Planes, Trains and Automobiles: How to Write on the Road

Planes, Trains and Automobiles: How to Write on the Road

Whether you’re a digital nomad or you write about travel for a living, many writers will find themselves spending a lot of time on the road.

This means you’ll likely spend a lot of time in transit. Thankfully, traveling is a great time to get work done.

Flying high: Working in airports and airplanes

My favorite place to work when I’m on a trip is at the airport. Once I’m seated at the gate, I get a lot of work done between bursts of people watching. Once I’m on the plane, I find myself working in a variety of different ways depending on what I need to get done.

If you use your laptop on the plane, be aware of hazards like the person in front of you suddenly reclining their seat or your seatmate losing their drink in a burst of turbulence (or “rough air” as they say on Delta).

Planes are also a great place to take handwritten notes and brainstorm for various projects.

An added benefit to this time-tested technique is that you don’t have to worry about the fate of your laptop or turning off and stowing electronic devices for takeoff and landing.

When selecting your seat, keep in mind how much work you’d like to get done. If you really need to buckle down and focus, consider a window seat. While you won’t be able to go to the bathroom or stretch your legs quite as easily as if you were in an aisle seat, you’ll have more uninterrupted time to focus since you won’t have to constantly leap up and down for seatmates making their own bathroom runs or leg-stretching jaunts.

You can also often check ahead and see if outlets are available on your plane and if there’s one near your seat.

You may also wish to check your inflight WiFi options. In many cases, buying the Wifi before you board the plane is a much better deal than purchasing it once you’re on board. It might even be tax deductible — be sure to ask your tax preparer.

On the open road: Working from cars

If you’re the one doing the driving, of course you won’t be able to get any work done behind the wheel. And that’s okay since your attention should rightfully be on the road.

However, the scenes you see whiledriving can provide great inspiration for your writing, whether you notice a kitschy roadside attraction you’d like to write about, or  drive past an area that would be an ideal setting for your novel.

If you have a sidekick, you can ask them to jot down notes for you, or you can pull over in a safe place when inspiration strikes and you want to record a few ideas before they slip your mind. Bring a notebook and pen with you or take notes on your phone. Some people prefer taking audio notes on a voice memo phone feature, app or digital voice recorder.

But if you’re the passenger, time on the road is a great for completing work. Take a notebook and spend some time brainstorming and outlining whatever article or story you’re working on.

Or you can pull over in a safe spot and turn your phone into a wireless hotspot and connect your laptop to it to get online using your phone data. Be careful not to use it too much because you can eat up a lot of data this way.

Make sure you don’t work in a manner that would interfere with any of your vehicle’s safety features, like air bags or seatbelts. If you were to get into an accident or your air bags were to deploy, you certainly wouldn’t want a laptop flying at you.

Transit time: Working on buses, trains and ferries

Whether you’re packing up to board a bus, train or even a ferry, you’ll likely have at least a few uninterrupted hours to get work done.

The romantic notion of working on trains is so pervasive that Amtrak even offers a writing residency on board its trains.

Try and find out ahead of time if power outlets and WiFi will be available onboard whichever method of transit you’re taking.

If you’re prone to motion sickness, select a seat with that in mind. I’ve been on ferries where I ended up riding backwards. I  definitely would have selected a different seat if I had known the direction of travel ahead of time.

With buses, riding toward the front is often helpful, but staring at a screen or notepad may be a challenge for those who get queasy.

If that’s you, don’t worry. Staring out the window, losing yourself in thought and jotting down the occasional note can be just as productive as cranking out thousands of words throughout your travels since writing involves deep thinking, not just putting words on a page.

Packing for success

Be sure to pack what you need in order to get work done while in transit.

Bring your laptop, charger, notebook, pens and any files you’ll need. Be sure to have a plan to get more juice for your devices if need be. If you’ll need to power up devices while in the car, bring a car charger.

