Writing a Book? 3 Reasons to Work in a Noisy Place

Writing a book in a noisy place
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Most writers find it necessary to work in quiet places where they can concentrate in silence. Jonathan Franzen has been known to write in a room with no electronics, no WiFi, nothing but a chair and a table. On occasion, he’s even blindfolded himself and plugged up his ears.

Maybe that’s your style — being cut off from the world. But don’t dismiss the possible advantages of writing in a noisy environment. Crafting prose in silence and serenity has its benefits, but it might be time to take your laptop and wrap yourself in racket.

An unintentional experiment with writing amid noise

The other day, I locked myself out of my house. I was in a hurry, trying to get the dog to poop, taking out trash, stacking laundry from the washer. While I waited for my wonderful girlfriend to drive over and let me in, I wrote in a nearby coffee shop.

Espresso machines whirring, clinking and clanking of silverware and mugs, laughter, talking, chatter — the constant din of a caffeine club wasn’t my typical writing environment. But I wrote, I thrived, I fed off all of the noise.

If you generally write in silence, this situation might sound awful. But here are three reasons why you might want to experiment with writing in a noisy place.

1. Conversations inspire authentic dialogue

Listen to the conversations going on around you. What are people saying? How does each one turn a phrase? What kind of voices do the speakers have — gravely, sweet, annoying? And most importantly, how does the conversation unfold?

Dialogue is hard to write with authenticity. Listen to how people really talk, and let it evolve into your writing. If you’re writing a scene about a conversation in a coffee shop, go to a coffee shop and listen to the voices.

2. Noise offers depth and color

Your parents always told you to do your homework in a quiet place, and yes, research says studying or working in silence, in a place where distractions are low, is a good thing.

But that was homework; now you’re writing and creating. Instead of letting noise disturb you, allow it to inform your work. The music you hear inside a tavern can add mood, police sirens from the street outside can add to plot, and an overheard argument at the table next to you can add depth to a character. Use what you hear to enhance scene and story.

Next, go deeper and explore the ambient noise, the less obvious sounds. What do you really hear? Go beyond the people talking at the next table and the music coming from the speakers. What about the squeak of a chair, the clang of a closing door, the food grilling in the restaurant’s kitchen?

Let each one settle in and listen closely. Consider how they manifest and how people react to these sounds. You might think the audio coming out of a television in a bar would be distracting, but the content of that sound or someone’s response to it might lead you to a new creative idea.

3. Science suggests noise might lead to inspiration

If you need to be creative, you might be better off in a moderately noisy place than a quiet one. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found noise at about 70 decibels — the equivalent of a busy coffee shop — distracted participants just enough to help them think more creatively.

Inspired by this research, a website called Coffitivity offers a soundtrack of ambient coffee shop sounds. If you want to try writing at a noisy coffee shop before actually going to one, give it a try to see whether a little clatter gets your creative juices flowing.

Will you try writing in a noisy place?

Although this noisy world can sometimes wear on our senses, commotion and clatter just might take our writing to wonderfully imaginative places.

Life happens in the noise, so writing right in the middle of it is a great example of embedded reporting. It might take extra concentration at first, and your usual writing discipline or routine might need some adjustments, but shaking things up could have a great effect on your work.

Do you enjoy writing in noisy places? Or do you prefer to work in silence?

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David W. Berner is a writer and journalist in Chicago. His latest book — There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard — is a collection of essays due out in June, 2015 from Dream of Things Publishing.... .

David W. Berner | @davidwberner

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Comments

  1. What an excellent piece, David! I’ve always preferred working in coffee shops for the very reasons you articulated. I’ll definitely be bookmarking Coffitivity. Thank you for writing this!

  2. I usually work with classic rock from the 70″s -90’s playing. Seems to help me come up with ideas and keep me on track.

  3. Meredith says:

    I like to write where there is a little bit of noise in the background. If it is too quiet, my mind wanders elsewhere and I start thinking about everything else going on in my life. A little background noise helps me stay focused on what I’m trying to write.
    Great article!

  4. I actually do write, from time to time, in one of three Starbucks. I have found that the noise was very conducive to writing. The noise wasn’t a distraction as I first thought it would be.

    Normally, however, I write at home with adult alternative music blaring in the background. Noise is truly a good thing to write with.

  5. Great article, David! I struggle writing in quite spaces. The noises help drown out the voices and busyness of my mind so I can concentrate on writing. I’ve gotten many unique characters and ideas while people watching and listening in public, noisy spaces.

  6. I find that both work for me in different ways. I spent years writing in one particular coffee shop, then switched completely to writing at home. But now I’m feeling the urge to take it out into the world a bit more. Home can be distracting in its own way.

  7. David,

    What an excellent idea! Thank you for sharing it.

    I live on one of two main east-west streets into the downtown area of my hometown, so ambient noise is actually a problem.

    I usually prefer to write in quietness (silence is next to impossible without resorting to Jonathan Franzen’s methods, but the quieter the better.

    Up to this point, I’ve never considered seeking out noisy locations to write. But as I read this post, at least two existing scenes came to mind that might benefit from being rewritten in the locations in which they take shape.

    Thanks again for sharing such an intriguing idea.

