Essays on Technology and Culture

Writing on the Subway: The Ultimate Distraction-Free Environment

I’m writing this essay on the subway, while on my way in to work. It’s a surprisingly great place to write, if you can get a seat. The one flaw I’ve found to the setup is that if you’re clinging to the poles, it’s a lot harder to type. You need both hands free. One can make it work if you wrap your arm around the pole, but this is an egregious breach of subway etiquette.

All you do is sit down, whip out your smartphone, and start typing into your off-line text editor of choice. (I recommend using Drafts for iPhone.) Owners of an iPad mini may find that to be a good tool as well, but full-size iPads are a bit too large for subway typing. Laptops are right out.

The advantages of the subway as a writing space are myriad. There’s no cellular service, no Wi-Fi, and only minimal non-digital distractions. Pop a pair of headphones on, and you can ignore almost anything—you don’t even need to turn on the music player.

In the space of a thirty minute commute, a good iPhone typist can write almost 500 words, and with periodic rerouting, train traffic, signal trouble, and unexplained slowdowns, you’ll find you have more time to write than you expected. A lot more. You’ll almost not want to get where you’re going. Almost.

For a fiction writer, a writing session on the subway is typically loaded with potential inspiration for characters and situations. There’s the teenage lovers clearly playing hooky from school, the homeless guy sleeping across some seats, and the asshole with the acoustic guitar busking for tips an he’s shoving his hat in my face despite the fact that I wasn’t listening or watching his terrible performance anyway.


Distraction-Free may not be an entirely accurate description of the subway as a writing—for God’s sake, you just tried asking me for money, and I said no!

Ahem. Distraction-Free may not be the best description of the subway as a writing environment, but it’s close. The mental shift that comes from relocating, the huge block of unallocated, Internet-free time, and our ubiquitous portable computing devices make it possible to get some real work done during a period of time we would have only wasted reading books and newspapers, listening to music, or interacting with our fellow city-dwellers. Just try not to get so deep into your work that you miss your stop.

And if this guy doesn’t stop playing guitar, I will go all Animal House on him. No, I don’t have any cash. Go away!

* Above post was written only partially in jest.