Writing on the train: is it feasible?

My tram stop at Shudehill. (Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)
My tram stop at Shudehill. (Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Last week I committed to writing on the tram every morning (except Friday, when I walk to a different office).  I was inspired by this Medium post by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, in which she talks about how she wrote 100,000 words on her commute. She also mentions hearing about this story about a man named Peter Brett, who also wrote a fantasy book called The Painted Man on the train. And that was back in 2010, when phones were a lot less smart than they are today.

My previous experience of writing on the train was some productive sessions on my long journeys from Manchester back to my parents’ in the South of England. With the week over, I reread Elizabeth’s article, I looked for how long her commute lasted. It was 25 minutes each way.

The length of the train journey is more important to productivity than your surroundings

This is the main thing I learned from last week. My commute is a relatively short 12 to 15 minutes. I don’t think this is enough time properly to reenter your fictional world and get some productive words down on paper. By the time you’ve ‘warmed up’, it’s almost time to put your book down. Your brain knows it, too. A journey lasting under 15-20 minutes isn’t enough time to be fully creative.

Your surroundings are not as important as you might think

If you had asked me beforehand what the most important factor conducive to a productive writing commute was, I would have said getting a seat. I used to have a commute lasting about 90 minutes to Farringdon in London, involving one change and a lot of standing when I was doing my journalism training at City University. It was no fun at all – particularly trying unsuccessfully to teach myself shorthand on a bumpy train. Surely a seat is a prerequisite to doing anything resembling work on a train?

Not now that phones and iPads have improved so much. It’s possible, as Elizabeth did, to get stuff done while on your feet. If you have a set of good headphones, then you can block out much of the chatter and the roar of the train (except on parts of the Underground, though – that can be LOUD).

Make sure your devices are set up before you start

If you have no WiFi or you’d rather not connect to a public network, then make sure your devices are equipped to work offline. There’s nothing worse than getting all ready to work, then finding you are back to where you were last week because your draft is not up to date. This tip is particularly useful on Britain’s privatised train network, which in all its glory has patchy, slow and expensive WiFi.

And if your commute is too short…

Do something else instead. Read, or catch up with friends and family. Just set aside that chunk of time for another time in the day.


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