Co-working spaces are having a moment. In 2005, there was only one; by 2014, there were 781. But not many of them are built for writers.
As freelancer Kyle Chayka recently told us, “They all have this heavily, heavily corporate vibe. There are these glass-wall offices and very stiff, cookie-cutter desks. You definitely feel like you’re in a company. And in some, there’s a stigma against taking phone calls in a main area.”
In response, Chayka and a few other freelancers started their own co-working space, Study Hall, as a sort of artist’s studio for nonfiction writers.
But co-working spaces like Study Hall are only one solution to a problem facing freelancers everywhere: finding (or building) that perfect office space. Of course, that perfect space looks different for everyone—while a busy co-working space may be invigorating for some, others may find all the hustle and bustle distracting.
To get a better idea of what freelancers are looking for, we talked to five of the top freelance writers in the industry (Noah Davis, Ann Friedman, Carrie Smith, Brendan O’Connor, and Alina Simone) to find out how they would design their own dream writing studio.
As a freelancer, do you think it’s important to have a designated space for your business?
Noah Davis: It’s vital to have an emotionally designated space, or at least to be able to separate your work and home life if you work from home. That’s easier if you have an office in your house, but that’s frequently not possible in smaller apartments (like mine). I worked from home for eight years before getting a workspace earlier this year. Those eight years were fine, but it’s nice to have somewhere to go.
Ann Friedman: Yes and no. When I lived alone, I worked in my dining room. Do I think I would have done better with a home office? Yes, but I’m not sure how much better. Now that I live with my partner, having an office with a door that closes is essential to my work. It’s very important for me to feel like I have space designated for work that is separate from the rest of the house.
Carrie Smith: Oh yes, it’s super important to have a designated space for your business. You need to be able to get away, lock yourself in the room, and set boundaries for yourself and those who live with you.
Brendan O’Connor: For me it is imperative. I still do a fair amount of work from home—and probably more than I’d like to admit from my bed—but having a separate, removed space feels very good.
I belong to a writers’ co-working space not far from my apartment, and it’s definitely worth the investment. It’s a place to go to that is both purposeful and flexible, and that I feel some ownership over (shared, in this case, but the point stands). It helps in the follow through on making the commitment to do the work: when I’m there, I’m supposed to be getting shit done. (Whether I actually do get shit done—well, it varies.)
Alina Simone: Not at all—right now I work from home. A chair and a laptop stand facing the window works fine. However, if I had roommates or a spouse who worked from home or a baby at home or lived in a noisy building, I would really need to find someplace outside the home. It’s important to be able to block everything else out.
Where would your dream writer’s studio be?
Davis: Somewhere close to where I live, I suppose? But not too close. Right now, I have an office space about two miles from my apartment. I bike there threeish times a week. That all seems about right.
Friedman: I work in an office at my home in Los Angeles, and I love it. If I were to improve it, I’d probably disconnect it from the house and put it in a (hypothetical) backyard. So it would be a standalone little building that is near but not connected to the house I live in.
Smith: My ideal writer’s space would be in the snowy mountains of Colorado or Washington state. I love the cold weather, warm fire place, and hot coffee to get me in the mood of writing and working.
O’Connor: A twenty-minute bike ride from my apartment; long enough to appreciate being outside but not so long that it’s a hassle to get there.
Simone: I might place it in the middle of a busy café, as sucking off the energy of people busy caffeinating themselves seems to really put ballast in my tank. So yes, I think a glass cube—you know, kind of like the iconic Apple store on 5th Avenue in Midtown, only smaller, plonked in the middle of a very busy place. Something like the Barnes and Noble lobby in Union Square would do nicely.
How would you design your dream studio?
Davis: A nice table to double as a desk. A standing desk, too. A comfortable chair. A fridge. A few windows. A shower. Some type of enclosed area to make phone calls.
Friedman: Right now I have a monitor, keyboard, and laptop set up on a big old wooden bankers’ desk. I love this old desk, but am looking to swap it out for an adjustable-height desk that will allow me to sit or stand.
