Virginia Woolf famously called for a ‘room of her own’ in which to write. Simon Whaley chats to three wordsmiths about where they work and why.
A year ago, the Royal Society for Literature released the results of a survey in which 80% of writers said they needed a room of their own in which to work. Entitled A Room of My Own, it also highlighted that 78% of respondents who weren’t currently writers, but planned a writing career, also felt having a dedicated room in which to work was important.
Therefore, when it comes to the business of writing, a room of our own is vital. But where should that space be, and does it actually need to be an office?
Having a dedicated room at home is a luxury many writers would love to have, although some get by with a laptop on the kitchen table, or a desk crammed into the corner of a bedroom.
But our current writing space is just that – our current writing space. As our writing business develops (and Covid 19 pandemic restrictions are relaxed), it’s important to review whether our writing space is still up to the job.
Joanne Harris (http://www.joanne-harris.co.uk), author of 15 novels and two novellas, famously tweets about her writing space – the shed in her garden. For her, having a dedicated room to write enables her to avoid distractions and focus on her work.
‘I think it’s important to have a designated work space, which doesn’t double as a family or entertainment room,’ she explains. ‘In my experience, families have a habit of wandering in and out of rooms that are not otherwise out of bounds, and TVs, Playstations, etc. can be fatally distracting! I like to read aloud as I work, so I need to be alone. My shed gives me the privacy I need – especially if things aren’t going well, and I feel the urge to vent a bit!’
Although she’s working from home, working in her shed helps to separate home life from her writing business. ‘I also find it useful to have a short “commute” to my workspace, even if it’s only a minute or two. It helps me put other concerns aside – housework, cooking, phone calls – and really concentrate on getting into the zone.’
However, the shed is not where she conducts all of her writing business. So what does she do there? ‘Usually, just creative work. A lot of the rest of the work I do requires access to a phone, office supplies, etc. and I prefer to have those things out of the way when I’m writing.’
So Joanne’s writing shed is just that – a space for writing.
What if you don’t have any space at home in which to write or, like Joanne, need some sort of commute to separate work life from home life? Have you considered renting a desk instead? You don’t need to rent a whole office. It’s possible to hire a desk for a couple of hours, which may also give you access to other shared facilities, such as photocopiers, printers and faster internet access.
Catherine Fitzsimons is an editor and proofreader (https://cafitzsimons.wordpress.com), who occasionally hires a desk space at The Wheelhouse in Coventry (https://thewheelhouses.com/shared-office-space-coventry/). This is a co-working space, where individuals or small teams can hire office space, without needing to rent a whole building.
Catherine has a hot-desk plan, which entitles her to hire a desk for a certain number of hours per month, although she can increase this if she needs to.
Using an app on her phone, she simply books her hours in advance, and sometimes this can be on the same day she wants to use the desk. Catherine finds getting out of the house and going somewhere else to work has many benefits.
‘It’s a stronger cue that this is work time than I get at my desk at home,’ she explains, ‘because I also do non-work things at my home desk. And there are fewer distractions. I can still get up and make a cuppa whenever I want, but I can’t then get distracted by noticing the washing machine has finished its cycle, or think I’ll just prep the veg for dinner, or notice something that could do with a quick wipe down … Also, not being able to go and lie down “just for 20 minutes” means I’m far more likely to drive through the postprandial energy slump.’
Another benefit of occasionally hiring some desk space is that you’ll meet other people, and can be part of an office social scene. At The Wheelhouse, there’s space where Catherine can go and chat with others when she wants to take a break.
‘We’re all pretty good about not chatting too much in the office space, but there is a lounge area,’ says Catherine. ‘The team – all very friendly – arrange lunchtime sessions for people to learn about each other’s businesses and give or get advice, and those, along with “cake Fridays” and occasional evening social events, mean we can get to know each other.’
