A Quiet Writing Place Might Be Best

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas! I can’t believe it’s almost 2018! Enjoy your last few days of this year.

An article I found from the Monitor on Psychology researched the dedicated memory needed for writing. Dr. David Galbraith, PhD, found in his study that distracting writers with spatial memory tasks, like asking them to trace a Velcro strip with their free hand, resulted in less ability (by about half) to plan an essay than those who were foot tappers (a kinetic task).

Check out the article here.

Spatial memory is the dedicated memory responsible for recording information about one’s environment and its spatial orientation. This is the memory that is taxed when your surroundings change. So if your children are coming in and out of your office, or you can overhear conversations and people around you, or if your dog won’t stop barking, your ability to write and generate ideas is significantly impaired. You probably didn’t even need this article to know that, but the study gives validity to the need of a quiet writing place or time that is as distraction free as you can possibly make it.

In the second study addressed in the article, which was done by Dr. Kellogg, PhD, writing is shown to use many facets of your working memory, too. He says that, “Even something as simple as making an agreement between a subject and a verb puts a demand on working memory.”

Writing involves much more of the brain than you might think! You need to be able to concentrate more than just your working memory on the task.

So next time your dog barks at you while you’re writing, you can tell him it’s been clinically proven that he needs to leave you alone. 🙂

External distractions, like my kids and dog, hamper my ability to write even these blogs, which are only a few hundred words. I remember from my college days that my brain would actually hurt after trying to write an essay in a classroom–a distraction-filled environment.

Is it obvious to you when your mind is distracted during writing? Do you think your writing suffers because of the time/place you’re choosing to write? What could you change to lessen the distractions in your writing life?

Do you like to work or write in a public place? If so, why do you think that works for you?

22 Responses

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  1. Thank you, Rachel. That explains why my writing didn’t take off until the last child left home. Mommy-brain set free!

  2. Angie Arndt says:

    This is explains so much, Rachel! And yes, I totally get the “hurting brain” thing. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  3. Lori Benton says:

    I’ve never understood how anyone can write in a coffee shop, or a classroom (oh the memories, Rachel, of trying), or a library, or anywhere public. I’ve never understood how moms of little ones get any writing done at all. Or those who write at their job on lunch break. My winter beanie is off to all who can do it. I know many writers do. I write alone in a house with foam earplugs in to shut out the random groans of my aging dog turning over in his sleep, or the passing of a car on the road outside, or the click of my fingers on the keyboarde. Obviously I’m lousy at tuning out distractions.

  4. Interesting stuff, Rachel!
    * I learned to work in an environment that had a lot of distractions and almost no privacy, and in which the concept of “I will take two hours to do THIS” was laughable, because events were unpredictable. Complex cognitive tasks had to be performed, and carried to to very high standards, and various training regimes showed and reinforced how this could be done.
    * This experience has served me well, because I write in a kennel, and under the aegis of physical distractions within my own body alone that these days have me in tears much of the time. After writing one or two sentences, I have to straighten up and catch my breath…not because the writing’s so stirring but because it hurts so much.
    * I’ve been told that my writing has sharpened through this, and that my life’s parsimony with rest and peace has grown a spare and in its own way compelling voice. I’d like to think so, but it’s not for me to judge.
    * But I wouldn’t have it any other way; just before adding the current paragraph, I stopped to listen to Yoda the Pit Bull singing to the rising sun.
    * Blessings to you, the Books and Such Team, and everyone in this community for a wonderful, joyous, and productive 2018!

  5. Thanks for sharing the information and the link. I’m certainly not surprised. I have found that if I am editing versus writing something new I can have more distractions and still manage to be productive. However, writing something new requires a quiet room with my noise canceling headphones. I share an office with my hubby and I can tell I am no where near as productive when he is taking calls or playing his music. Maybe I can use this article as an excuse to get my own office. 😜

  6. Carol Ashby says:

    Thanks for sharing the thought-provoking article, Rachel. Scientist brain flipping on here. A research study like this is looking at the responses of many people and looking for patterns. It reports overall trends and describes “average” or “typical” behavior, but there could be huge variation in the effect on individuals. This article doesn’t say because it’s only a summary of the original paper in the psychology journal, but my guess is the sample size was small (maybe fewer than 100, but almost certainly fewer than 1000). If 40 people found it easier to write well surrounded by distractions while 60 worked better in total seclusion, the paper would say quiet worked better than noise for writers. So, as one of the folks who find the environment in which I work has little effect on whether I get into the flow as I write, I’d say we each have to do the experiments to find what works best for us when we write.
    *What would be really interesting would be for you to survey the folks who take part here, who are all people with a special gift for writing well, not random undergraduates. What fraction of us need a quiet work place and what fraction can work just as well under the most “distracting” circumstances?

