Background noise and writing

I’ve got a huge deadline on the book, but while the coffee brews, I wanted to mention something about background noise.

A lot of writers like quiet when they write. I don’t. I need something going on in the background to write well. I was greatly amused when my Myers-Briggs said that I’m an ENFP or ENTP (don’t remember; it was close either way) and that I thrive on a little background stimulus to keep the words going. I’d known that, but I never had had an explanation for it. Very interesting!

Gerry Weinberg described something in “The Secrets of Consulting” about early radar systems. People thought the gear should be stable, solid, and not move. They’d bolt them down in relay racks. However, it turned out that radar systems need systemic noise or they get stuck and don’t work. As a result, people would add a jiggler, something that would inject random motion to the gear, which would keep the background noise up and the radar systems didn’t get stuck after that.

I’m like that. A lot of writers are like that. For me, I’ll frequently have the TV on while writing. But it can’t be just anything; it has to be something I’d like to listen to regardless. I’ll also play classic rock (such as King Crimson) or comedy albums. All of this helps me write.

But there are times when what I’m doing requires a lot more thought and analysis and then I simply cannot have something going on with words. It becomes enormously distracting. I’ll put on classical music with a single instrument then or maybe ambient stuff (also usually with one instrument, now that I think of it). The music keeps part of my brain occupied and I can write, write, write.

I’m currently putting together a chapter in the Author-it 5.5 book that’s requiring a lot of planning as I write because I need to use it as a leaping off point for the structure of the next 3 or 4 chapters. Right now, it’s Scarlatti and me against the world. (I feel a bit like Jimmy Cagney here: “Top o’ the harpsichord, Ma!”)

Ah, the coffee’s done. Life is good.

5 Responses to “Background noise and writing”

  1. Carrie

    Interesting post! I find that sometimes super repetitive dance music with flat vocals works for me when I need to be productive. This is music I would normally find quite irritating, so I don’t understand why it helps when I need to focus. (Specific example: “Pop Champagne” cover version by Telephoned.)

    Thanks for such an thought-provoking piece.
    Carrie, an ENFJ 🙂

  2. I’m trying to think of stuff I’d find irritating that I would actually listen to for writing and I can’t… but there’s something tickling the back of my head that’s saying “You’re forgetting something!” It’ll come to me after the next pot of coffee, no doubt (almost done with the first).

    Years ago, I remember doing an entire book index listening to a collection of albums by The Bobs. (I’m really good at indexing, but I loathe it; background music is an essential for that.) I was thinking of that last night and decided I should get a bunch of Bobs CDs, so I got on eBay and Amazon and did just that. Also got a bunch of Austin Lounge Lizards CDs while I was at it.

  3. John Sarra

    My preferences have changed over time. I used to work for a company in a cubicle environment that used “white noise” to deaden conversations nearby. That used to drive me crazy because the white noise sounded like constant static to me, like a radio in between stations.

    To counteract, I had a radio on my desk turned down low playing smooth jazz. At another company, when Napster was in it’s prime, my co-workers and I used to download and stream music over the desktop. That was until the network administrator cracked down on the bandwidth useage, lol!

    Several jobs later, given the preference, I’d rather have it quiet, especially if I’m working from home. The reality is though, that most of the time I’m now in work environments where there is a lot going on around me, so I’ve learned to just tune the noise out.

  4. Stefanie

    I like Jim Brickman, in particular his “No Words” album, when I’m writing with concentration. Otherwise, I like to listen to a variety of everything from Classic Rock to Country to Pop Rock to keep me “moving” while I work. Thanks for the article. You present an interesting perspective.

  5. Freshly brewed coffee – life is good indeed!

    In the matter of ambient sound I do know the television, for me, is horrid. I recall a college professor (first year of Spanish) who advised us to listen to ‘good, steady, 4/4 rock ‘n’ roll’ when studying. It does work for me.

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