Does a steady writing routine have a particular sound?
I’ve spent months experimenting with various kinds of background noise as I write each morning. I’ve also listened to writers at various skill levels discuss how sound impacts their routine. My conclusion is that sound can play a major role in the formation of a strong writing habit.
Now, I’d love to tell you that a certain song is the key.
Surprise! Here it is! Just listen to “X” by Band Y.
It’s a little more complicated than that. Finding your ideal background noise, the one that gets you into a state of writing flow, will take some experimentation. As is the case with all writing process, you’ll need to pair best practice with your personality. I recommend that you try different variations for three writing sessions. See which elements do the most to promote your writing. Drop what doesn’t work. Keep and iterate what does until you hone your optimal sound. My most important tip: find sounds that you don't normally hear. If you pick noises unique to your writing, they will have a more powerful impact on your routine. Let me share a few more specifics to get you started.
Music vs. ambient sounds
Many writers find that some kind of music forms the best audio backdrop for their writing. Some people swear that music distracts them. If you don’t get good results with music, try some kind of ambient sound. These sounds could come from a machine or an app, like the ones that play sounds from nature. You could even buy one of those desktop water fountains. Again, you should try both music and ambient sounds and see which really drives your writing.
Lyrics—good or bad?
I’ve lost track of the number of writers who’ve told me, “I can’t listen to lyrics when I write.” I’m among this number. Lyrics invariably derail my thoughts as I write. Now, you may find that this isn’t true for you. At any rate, I recommend that if you decide that music is your best writing sound, try listening to music both with and without lyrics. See which variety best inspires your focus.
Genres—friends in disguise
Don’t assume that just because you enjoy a particular kind of music that it will be your ideal writing noise. You may be surprised to find that music from a genre you’ve never enjoyed before actually focuses your writing. A few years back, I tried listening to a few tracks from the post-rock genre while drafting. This was a genre I’d never been interested in previously. I discovered something remarkable. While I didn’t enjoy post-rock during other activities (such as during a workout or while driving), something about the genre really motivated my writing. Bands such as Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor started to form a crucial part of my routine. I found that this kind of music stimulated my creativity in ways that my favorite genres did not. I also realized that having a unique genre that I only listened to when I wrote made the element of sound a more powerful part of my routine. So if you listen to music while writing, don’t assume that the best choice is your typical musical preference. Look for the genre that motivates the creative side of you.
One thing remains crucial after you find your best writing sound: stick with it for a long time. The most important part of maintaining a steady routine is to keep the various elements consistent. Having the same noises in your environment—especially if they are unique to your writing habit—will snap you into the routine. You remember Pavlov's dog, right? That's what you want to do to your writing brain: condition it to respond to an audible trigger.
These days, when I sit down to write, I immediately put on my headphones and turn on my ideal writing sound. The noises that I listen to each session have a similarity, so I’m immediately in writing mode. I have found that this helps me to get past the uncertainty that once made it difficult for me to start my writing sessions. Now, instead of staring at that blinking cursor, I get writing quickly and make rapid progress.
(If you’re curious, my current sounds of choice come from an app called Brain.fm. It’s an awesome beta product from a rising startup.)