It may seem strange paying for a desk space when some writers successfully find an empty desk at their local library, or work from the quiet corner of a cafe. But The Wheelhouse helps Catherine avoid some of the drawbacks to working in a library or a coffee shop.
‘It’s quieter than a cafe,’ she says, ‘and I don’t feel selfish – or get evil stares – for hogging a table for a long time or using one that would otherwise seat four or more because it’s the only one big, clean or at the right height to work at. Nor do I need to buy endless cups of tea or food in order to stay! And possibly the biggest advantage is that you can go to the loo without having to find someone to “just look after this for a minute”.’
If hiring some desk space somewhere appeals, Catherine offers the following tips: ‘Talk to your co-workers and make the most of any opportunities for networking – even with people who seem to have nothing to do with publishing. Set your target for the day before you leave home and take with you only what you need to reach that (yes, it’s a bit like being back at school). And do think about the ergonomics of your set-up, especially if you’re hot-desking. Even if you ferry your laptop back and forth, it’s worth having a riser, mouse and keyboard. If you can, get a locker to keep them in.’
Romantic novelist and short story writer Patsy Collins (https://patsycollins.uk) has two office spaces; one at home and another in her campervan. Her husband Gary is a freelance maritime photographer and writer, so they’re often away, on average, for 120 nights of the year.
‘I’m as likely to write when away as when I’m at home,’ says Patsy, ‘so I do about a third of my writing in the van.’
For her, writing in the van is just like writing in her office space at home. Although, she does find she’s less distracted in the van. ’In the van I just use my laptop – at home I have a separate keyboard and mouse with the laptop on a stand. I tend to start earlier in the day and I spend a lot more of my writing time actually writing, rather than getting distracted by the internet. We do have internet access, but it’s not fast and unlimited.’
Being able to take her writing space to different locations also influences her writing. ‘The van is great for writing “on location”. I’ve written parts of my novels where they’re set and being able to go where the characters do is great for getting details right. My own trips sometimes suggest scenes in the stories too – particularly in Leave Nothing But Footprints, which is about photographers in a campervan. The overall story isn’t at all autobiographical, but a few real incidents made it into the book.’
Being comfortable with her mobile writing room has ensured Patsy’s remained productive. ‘Large chunks of both of my writing books, including A Year of Ideas: 365 Sets of Writing Prompts and Exercises, where written almost entirely in the van, because it’s not unusual for us to spend eight weeks away.’
Virginia Woolf famously lectured in 1928 that, ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ But these days, it could be argued that rather than a room, we simply need a dedicated space in which to allow our creativity to flourish.
When it comes to finding a space that is conducive to our writing, Joanne offers the following tips: ‘It needs to be a place where you feel comfortable, both physically and mentally. Practical things like a good ergonomic chair and adequate heating can help a lot, as does knowing you won’t be disturbed. As for creativity, that’s a personal choice; some people like to work in a totally quiet environment; others prefer the ambient noise and activity of a cafe or public space. I like hotel rooms when I’m travelling – they’re neutral places, with minimal distractions – but we’re all different, and it’s a good idea to try a variety of options; find out what works best for you.’
Having somewhere dedicated to our writing work is important. It means we’re taking a professional approach to our writing business, irrespective of whether we’re full-time or part-time writers.
By being flexible, separating our creative workspace from our administrative workspace and home life, we may become better focussed. That could improve our productivity, which will only strengthen our writing business.
A Room of My Own – Survey from the Royal Society of Literature: http://bit.ly/RSL_AROMOreport
HMRC Guidelines to Working from Home: https://www.gov.uk/simpler-income-tax-simplified-expenses/working-from-home
The Wheelhouse (locations in Coventry, Gloucester, Oxford and Stoke-on-Trent) https://thewheelhouses.com
WeWork (London, Birmingham, Cambridge, Manchester, Edinburgh): https://www.wework.com/en-GB/workspace/hot-desk
DesksNearMe (finds your nearest hot-desk location): https://desksnear.me