Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Can You Write With Noise?


I'm not the only writer who has found that a low level of noise can be very conducive for productivity. A few months back in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf had an entire roundup devoted to exploring why so many people find themselves more productive in coffee shops.

His reasons jive with mine, including there being something about a certain level of distraction, working against closing time, and being out of the office making it feel less like work (he neglected to mention one massive reason: caffeine).

Personally a change of scenery can work wonders, but even when I'm home I like to have just the right amount of noise, which usually comes in the form of a sporting event droning in the background. But I've also known writers who lock themselves in a closet and must have complete and utter silence.

Which kind of writer are you? Do you like having a bit of noise or do you need to block everything out?

Art: "His Master's Voice" - Francis Barraud






91 comments:

Becky Mahoney said...

I generally like absolute quiet when I write, but if there are conversations/constructions/etc going on, I will block it out with music. On the other hand, though, I can't brainstorm in absolute silence - I need my playlist to get my brain moving!

funny in the 'hood said...

I can't draft with any noise whatsoever, but I can revise and edit with kids running around and the T.V. on in the background (as long as the volume isn't too high). I prefer silence for all stages of the writing process, but it's not realistic that I'll get it so I have to be flexible. I absolutely can't write in a coffee shop because the people watching would be too distracting.

Wandering Quill said...

I personally cannot write without sound of some sort.

If I do not have theme music playing, or nature sounds that jive with my current setting, I find that everyday things distract me.

I can write in silence, but it stunts my productivity.

DRC said...

Music. Must have music. I have a huge range from classical and movie scores to heavy metal. Each help to enhance moods that I'm trying to portray. I love my music. I also find a change in scene can work too. I remember a year or so ago I went on a cruise with my husband and took my laptop with me. The last two days were spent at sea sailing back to our final destination. Instead of sitting in bars spending money on drinks, etc, I sat next to our little window in our cabin, watched the sea roll by - and finished my novel...lol. I get distracted watching people too much when I'm out. I'm a people watcher

Jory said...

I need a little noise, like ambiance or instrumental music, but if there is lyrics it has to be turned down so it is almost muted and I can't know the words or I'll start singing along. My favorite is listening to movie scores that reflect the mood of my writing.

R. F. Long said...

I need some sort of noise. I have small kids and the absence of noise is deeply suspicious. I can write with the tv on, music playing and occasionally with a minor war breaking out on the sofa. I wish I was kidding.

A. K. Fotinos-Hoyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rita Arens said...

I have to have music on low volume. I need music that speaks to what I'm writing about if I'm writing fiction. For work (I write for a women's website), I like swing/big band really really low so you can barely hear it, like in the old-timey movies. When I'm working on my current YA novel set in the nineties, it's all Journey all the way.

jenna234 said...

I finished my first novel to the sound of some japanese mech cartoon on continues loop. Sadly the computer was right next to the family tv and my brother was obsessed with this one video. I wouldn't recommend it, but for some reason it worked.

A. K. Fotinos-Hoyer said...

Most people seem to write well to music, but I can't write at all when music in on unless the music doesn't have lyrics. Even then, its difficult. What doesn't make any sense though is that I can write really well with a TV on in the background - as long as its not too loud.

Mieke Zamora-Mackay said...

I like to use quiet piano solos to drown out the excess noise wherever I am.

Janice said...

Even in high school I studied with the stereo on. I still have the radio or TV on when writing although I absorb nothing from them. They become white noise for me.

Kathleen Basi said...

I need absolute quiet--being a musician, I can't use music to block it out (I go into theory analysis mode). I have, however, been forced by the presence of small children, to learn to function without absolute quiet...but I'm never as productive.

Suzie F. said...

A little background noise won't distract me while writing: the TV if it's on in another room, the kids talking, the birds if I'm on my deck. But I absolutely cannot write with music of any kind. My mind always wants to wander off with the lyrics or melody.

AlvaradoFrazier said...

I feel like an oddball. I need quiet for writing and revisions. A coffee place is the last place I could write since I'm such a looky-loo that I get distracted by making up stories of people I see.

Meghan Ward said...

I don't write well with noise. I used to write at my local Starbucks, but I wore headphones or earplugs because all the conversations and kids who would come in were so distracting. Now I have an office that is silent, and I love it. I just wish I could get there more than twice a week - only once this week with the holiday weekend.

R. J. Kessler said...

I love to write while listening to lyricless music. Soundtracks, instrumentals, and cinematic music is all fair game.

But I also like to write in a droning environment. The slight hum of conversations floating about actually helps me to get into my own focused zone.

Although there is a point when it gets too loud and becomes a distraction. That's just frustrating.