My dream desk is this old heavy wood thing, but with go-go-gadget legs so it can magically convert to a standing desk when I want to stand. My dream office also has floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves on several walls, and great acoustics for me to record my podcast and conduct interviews with sources on speakerphone. Which probably means a nice rug, plus art on the walls that I’ve commissioned from friends. I’d like a comfortable reading chair or maybe a small sofa (not long enough to lie down on—I don’t want the temptation to spontaneously nap), upholstered in some luxurious fabric with a great color or bold print. Right next to the table or sofa is a little table where I can stack the books I’m currently reading, and where I can rest a glass or a cup.
The office is filled with plants. So. Many. Plants. There would be a good section of wall space devoted to a corkboard for pinning things to—I like to make collages, and I think I’d enjoy having some wall space for a mood board. It would have a fantastic speaker system so when I need to drown out the outside world, I can. There would be a ceiling fan to keep the air circulating even when I’ve been hunched over the keyboard for hours, and enough space to roll out a yoga mat and do some stretches.
It would smell fantastic—like one of those expensive candles you find in a hipster “general store.” Lots of natural light, too, which I suppose is going to be tough, given the ample bookshelves, but I think we can make it work.
Smith: My dream studio would definitely be facing the outdoors, perhaps overlooking the valleys, hills, and rivers. I would also make a separate space for my art studio where I would take a break from writing to paint and draw. Multi-functional standing desks are a must, and there would be a clean but organized feel to the space. Also, a lock on the door!
O’Connor: As few places to allow crap to accumulate as possible; a desk facing a wall of big windows; some bookshelves with a small couch opposite; a self-replenishing supply of black pens and black notebooks. Also two large cork boards: one for tracking workflow across various different stories, and one for diagramming an individual story’s structure.
Simone: There is only one piece of equipment that I have ever coveted. It is this modern library carrel kind of thing, with a beautiful wooden desk enclosed by a fuzzy half-dome lid covered in wool. There is a tiny hole in the desk, just large enough to thread the cord to your computer and one lamp. It is like a writer’s space womb! It costs $1,500 and I often see it in the window of a luxury furniture shop near me. I fill it with longing dreams of books unwritten.
How would the design of your studio enhance your creative work?
Davis: The first thing it would do is to give me some emotional distance between my home life and my work life. I really like my kitchen table, but working there every day gets onerous. If I had a shower in my studio, I would be able to go running in the middle of the day when I was feeling uncreative and/or I needed a break.
As it is now, the workspace I go to doesn’t have a shower so I either have to run before or after work. That’s like having a real job and it takes away one of the major benefits of freelancing for me, which is the ability to be able to set your own schedule.
Friedman: Honestly, I have a pretty great setup right now, save for the desk dilemma. It is not that far off from the description above!
In general, I like being surrounded by well-selected clutter and a bit of noise. I hate looking up and seeing a blank wall, and I often can’t work well in total silence. I like being in natural light and surrounded by plants. But in general, it would be a space just for me. That’s what’s so nice about a dream studio/office: It’s designed just for me, and psychologically I have to feel like if I can accomplish great things there.
Smith: I’ve always been frustrated with the designs of past office spaces, so I would open up the energy in the space by facing a door or window, and leaving plenty of room for yoga breaks.
O’Connor: It’s important to have a place to lie down until the panic attacks pass, so having a couch close to the desk would be helpful.
How do you think your workspace affects your business?
Friedman: Well, it’s a tax write-off. Beyond that, the more productive and creative I am, the better my business is. So a better workspace might have some hard-to-trace benefits.
Smith: Several months ago I completely redesigned my home office space (for less than $76) and I have doubled my income since then.
Of course I’ve done other things for my writing business that contribute to this accomplishment, but I know that having a cleaner, more inviting space has been a major factor too. Just like you should dress for the career you want, you should work a space that reflects the business you’re trying to create.