Monday 24 October 2016

The Modern Nomad – A Guide to Writing Away from Home

By Nick Cross

I’m sure there are many of you who spend the day in your home study, joyously scribbling, typing or slapping plot-related post-it notes on the wall. Or maybe you are like our very own Teri Terry - who retreats to a shed in her garden - or perhaps Jonathan Frantzen, who famously rents an office with no phone line or internet connection, and has uninstalled everything from his PC apart from a word processor. These are writers who have made themselves a permanent workplace, a semi-domestic environment that nurtures their creativity.

But not everyone can or wants to work this way. If you’re someone with a fulltime non-writing job or responsibilities that take you out of the house, then your writing time will inevitably become fragmented. You’ll find yourself grabbing 20 minutes in a cafe or trying to write on a crowded bus. Even domestically settled writers sometimes need to travel to school or literary events. How then, to balance the act of writing with the unavoidable movements of the day? Grab your coat, Oyster card and (most importantly) your brain, as I explore the opportunities for writing on the move...

Photo by Paul Kitchener

Because I wake each morning feeling that I’ve just risen from the dead, and then drag myself to a taxing day job, I find that the middle of the day usually offers me the best chance to write something coherent. But I’ve tried not to let my time preference bias the article too much, as your results will likely vary. I’ve also had several jobs that required me to get on a train at 7am, and I managed to write at that ungodly hour as well. To practice what I preach, I have written this whole blog post while away from my domicile, consuming many sandwiches, a rather nice veggie burger, several cups of coffee and also managing to spill a large glass of water on the floor of my favourite coffee shop (oops).

Writing at Work

In my experience, writing at your desk – even at lunchtime – is a no-no. Not because your boss might catch you at it, but because there’s far too much opportunity for distraction. This is exacerbated if you’re using your work PC, because emails and notifications can pop up at any time. Even if you have your own laptop, your colleagues can come up at any time to ask questions or dump some urgent problem on you.

"Hey, you wouldn't be writing there, by any chance?"

Why not book a room and take a meeting with yourself? Some modern offices also have quiet study rooms you can use. I'm lucky enough to have an actual library in my office building, though I appreciate this is unusual!

Going to the public library

Before I had a library at work, this was something I used to do religiously every lunchtime. Your results here will depend on the layout and clientele of your local library. You should be able to find desks and even Wi-Fi, but there may also be noisy toddlers and even grown-up people who have no excuse for making such a fuss in a library setting. Most of the people using the library where I was writing had gone there to get access to a PC, which was great for them but less ideal for me when they started asking me random questions about working the printer (How did they know that I worked in IT? Do I just have a look about me?)

Now, this is what IT support looks like

On Public Transport

The true modern nomad should be prepared to write anywhere, be that in a bus, train, tube, taxi or lift. But different forms of transport present their own challenges. An A5 (or smaller) notebook and pen is the most portable solution – you can even write while standing up on the tube, if you’re particularly adventurous. If you want to use a laptop, then you’ll need a seat, and even then legroom may be a problem. I have managed to use my laptop on busses, but only by jamming my legs against the back of the seat in front and making a kind of 45 degree sloping table for myself. However, sometimes you just need to get those words out of your head, no matter how great the discomfort!

Original photo by Brent Royal-Gordon

When Flying

Airports are actually a pretty good place to get stuff done. In-between the security checks and shopping opportunities, there are long periods of boredom to fill, usually with reasonable seating and free Wi-Fi. Once on the plane, it’s a similar story (minus the Wi-Fi), provided you can balance your laptop on the tray table and squeeze it into the elasticated seat pocket on take-off and landing. Of course, this does assume you’re flying alone – if you have kids then the flight may instead be four hours of them fidgeting and poking crayons up your nose.

Cafes and Restaurants

These are some of my favourite places to write. The addition of food and drink makes writing feel like a treat rather than a chore. I try to get to a cafe at least a couple of days a week, and lunch at a restaurant is nice now and then. Of course, all this costs money, but the ability to actually finish something is worth every penny.

I’m reminded of the work habits of film director David Lynch, which are as odd as his output. He is known to eat exactly the same lunch in exactly the same cafe at exactly the same time every day. After lunch, he will begin to drink multiple cups of coffee, each with many spoonfuls of sugar. Mid-afternoon, he gets an extraordinary caffeine/sugar rush, with so many ideas arriving into his brain that he can barely write them down before they’re gone. Most of us probably don’t want to write like David Lynch, but if you ever feel like a creative experiment...

Yes, this is a real thing

Here are a few additional tips for the next time you find yourself writing in a cafe:
  • Posture is Everything
    I admit that those comfy squashy sofas in coffee shops are appealing, but I’ve learnt through bitter experience that a hard chair is by far the best option. Not only does it prevent me from lazing around all day, it also means I can still stand and walk after an hour-long writing session (try that after a being squashed-up on the bus!)

  • Keep it Brief
    While it’s tempting to camp out all day in a cafe, nursing a single flat white like a bankrupt hipster, having a relatively constrained timescale will help encourage your flow (especially if you add caffeine).

  • Seek Illumination
    I’m sure this is a symptom of impending middle age, but good lighting is important to me. I find it tiring to work anywhere that I can’t see my notepad or keyboard clearly. The British Library cafe is particularly poorly lit during the winter months - more like a dingy nightclub straight out of The Matrix!

    Just another day at the British Library

  • To Wi-Fi or not to Wi-FI?
    The advice here depends on what stage of the writing process you’re at. If you’re researching, or publishing a blog post, then by all means seek out those free radio waves in participating public spaces. On the other hand, the internet is totally distracting if you’re trying to write or plot something. You’d be better off going to an independent backwater cafe where they’ve barely heard of a latte, because it won’t be full of gig economy workers or foreign students Facetiming with their parents.

  • Choose Your Peers Wisely
    Having some hubbub around you is great for promoting creativity, but beware of anywhere that the conversation is too interesting. There are certain places that I’ve learnt to avoid in Oxford, because they’re full of academics having fascinating discussions that I don’t want to tune out of – in fact, it’s everything I can do not to join in! Somewhere that’s full of people speaking languages other than English works better for me. I also find it impossible to work in a room that contains a crying baby!

Thus ends my brief guide to living the Modern Nomad lifestyle. You don’t even have to whistle the theme tune to The Littlest Hobo as you do it (readers of a certain age will nod with recognition at this point, leaving everyone else looking baffled). Do add your own nomadic work tips in the shiny comments box below.


Nick Cross is a children's writer and Undiscovered Voices winner.

Nick received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.


  1. Great Post Nick. I'm a Nomad writer too, always carrying a notepad and pen everywhere I go. BTW - I think you should expand out you 'Posture is Everything' into a blog by itself: as I have sustained several nasty injuries from writing at badly set-up computer desks and chairs!:)

    1. I used to get persistent headaches from writing on the train, which turned out to be referred pain from my neck because of the angle I was looking at my laptop. So now I'm more careful. When I see the way my teenage kids curl into odd shapes and places as they're using their devices or even reading a book, I feel a little envious of their young bones!

  2. I've now got the Littlest Hobo theme tune in my head... I know this, particularly catchy earworm, tune normally lasts for about three days – I've been inflicted many times before!

    1. Sorry! I must admit to feeling a wave of nostalgia when I was looking for it on YouTube to make the link.

    2. I do like it... but after the third day.... not quite so much. ;)

  3. An excellent guide and not a single social media controlling app in sight! I've actually been training myself to work at home and resist doing the laundry and the gardening. I so agree about the British Library! The work spaces in the reading rooms have far more healthy lighting than the cafe. Great post, Nick!


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