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban said...

It depends. If I'm in a creative phase, I need total silence.
If I'm "stuck" background noise works better.

Stephanie Reed said...

I'm home alone *and* I take out my hearing aids. Ahhhh...

Ishta Mercurio said...

I need project-related noise, if anything. So, if I'm drafting a picture book, I like to be in a public place like a cafe or mall or restaurant where there are kids and other people around just doing what they do. If I'm working on a novel, I need some scene-related mood music to get me going, but then I really need quiet.

The most important thing, though, is that the noise not be of the distracting nature - my kids in the background, a TV show I'm a little bit interested in, anything like that. The noise needs to be tune-out-able.

Richard Gibson said...

NPR is on all the time. The occasional times when something so interesting comes on that I must stop and listen are welcome and usually make me more invigorated to write.

Anonymous said...

I like background noise for sure, especially a laundry machine or car traffic. But as an ex-barista I can't work in a coffee shop unless I have headphones in. I get too distracted by analyzing people's drink orders :P

Josin L. McQuein said...

If by "noise" you mean white, red or brown noise, then yes - if it's the right frequency. But I cannot abide talking, music, or snoring doggies.

Chudney Thomas said...

Mostly noise, though there are times when I have to have silence.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

I'm the strong-on-silence type myself, though a quiet coffee shop is close enough. When I was writing my novel, I found the sessions at Starbuck's were pretty productive. (And I was drinking decaf.)

Debbie said...

I've never been able to work in total silence. Coffee shops work okay, but if there isn't enough noise, I tend to key in on individual conversations. And there goes any chance of productivity.

If I play music, it has to be instrumental or I start singing along.

Over the holidays, I found that the food court at the mall worked great. There's a waterfall that gives just enough white noise so the conversations don't distract. However, they closed the coffee shop in January, so I'm back to searching for just the right place.

D.G. Hudson said...

No, usually noise distracts me.

If I'm in a coffee shop or busy place, I tend to observe the people and activity, and produce little.

Some coffee shops here are now starting to limit the time 'writers' can spend sipping their coffee and writing. They want more turnover at the tables, to preserve revenue.

I prefer quiet in my study, with coffee or tea, especially in the morning OR when creating the first draft.

When editing, I can listen to low level music (usually jazz or blues instrumentals).

Nice to see a writing post, Nathan. BTW - hate the new word verification that a lot of blogs still have.

abc said...

Coffeeshops work best for me because there is something about the atmosphere that makes me feel more creatively charged: the music, the conversations, the sound of the milk steamer. I don't know, I just want to get to writing. Quiet feels uncomfortable and lonely. Quiet feels stale. And then there is the nap problem.

Mr. D said...

I'm a teacher in a Middle School so I'm used to noise, and I'm the father of two sons, aged 9 and 15, so I can overcome any distraction. I prefer quiet, but that's not the reality in which I live. So just get it done is my philosophy.

Court Ellyn said...

Yep, I have to have ambient music playing in the background. Thank goodness for iTunes radio. Total silence and I start thinking, "I can't write! My brain is empty! I need background noise!" Now, people up and moving around? No way. Eye goes to the motion and the story on the computer screen vanishes. Do they make blinders for writers like they do for horses? :)

Julie said...

I used to write best at my paying job during the most hectic parts of the day(in sales, not for me!)because I could turn the sounds of footsteps and sales being made into a buzzing hum and I'd rocket through chapters like nobody's business.

Ryan said...

Last night I sat under a heat lamp at a bar's patio. I could hear the live music through the wall, the rain, and the wind. Toss in a bourbon and beer back and it was a winner. Was able to revise some short essays and put together most of a Powerpoint Presentation for an upcoming reading at Powell's (Yea! Fistpump! Squeee!)

Alex Villasante said...

I must have music. I'm usually trying to drown out other noises while i write by listening to music. But I also find music to be a kind of 'engine' of writing. For me it's a forward movement that impels me to write. Maybe it's pavlovian, I put the music on and it's a signal that I'm ready to work. Editing though - totally different. I need silence.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

I worked most of my professional life in newspaper city rooms, large, noisy rooms with people coming and going and shouting and talking. A few years back I got a job with my own office and it was TERRIBLE! So quiet I was always falling asleep or wandering the corridors looking for someone to chatter. I last almost two years. Writing at home, I have to have the TV on because the quiet is too damn quiet!

Vera Soroka said...

Mostly in utter silence. Noise can be very distracting. I would watch people if I were in a coffee shop. Music plays a huge part for me when I want to create mood and can have that playing while I'm writing sometimes.