Bring a power pack so you can recharge when necessary and not have to worry about finding a convenient plug or the right kind of adapter for a car.

Also, as you travel, be sure to back up your work. Whether you copy it onto a flash drive you keep separately from your laptop, take a photo and email yourself copies of your handwritten notes, or back up your Word docs to the cloud, back up frequently. You never know when a seatmate’s spilled drink or a blunder of another sort could spell the end of your work.

But, as you travel, be sure not to become too overwhelmed with work. Transit time is also useful to relax, catch up on movies, listen to music or just daydream.

Destressing is also part of the creative process, so don’t feel bad if you need a timeout from working while in transit.

Do you enjoy writing in transit? Let us know in the comments.

Filed Under: Craft
Working on the Road

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9 comments

  • These are great tips! If I can add one more–bring along some non-work writing-related stuff. During my last book tour, I packed the writing magazines and books that I had been planning to read but never found time for at home. In between events, I spent time in my room, skipping TV in favor of reading. (I also did some fiction writing as well–since it had been getting short shrift thanks to my work schedule!)
    Thanks for the ideas!

  • Jerry Nelson says:

    Great story and so timely for me. Getting ready in a month to head to America to cover the Cherokee PowWow in Tennessee and will tap-into your suggestions.

    Jerry Nelson
    Buenos Aires
    Freelancewr.it

  • C.B. Matson says:

    Sometimes it’s better to just rest, sleep if you can, read through your research notes – spend your quality time when you reach the hotel. You’ll be much more productive.

  • Diane Dobry says:

    I am spending my summer in Budapest writing mostly on my computer when I am home, but using my phone to take photos, and a specially purchased journal to take notes and do interviews (I’m doing some travel articles while I am here). I have also dictated notes to my phone, which has a notes app and on the keyboard there is a microphone for voice commands. Or I dictate to my recording function. I will travel on a two-week cruise this week and I am debating about whether or not to bring my laptop, since most of what I will be doing is experiencing and taking photos, and the wifi is not guaranteed. They do have public computers on the ship that are connected on board. I am thinking, rather than lugging a laptop I may not use with me, I will leave it in Budapest and post when I return. My phone’s wifi stopped working while here, so if there is a signal available for my data plan, I can use the phone for some connections.

  • Francesca says:

    I used to fly a lot when I was younger. Like much younger. I never left home without two or three notebooks in my carry on bag. I would often write so much that my hand would start cramping and that the person in the seat next to me would give me an awed look. I guess they hadn’t seen many teenagers who liked writing.

    Now that I’m older, I’ve upgraded to a tablet with bluetooth keyboard. I haven’t traveled much, or at least not like I used to, but my tablet makes it really easy to write. Scrivener is awesome to use because it doesn’t require wi-fi or data. You do have to sync it up via wi-fi so that your work will transfer from device to device but that can be done nowadays at any fast food restaurant with free wi-fi. It will also save automatically.

  • Sharon Leaf says:

    I’m considered a gypsy, so upon request I started a low-key travel blog. After writing my first novel, Lady and the Sea, and still working on my second, Lady on the Run, my travel blog is relaxing and lots of fun. On a whim, we bought a huge motor home last year and have traveled to 20+ states. I spend the days taking pictures, eating at diners and cool restaurants, and adding a few pounds along the way. At night I write on my laptop. NOW, we’re getting ready to take a 6-week trip to Italy, Spain, Germany, and Sweden so your tips are great for me! Planes, trains, and buses…no motor home on this trip! Thank you, and Ciao!

  • I wrote my first book and many short stories while commuting 3 hours a day by train. It had a nice cafe car that I could use to write in. On more than one occasion, I nearly missed my stop because I wanted to write one more scene.

    I saw a Kickstarter for a special kind of table, something called the iMoov. It seems to be small enough for my tablet, which should give me the chance to write while taking the express bus to work. I’ll blog about it in October, when it comes in the mail.

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