Should Writers Work From Home?

When the pandemic yet, many workers were forced out of their office spaces and told to work from home. 

During this time, I heard many authors say in interviews and online that for them, nothing had really changed because they worked from home anyway. Rolling from the bed to the desk was nothing new to them. Several jokingly said they’d spent their entire working career preparing for this very moment. 

For some, the only thing that really changed was that they were no longer the only person home. Though this is not an insignificant fact, to a degree, maybe it is true that writers who work from home were the best prepared and the least affected during lockdowns. 

In a recent piece for the New Yorker, Cal Newport noted that historically, writing is one of the few cognitively demanding tasks that could be performed outside of a professional office or workspace. 

There is a reason why Penguin Random House doesn’t offer a workstation when you sign a publishing deal, nor does IngramSpark when you use them as a distributor for your self-published venture. 

Writers decide for themselves where they are happiest to work and for many novelists and freelance writers, that happens to be at home. 

Obviously, this decision is partly informed by financial factors. You don’t need an office or formal workspace to write, so why spend the money on renting a co-working space when, hypothetically, you can work anywhere as long as you have a laptop or a notepad and pen?

The second is convenience. It is just too easy to wake up, go about your morning routine, and then disappear into your home office. 

No commute. Pants optional. 

You don’t have to buy a coffee every hour as payment for occupying a table in a café and you don’t have to pack up your laptop and notes every time you need to go to the bathroom if you’re working at a public library. 

And yet, despite the financial benefits and convenience of writing at home, some authors have gone to great lengths to get out of the house. 

Prior to the pandemic, Joanna Penn would take the entire morning to write at a local café. While Non-fiction author, Gretchen Rubin, has an office space in her home, she chooses to write her books at a small local library, and Ray Bradbury wrote on a typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s library. 

Maya Angelou used to rent out hotel rooms, arriving at 6:30 in the morning with nothing but a bible, yellow legal pad, and a bottle of sherry. 

TS Elliott, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, and F Scott Fitzgerald all wrote while sitting in coffee shops and cafes. 

Beloved Zen devote and writing guru Natalie Goldberg appears to write everywhere from cafes to workshops to friend’s houses to park benches and even while out walking! 

So why did all of these writers choose to work outside of the home, despite the benefits of pyjamas and free coffee and tea? 

The reason why there were so many ‘how to work from home’ articles published during 2020 is because working from home is not always the most supportive environment. 

Why? Because we associate this space with family time, nourishment, celebration, and rest. Four words we probably wouldn’t use to describe work. 

Beyond this, however, is the simple fact that houses are filled with distraction. 

Every short trip to the bathroom or kettle risks derailing productivity. 

Seeing a laundry basket full of dirty clothes, a dishwasher in need of emptying, wilting pot plants, or dusty shelves sends a signal to your easily distracted brain: you should do that, it will only take a minute. But as Newport argues, the visual cues ‘destabilizes the subtle neuronal dance required to think clearly.’  

Some people love to work from home because it means that they can complete these domestic chores in-between work tasks, but according to Newport and other academics concerned with the link between cognitive process and productivity, home may not be the most supportive space for cultivating good work. 

Maybe it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal. Does it really matter if you get up to put a load of laundry on during a scheduled break? Well, no, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. 

Instead, consider how your home is a minefield of potential distraction and even if you don’t engage in that distraction, your mind is momentarily pulled towards this urgent but unimportant domestic task and away from whatever it was you were working on. 

It takes a lot of discipline and energy to write and we don’t want to waste those finite resources on overcoming potential distractions (see: laundry, dishes, vacuuming, mowing). 

And I haven’t even begun to talk about how other people are also a form of distraction. 

Working from home is often presented as a perk and it is one of the few benefits that writers – well known or not – share. And yet, there are many writers who forego this privilege in the name of productivity. 

Perhaps the solution then is, as Newport said, to work from near home. 

For those on a shoestring budget, that may look like working from public libraries, but you’d be surprised at how creative you can get with this. I’ve spoken with writers who’ve written books in the empty spaces above bookshops, who’ve contacted their local library and requested a private space work, or who have made an arrangement with their local university. 

A lot of magic can happen when you ask and the worst is that they will say ‘no’. (And I’m pretty sure you can handle that). 

If you can afford it, then renting a desk in a co-working space or hiring a room that you can turn into a writing retreat may be a great option for you.  

Now, is this an unnecessary and privileged expense? 

You bet ya. 

But this type of grand gesture is what can elevate you from amateur to professional, or so Steven Pressfield would say. This kind of investment is a signal to yourself that writing is important to you, that you are worth backing, and that you are taking this writing practice seriously. And you never know, the cost of working in such a space could be covered by your increase in productivity. 

As with all writing advice, you need to decide what works best for you, but I do think this is an aspect of our writing routine that deserves some serious experimentation. 

Now I’d love to hear from you. Do you write from home? Do you find this space supportive or distractive? If you write at home, please share what types of locations work well for you, cafes, libraries, co-working spaces, and do you think this makes writing easier? Leave a comment below and tell me all about it because I’d love to know. 

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