CMR Prindle said...

For the most part I need some sort of ambient noise. Music is the least distracting distraction, but it has to be the right mood and something I know pretty darn well. New music tempts me to really listen to it, which is not what I'm going for, or makes me stop to switch, etc. As for the mood...it doesn't even have to be the "correct" mood for the scene. I have one, ever-growing playlist that I can and have written nearly any kind of scene to. It just puts *me* in the right mood for writing. When I was younger, I could work with the TV on, but I find that more distracting these days (maybe because I'm rarely alone when I'm watching TV and thus the distraction is the prsn I'm conversing with, not the television). Like Julie, though, I used to work in sales and can write through even the busiest part of the day, so long as no one wants me personally. Too much quiet tempts my mind to wander.

One inconsistency: If I really, really, really need to concentrate on writing a scene or finding the logical sequence flow (did I say they had been seated in the cafeteria, or are Bob's elbows being pushed off a table that magically appeared?) then I need quiet so I can bring my whole mind to bear on that one point. Then it's back to the music :)

Anonymous said...

I like white noise, subtle noise. I guess raising kids, having pets, a husband, and typical everyday noise (music, barking, road noisiness, etc) has automatically blurred the sounds into lower tones. I still hear them all but they're not in the forefront of my mind while I'm writing...unless something odd perks up my ears.

Diana Hunter said...

Need the quiet.

Also need the laundry. I write in short bursts (45 min to an hour) and getting up to change over loads is a good break for me. I spend fifteen min away from the computer, get the blood running through my legs and then go back for another 45-60 min stint at the computer.

In silence.
:)

Sommer Leigh said...

This is interesting. At home, I can't write if there is music playing or the TV on or anyone around me talking. But every saturday I hit my local coffee shop for 2-4 hours of write time. The noise of the coffee shop is somehow perfect and I get more work done there than I can with the same amount of time at home.

Janiel Miller said...

Silence. I must hear myself think. My brain is too hyper-curious and needs to investigate any sounds that creep up. Its a liability. I'd get more done if I could do it with my kids running across my face.

Mira said...

Definitely silence for me.

I prefer not to, but I can write with background noise, although music with lyrics or distinct conversations jar me. Coffee shops are not a good place for me because of this.

On the other hand, once I'm really into it, a stampede of elephants could tromp by and I wouldn't notice.

But to start, what works best for my concentration is complete and lovely silence.

Kära Syster said...

I like it quiet. Or my playlist (nothing with lyrics though). But most often I prefer it to be quiet.

/Anna

Rick Daley said...

I don't mind the silence of the early morning, when I can't turn on music for fear of waking my kids, but I also do well in a corner of the family room while my wife and kids are watching TV.

Actually, it's kind of fun when they are watching "The Voice" because I can't see the TV from my writing chair (where I camp out with my laptop) and if someone actually stands out I'll lean forward to take a look.

But when the winds blows or stops blowing, the two things that set my schnauzer into a neurotic barking frenzy at the front door, I get a wee bit aggravated (at the dog, not the wind).

Criticus said...

If the noise is consistent (like white noise) and I know that there will be no interruptions, it's ok. But that's almost never the case in coffee shops! All things considered, I prefer absolute quiet or noise that I create and control myself.

Gwen said...

I like background noise, and usually write to random songs playing on iTunes when I'm at home. At coffee shops, there's usually something playing over the speakers already.

Imogen said...

I like to write with music playing, but I can also write with noise in the background, just so long as that noise isn't someone talking to me. I don't much like writing in silence. There's something spooky and creativity killing about it for me.

Jane Pelusey said...

I find it hard to concentrate in absolute quiet. I think background noise eliminates some of the self talk and day to day thinking that goes on so I can concentrate on what I am writing. For me I usually have the tv or radio on in the background. I brainstorm best in an atmospheric cafe with caffeine of course.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I can't write with music playing, but I do appreciate some noise. AS you said, there's something about slightly divided attention that helps me focus. I function better when I multitask, and perhaps that low level of noise pulls on my attention just enough to make me feel like I'm doing two things at once, even though I'm not really paying attention to the TV or other people. It's an illusion that works for me.

Janet Fox said...

Total silence. And I love music - I make up character play lists - but while writing I need silence.

Heather M Bryant said...

Yeah, I can't do it. I need zero distractions around me or nothing gets done. I even have to turn off my internet ever once and a while.

Robin Coyle said...

I like quiet, but if there is noise around me I am good at tuning it out. I call it "turning off the world."

Mollie Player said...

No noise for me! I do work in coffee shops because I love being there but the noise doesn't help.

Charlee Vale said...