    Best wishes,

    Carrie

  8. Well, with three kids under the age of four, I’m sure used to writing in a noisy place, but I don’t think that’s the way you intended in this article 🙂

    I’ll have to bring my laptop to the the patio at the bar across the street sometime on a noisy weekend and see how it goes.

    Thanks for the advice!

  9. My favorite place to write is McDonald’s.
    It’s always really noisy in there.
    But all that sound, people, atmosphere inspire me.

  10. Well, what a great little piece. I agree with much of what you have written.

    Lots of my first novel was written whilst on holiday. A trip backpacking around Egypt, provided the setting for much of the story. I would write in quietish bars (I can’t write with banging music), beside pools, on the beach, in fact, almost anywhere rather than sitting at a screen. Call me old fashioned, but my best work comes out of my vintage Parker 51, not Mr Gates word processor.

    That said, I find desk time really good for putting my thoughts onto the computer, tidying grammar and expanding on detail. However, despite being lucky enough having a fabulous study/library at home (my wife is a voracious reader), I find inspiration difficult sitting at my desk. I would therefore advise aspiring authors to spend some time with a pen & paper in your favourite pub, café, park etc. and see what happens. At worst, you will have passed a pleasant couple of hours in ambient surroundings. At best, you may find a whole new way of working.

  11. Gillian says:

    Great article! Some of my best writing has been in a coffee shop.

  12. Great article! Will definitely come in useful as it does get a little noisy in the household sometimes. But strangely enough, I do feel slightly more productive with a little noise – some of my best works are even done while putting up Metallica on the speakers!

  13. I use http://www.rainymood.com quite often, ambient instrumental music, or epic scores—and coffitivity on occasion.

    It helps drown out my dog’s snoring.

  14. I love taking myself away from my regular writing spot at home, setting up the few items I need to work, and letting all the noise fade into the background as I disappear into my task. Whether I’m waiting for a friend to be done with her doctor appointment, waiting while the dog is being groomed, or whatever – having people and commotion around but not engaging seems to work for getting things done.

  15. It’s proven that the creative side of the brain (the right one) works better when you listen to music. I also enjoy listening to films, without watching them, while writing, or sitting on the terrace, listening to the birds. Noise, in general, is a novel idea for me, but makes sense!

  16. I don’t mind noise in general, but recognizable speech is the death knell of concentration for me. It’s like following what they’re saying gets priority over every other sense, even if I have absolutely no interest in the conversation. I remember back in high school when the girls’ basketball went to state. Basketball teams got overnight lodging, but the bands had to commute every day (over two hours on the road each way). Coming back after the night game (we were actually glad they lost, because if they’d have won, I think we’d have been back on the road six hours after we got home), I woke up enough to change position and one of the other members was talking. Not loud–but I couldn’t get back to sleep. I’m at my library right now, and sometimes people will sit down and have a conversation at one of the tables near me. I can’t even surf the web, much less do anything creative. Doesn’t help that the headphones I carry are so much quieter than my “studio” phones at home that I max out the volume and still have to put my hands over my ears sometimes to try and hear what’s coming through them over the ambient noise level.

    Oh, “squeak, squeak” Somebody’s looking through the videos. Why can’t the library afford a can of WD40 for the media racks?

  17. I have always loved studying, writing and reading with some background noise. Maybe it comes from being the eldest of 11 children where silence was never a reality. It was impossible for me to study in the stacks at college — a corner table in the dining hall worked much better. And now that I’m a writer, what you suggest is so true. Inspiration can come in the most crowded of places — a conversation overheard, a character observed or a conflict in progress. Give me a crowded coffee shop over my silent living room any day.

  18. Love the article! Personally, I like to write in all different kinds of locales and noise levels. It ranges from every extreme. Sometimes I write with the dead quiet of my home with nothing but a floor fan going, sometimes I have to have music going. Other times I will squeak in writing in between working as a desk manager at a hotel. I also find myself writing at the mall, one of two IHOP’s, the local parks, and even when out camping.

    The thing for me is that I am a total people person, and I love to observe how people act, react, talk, etc. I have realized the more observant I am about human nature, the more my characters come to life on the page as I write. On the flip side, I also like to have the quiet moments to reflect and fully immerse myself in getting words on the page. It’s harder for me to do that in a busy environment because somehow whenever I’m in public, someone strikes up a conversation about what I’m doing and it goes from there. You can get really detailed with characters when you interact with other people!

  19. Marie Vonow says:

    Great article. Many people think it would be easier to write in a quiet environment with no distractions but it seems many of us prefer some noise. I usually listen to music. Sometimes I write while travelling on the train or I go to a coffee shop. I find i get lots of inspiration in both of these locations. Studies have also shown a somewhat messy work environment stimulates creativity more than a neat and tidy place.

  20. Mike Zarquon says:

    It was useful in some incidents but not all the time. When I go out for the day while I usually travel on public transport. I can see and listen to all types of personalities. That is the only way to observe ordinary people go about their daily routines and business. I once listened to a disgruntled drug dealer yelling on his phone to someone about a money owed to him. He seemed oblivious to the commuters on the bus. It was an eyeopener, and an education, just listening to a person who had limited education trying desperately to get his way.

  21. Well, it seems there are a LOT of you who love the noise! Some more than others, but more and more it seems writers prefer the whir of life around them. The days of locking yourself in a tower with the windows closed and the doors locked are gone with the centuries. Write away, people. In all the noisy, messy glory!

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