  7. Yes, it’s obvious when my mind is distracted, because I get frustrated and call it quits until I have a better atmosphere. I need quiet for the most part, especially when I’m trying to find direction. Though, I can plot ideas in a room full of people … just brainstorming. I don’t need quiet for that. And once I have my direction, I can handle a little more noise, because I get lost in my imaginary world. But that direction part … I need total quiet. I get alone. I’ve never worked in a public place, even a library probably wouldn’t be great for me–movement, whispers. When people post pictures from Starbucks, in wonder, I wonder if they got any work done. 🙂 I don’t think I could.

    • Oh, Shelli. I love plotting over at camp. When my boys are at CamasCon playing board games all weekend, I hang out in the corner and plot out stories. I love it! And sometimes I can revise at camp, too. But the actual composition goes better in the quiet.

  8. MIchelle Ule says:

    When I had kids at home and was writing at the computer in the family room beside the kitchen and laundry (oh, how handy!), I played classical music all day long to help with the distractions.

    Now, with no one home, I find I write best in silence. I can hear the rhythm of the sentences better this way, I suppose.

    And there’s no one around asking, “what did you say?” if I speak the lines while I type! 🙂

  9. Wanda Rosseland says:

    I was so surprised when I learned that James Herriot (All Creatures Great and Small, etc) wrote on a manual typewriter in the living room while his wife watched tv beside him.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      That doesn’t surprise me, Wanda. Most evenings, I write on a laptop sitting next to my husband while he watches a movie, often one with loud action scenes. I like that better than sitting alone in a quiet place. I’ve also set up my writing desk in the room where he watches to enjoy the companionable “silence.”

  10. That explains why I’m going crazy trying to finish edits during Christmas break. Just having my family in the house while I’m trying to work messes with my efficiency–the distant conversations and buzz–even though they’re trying to leave me alone. I do sometimes work in coffeeshops or at the library with earbuds and music. I think it’s easier to tune out minor distractions when you’re not personally connected to them.

  11. Makes perfect sense. I don’t write with distractions. I write when I am home in the quiet. Thanks for sharing.

  12. I need quiet.
    Lots of it.
    I’m trying to sort something out that’s due tomorrow and I cannot concentrate at ALL with the revolving fridge door and the chatter.
    But, I do have friends who need the background rattle and hum to help them concentrate. Not me!

  13. Off topic, but I just heard that Sue Grafton has died. prayers for her family, and for the repose of her soul.

  14. I write in a quiet room designated as my office, but all the other things on my computer waiting for my attention are a distraction even though I can’t see them when I have an open document. I’ll NEVER catch up with all the e-mail messages waiting for my attention.

  15. This is so true! Although, I’ve found it makes a big difference whether or not action is required of me due to the sound (barking dog, kids sneaking chickens into the living room, husband asking my opinion about a camp issue) or if I can ignore the sound (coffee shop chatter, rain, dog snoring). But yeah, there is a reason I like to write at 4:00am.

  16. Peggy Booher says:

    I used to think I could write only in a quiet place, but one day during lunch break at work, ideas for a novel were zooming into my head, so I wrote them down, before they could zoom back out! 🙂 The ideas were only backstory for my main characters, but I was amazed they came, considering the numerous distractions of the area.
    *That said, I think if I went to a library expecting to be able to write, I’d be disappointed. The local library seems to have a lot of background noise I have trouble over-riding. I’ve gone there to take online video courses and sometimes leave before I wanted to; there just seems to be too much noise.

  17. So true! It’s definitely easier to write when I’m off work, my boys are at school, and the home is quiet. As they’ve gotten older, they also understand mom needs quiet time to write & edit.
    I couldn’t write (productively) in a coffee shop or airport or even library–too much fodder for the imagination via people watching and interactions. But to use that fodder later, in a quiet setting–blissful!