I need music. I make soundtracks for my WIPs and listen to pretty much exclusively that while I'm writing.

I find that a song that connects you heightens you're emotions to the place they need to be to reach out of the page and grab the reader.

CV

Anonymous said...

I used to need music when I wrote. I couldn't write in silence, it drove me right to the edge and killed all my creativity to write in a silent room.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand then I gave birth to a child who needs to speak as much as he needs oxygen, and I found that I absolutely needed silence to write, and without it, I couldn't hear myself think. :)

Sally Hepworth said...

No noise. Not a peep. Seriously, shut up!

Backfence said...

If I have music in the background, I want to sing along which is definitely a distraction. Even instrumental draws my mind away from my work.

Aziza said...

I like writing in coffee shops too, but I think for me it's about having the pressure of people around me potentially watching me that keeps me focused on my laptop rather than staring into space. I can generally block out the noises around me, so that part doesn't make a difference

Reagan Philips said...

Red Wings games and movie sound tracks work great. Sometimes a CD, but occasionally I find myself stopping to sing . . . so no words is best. ;)

Tiffany said...

Hmmm. I am finding that writing with no noise whatsoever has improved my ability to think about what I'm writing. Sometimes I write with music, lyrics and all, but I turn it down so much that it is barely audible. The problem for me is, when writing in silence, is the noise of my computer's fan. I really don't want to close out everything just so there aren't many processes going, so I'll throw the earbuds in and put something like dubstep or glitch on. I used to use yWriter5 and that had typewriter sounds which thrilled the geek in me (I use Scrivener for Windows now). Still, silence suits me better but that damn loud fan!

Zequeatta Jaques said...

No way could I work in a public place. I have to work at home in my office and alone. I like to have music playing in the background but it isn't a requirement.

Magdalena said...

Back and forth between music and silence. But never with other people around.

wendy said...

Interesting question, Nathan :)

In the past when I wrote often and a lot, the words poured out if there was a low level of distraction. I always preferred writing in complete silence and this was the way I'd spend whole days lost in the story world. Having said that, on rare occasions it was also useful to have mood music playing in the background. This helped to focus on the feeling beneath the scene and gave extra empathy with the characters' emotional state. The scene was usually more evocative of the prevailing mood because of the music, too, I thought.

WriteOnWendy said...

For me, it depends on what I'm writing. When I'm writing for business, it's coffee shop type low-level noise I need. When I'm writing super-technical, it needs to be silent. When I'm writing creatively, it's the music that fits the mood of the scenes.

Susie said...

Another fun question. Nice to hear so many are like me. I can write anywhere, anytime...on buses, coffee shops (my favorite), or in front of the tv. My husband can't understand it! The only thing that makes me crazy is the sound of sports on tv, and I think that's just because the announcers have a distracting cadence.

Robena Grant said...

Music. Instrumental for when I'm deep into the writing, but in the discovery stage music that tells me something about the character. Quiet if I'm revising/editing.

Anonymous said...

It varies, from one extreme to the other. Which can be a little aggravating when I've come out to the coffee shop and only then--amidst the din--do I realize it's a Quiet Day. True quiet (I have a family) is usually only achieved around 3 a.m.

For plotting and rough drafts, I'm usually most productive in the wee hours.

For dialogue, it's the coffee shop. Great lines, yeah. But just the rhythms of conversation. Descriptions, too, are better when I'm out and about.

Cab Sav said...

Music for me too. Soundtracks and opera singers, of all strange things. Nothing with a beat, and no TV. I can't tune the TV out.

I too, work well in coffee shops. 90% of my writing is done at lunchtime in the noisy cafes around my work. Plus, as Nathan says, there's also the caffeine.

Ron Gould said...

My preference is to write with instrumental music, preferably jazz playing at a background level - not loud enough to intrude into my awareness, but enough to mask the dogs barking, etc.

Literautas said...

It's weird than I'm able to write in a coffe shop or in the train station, I don't care about noise there. But if I'm in my studio I need quiet, even the most little noise disturbs me. So I use an anti-noise ear muff XD

@ilola said...

As for me, whether in noise or in quietness, once the inspiration is there, it rushes all out.

Bryan Russell said...

I'm fine with whatever. With a little determiniation, you can make a habit out of almost anything. And necessity is the mother of invention.

Traci Kenworth said...

Either really, but I prefer just a little background distraction. It helps focus my mind on what I'm doing. Too much--like I imagine I'd find in a coffee shop--wouldn't work for me.

Karen A. Chase said...

