find a slightly shorter or longer session suits your particular style.

Perhaps more important, Elizabeth's use of the Pomodoro technique is her response to a need. She has multiple writing projects, all challenging, and all competing for her time. This method is her current attempt to meet the challenges her writing presents while being responsive to her personal preferences, and in doing so maximize her productivity. Productive faculty are often well aware of their challenges in writing, willing to experiment in finding ways to meet those challenges, and altering their common practice to meet current circumstance.

Managing comfort

Some writers have preferences for their writing attire, a complete surprise to me. Pajamas are commonly preferred, or in one instance a particular writing leisure suit. For instance, one very productive scholar shared, "Shall I say I'm usually in my pajamas when I do this [write]. [She laughs.] I love pj's." She was quick to add, "if I'm not at work or going out." She then offered, "I have a colleague who also writes in her pajamas." My contemporaries are in good company. The Canadian author and Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro wrote in her nightclothes, as did the prolific and immensely popular British author Beryl Bainbridge. Martha Grimes, best known for her mystery series, wrote in bed with 14 fountain pens with 14 shades of ink to help in fostering different perspectives and keeping boredom at bay. I guess if you write 20+ mystery novels, then boredom might be an issue. And who doesn't like a change of hue now and again?

None of the men I spoke with had particular sartorial preferences when writing, nor do I ever recall a male colleague sharing with me what he wears when he writes. Nonetheless, there are exceptions: Tom Wolfe is said to write in a turtleneck and khakis, attire in which he would be loath to appear in public and thus anchoring him to his desk. J.D. Salinger wrote in overalls in a cabin reserved for writing. It is curious how gender creeps into the most mundane of issues and, paradoxically, demonstrates just how interesting the ordinary can be. Incidentally, I nearly always wear blue jeans when writing, but then I nearly always wear them at home for just about everything.

A good friend shared with me that when she was about to take a year-long research leave she shopped for a comfortable set of writing clothes. She found something and later recommended the outfit to colleagues who were also planning leaves to concentrate on writing. She referred to the outfit as "lounge wear, something between jammies and workout wear." She said she wore the outfit every day when writing. I forgot to ask about the hue. If you are interested, give me a shout, and I can put you in touch. The important point, of course, is to be mindful of your preferences and adjust accordingly. If leisurewear works for you, go for it, but perhaps don't put that in your promotion papers.

Matching place, ambiance, and purpose

Although productive faculty varied in the precise details of their preferences for writing times, places and other personal rituals, they shared some essential qualities. Faculty were in all cases very aware of their preferences. They knew where they preferred to write and why. They understood their personal needs, however quirky or idiosyncratic, and they acted on them without much question. The spaces in which they worked sometimes varied quite intentionally with the needs of the task at hand. Rachelle Brunn-Bevel prefers writing from her dining room but editing from her home office. Anisa Zvonkovic prefers writing at home, but at times she vastly prefers a public venue, particularly when she is rewriting. "A different place helps to put on a different perspective," she says. And when she is writing grants yet another element comes into play.

When I'm grant writing I'll have a collection of music that I play. Because my work on grants is a little different from my other writing, there is a deadline, and I've got to work on it every day, and if not, then almost every day, and I have this Celtic punk band [I like and called Amadan]. And for some reason it has really worked for me. I found that I had high energy and worked really quickly when I had it on. It really helped me to focus.

Amadan is high-energy music and a little angry. And I had a certain anger at the whole grant process and how unfair it is, and [how] few people ever [get] funded, and I just had a kind of head of steam about the whole endeavor and for some reason this music really helped me. Other than that, I usually listen to instrumental music [when writing], because lyrics can be distracting.

In this instance, the music is matched to the nature of the work and the writer's temperament regarding that work. Purposeful manipulations of writing environments require an awareness of individual preferences or needs, the special requirements of the work, and one's attitudes or interpretations of that work. Productive faculty are aware of these issues at some level and act accordingly.


Productive faculty masterfully regulate their comfort levels by means of manipulations of place, ambiance, the timing and length of writing sessions, and personal attire. These instances of active self-monitoring recognize the inherent difficulty of writing and are designed to ease the burden and facilitate productivity. The masters are exceptional in the work they do and in how they arrange completing that work.

In the end, I think the key is to write mindfully, to know where you are likely to be most focused, productive, comfortable, and able to manage distractions that compete for attention. Productive faculty arrived at different solutions—for instance, working off campus, at home, or in public settings—but they clearly recognized the issues that fuel their productivity and adjusted accordingly.

Copyright © 2016 National Council on Family Relations (NCFR). Contact NCFR for permission to reprint, reproduce, disseminate, or distribute by any means.