The Search for the Perfect Writing Space

It can be difficult to find the perfect place to write. When I leave my afternoon classes, I often find myself standing on the sidewalk, unsure of where to go next. There are so many study spaces on this campus, but some days nothing feels right. (For some ideas, check out Nanako’s post about finding the perfect space for you)

The space where I work matters. And frustratingly, what I need in a study space is in constant flux, depending both on my mood and the type of work I need to get done: energetic spaces for sleepy mornings, quiet spaces for more focused work, and so on. Over my few years at Princeton, I’ve learned how different study spaces affect me: campus cafes are energizing, but distracting; Firestone carrels are productive, but isolating; and my dorm room puts me to sleep within fifteen minutes—no matter the time of day.

With larger projects like a thesis or final paper, though, it can be even harder to find the right space to write. In my experience, larger projects require more focus and endurance, making it hard to be productive in a loud, busy space. On the other hand, the prospect of extended hours in library isolation is almost always unappealing to me.

This is where writing retreats come in. A number of departments, certificate programs, and residential colleges offer “writing retreats” for students who need to work on papers, but have trouble finding the right space and time to do it. At these events (often weekly, though it depends), the host organization provides a quiet, designated space for students to write. Unlike in more conventional study spaces, however, there’s a real sense of community at writing retreats. We tend to be working on similar longer-term projects—especially when we’re all in the same department, so even when we’re working silently, it feels collaborative. Plus, many writing retreats come with additional perks: free snacks and meals, free coffee and tea, free gear. Some writing retreats also feature a librarian, professor, or graduate student who’s available to help if you need guidance or feedback.

Because they typically meet on a weekly or monthly basis, writing retreats cannot resolve all of your day-to-day study space problems. And sometimes you just need to hole up in Firestone, or work in a campus café. But especially for longer-term projects, writing retreats can be a great option to keep in your toolbox; they offer community, targeted resources, and a balance of focus and fun.

Check your residential college calendar to see if there’s a regular writing retreat near you. Some colleges have separate writing retreats for different class years, so don’t worry if you only see events for seniors. You can also always reach out to a department or certificate administrator—or other campus organizations like SIFP—to ask if they offer writing retreats.

Just this year, I’ve been to three different kinds of writing retreats: one in my home department, one in my residential college, and one in my certificate program. I owe a lot of my thesis draft progress thus far to these writing retreats. They’ve offered an easy way to fit writing time into my schedule. Even though I try to work on my thesis research a little every day (instead of in irregular binges), the writing stage requires a few extended sit-down sessions. Writing retreats structure time and space—all you need to do is show up!

–Rafi Lehmann, Humanities Correspondent