I have found I can write anywhere. And sometimes what is happening around me makes it into the writing. When I was in Paris, two Americans discussing plastic surgery lead me to write my blog about it - it was part of a series that became a whole book. The original blog is here: http://bonjour40.blogspot.com/2011/05/day-27-may-17_17.html

Wombat Crossing said...

When I'm writing I keep all the details of the story twirling around in my head at the same time like a plate spinner with a dozen plates whirling around on sticks. So any interruption causes all my plates to fall and crash on the floor. It takes a lot of effort to get all those plates spinning again.

Therefore, I plug in the earbuds and crank up the iPod with something loud.

Sue said...

I must have noise, whether I'm writing, studying, or working my day job. It helps me focus. In silence, my mind is wandering and I'll wind up singing to myself (and everyone around me - I have a loud voice).

Nicole said...

I need music when I write. The ideas flow so much better! Coffee shops also have a great writing vibe for me.

Jessica said...

I can, and I can't. I say this because if I'm listening to soft toned music that is soothing, relaxing and I can literally picture myself on a beach then yes I can write freely. But if my surroundings are loud or there are many distractions causing me to lose focus then I would prefer it quiet. It varies.

Kevin said...

There's a fine line between background noise and distraction. For me, as a chronic eavesdropper, any sort of speaking is a distraction. I do my bet writing when I have my iPod on, with music playing just loud enough to block out everything around me, but not so loud as to block out my characters' voices. Coffee shops and sports on TV would just distract me from my work.

Amanda said...

At work (I'm a copywriter) I hate being in a noisy and distracting space. I'm almost always listening to music to get the job done. I've gotten somewhat used to it though - you can't control your co-workers! I would be far more productive elsewhere, though, and sometimes step away from my desk and find a quiet corner to work.

When I'm working on my novel, I'm definitely a coffee shop writer. I only listen to my music when I find that the music of the space is too irritating or distracting. I never put any thought into why I like the coffee shops so much - I think it has to do with the caffeine and getting out of the house and office!

K. C. Blake said...

I learned to write in a bowling alley, so it doesn't matter how much noise is around me at the time. I can still write. In fact I probably write better when it's noisy than when nothing is going on and it's too quiet.

Chris said...

I prefer low-level music in the background, but have nothing against silence. I like a coffee shop or other public place for writing because I give myself no excuse NOT to write, as in "I didn't drive all this way (5 minutes!) to surf the web or read email. Doesn't always work, but it gets me away from the other distractions my house avails me--TV, books, eating, cooking, cleaning, fixing that squeaky door once and for all.

Vicki Orians said...

I definitely prefer when it's silent. It helps me get into the minds and emotions of my characters. Which is probably why I prefer it when the hubby is at work. :)

Daniel McNeet said...

Nathan,

Good to have you back.

I enjoy writing and listening to classical music. But if my concentration or the muse on my right shoulder is having trouble transcribing the activities of my characters, I transcribe in silence. Except of course, the sound of the keys in the keyboard.

Christina said...

Depending on the day I write with blasting music, soft music, or no sound at all. It depends on what I'm writing and what type of mood I'm in. Some days I'll find that blasting music ends and I won't even notice.

The one thing I can't abide is talking while I'm writing. Music with lyrics? Great! Something with a beat? Sure! Talking? I will give you the death glare of doom, pop in some headphones, and turn my music up until I can't hear you anymore.

Music is music, so that works for me. People talking though...I guess I'd say it's like trying to have two conversations at the same time with two different groups of people on separate topics. It simply doesn't work.

Savannah Chase said...

I love to write with music on...Silence is not my thing...I get inspired by music..

Anonymous said...

you can't, but you can. go contradict on a different post...

Maria S McDonald said...

A bit of both, actually. I find that when I'm typing straight onto the computer, I need total silence. But if I'm handwriting, I can have nice, soothing music on the background.

MThomas said...

I'm a writer in silence girl. However the tv may be on . . . muted of course.

Annalisa said...

I prefer silence, but I can edit with noise. Writing, and any noise makes leads me to distraction.

Alison Hill said...

When I'm writing fiction I have to play dance music reasonably loud, Paul Van Dyke is my favorite. It drowns out the rest of the world and cocoons me in my fictitious realm. However, when I'm writing non-fiction I prefer some quiet so I can concentrate. I guess when you're dealing with facts...Love your posts by the way. Great information.

wosushi said...

Noise, preferably music.

I did my homework that way in school, I worked in office environments with music constantly playing, and now I write with it.

I also don't get terribly bothered by noises I can't control - like Barney blaring, or the kid throwing his wooden blocks against each other. When I write, I am so busy watching the story play out in my head that the noises are just background.

Silence, on the other hand, makes it difficult.

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