Establishing Setting: How to Prepare a Productive Writing Workspace

Writers love to get into heated debates about the best environments for writing. Many insist that the only way to avoid distraction is to be locked up in a Cormac McCarthy-esque cabin in the wilderness, where the writer is distracted by nothing except his or her own thoughts. But even though a location like this might sound ideal for writing the next Great American Novel (or for the setting of the next great horror movie), oftentimes the writing assignment at hand is more akin to a nine page research paper, due a week from tomorrow. When this is the case, we’re forced to be a little more realistic—our writing environments are pretty much limited to our homes, somewhere on campus, or the Starbucks halfway between. Nevertheless, even these spaces can be personalized to apply to our unique writing processes. Here are the things I take into account when preparing my personal workspace.


When deciding where I want to work, I try to pick a place that will offer as few distractions as possible, but with enough background noise that I don’t go crazy. If my apartment is quiet and clean, I’ll stay in. Otherwise, I like to head to coffee shops or even somewhere on campus. The Lincoln Park campus offers a surprising number of hidden spots with a variety of noise levels and just the right amount of privacy. (For example, the third floor of the student center is DePaul’s best kept secret in terms of places to get work done.)


Location is worth nothing if it doesn’t include enough space to work. I can’t work on a major homework assignment without a big enough surface on which I can spread out everything I need, and I always work better sitting at a table than slouched down in an armchair. I try to pick a table away from the center of the room where I know passersby won’t bother me, and I spread out everything I need, including my outline, notes from class, and the prompt, so they are easy to reference as I write.


I love snacks. Snacks are so important. There is nothing more frustrating than dragging all of my homework out of my apartment, setting up my workspace, sitting down to write, and realizing I am hungry. Now, I always travel like some kind of weird supermom with a handful of snacks ready to eat at the bottom of my bag. I’ll even pack a lunch if I plan on being gone for a long period of time. Finally, I always like to have something to sip as I work, so coffee, tea, or Diet Coke is a necessity to keep me focused and energized.


When choosing a location, I always take background noise into account, but sometimes putting in my headphones and listening to my own music is the best way to block out outside distractions. I’ll choose anywhere from mellow, indie artists to loud dance music depending on my mood and where I feel I’m at with the assignment at hand. Then, when I get to the point where I’m ready to pause and read over my work, I’ll take my headphones out—the world suddenly sounds much quieter, and I’m able to look at my work with fresh eyes and focus on my writing at the sentence level.


It’s always important to have every element of the assignment on hand to reference as I work, from the writing prompt, to the textbook, to any online resources that might be helpful. I’m never able to write a paper without my sources next to me, so I always double check that I haven’t forgotten anything when I set up my workspace. And of course, I love to take advantage of DePaul’s resources such as the University Center for Writing-based Learning, which can provide feedback and support at any point in the writing process!

When I sit down to write, I like to have everything I need on hand so I can avoid constantly getting up to grab something I forgot.  I’ve found that choosing the right location, and setting up everything I need from the beginning, allows me to sit down and just concentrate on my writing without distractions.  What do you take into account when setting up your workspace?  Let us know in the comments below!

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Remy Terle says:

    Nice post Elizabeth!

    I become distracted incredibly easily, so I usually go to the library to write. Coffee shops are difficult for me. Once I went to one, listened to Dark Side of the Moon, and stared at a painting on the wall for an hour. I like to keep my apartment a place of relaxation. I strongly agree with the hunger issue; it’s a deal breaker!