6 things you can stick in your ears to improve your writing

From cotton wool to the New Yorker podcast, a lighthearted look at all the things you can pop in your lugholes to improve your scribbling skills.

There are many things us writers can do to tinker with our writing environment. We can write at a different time of day or we can use a different piece of writing software. The options are endless.
But I like to stick things my ears. And I’ll tell you why.

I live in a small cottage that has exceptionally thick walls, but ludicrously thin ceilings. That means that when another person is doing something – whatever it is – you pretty much know about it.

Here’s a list of sounds that make it hard to concentrate: talking on the phone, talking to a person in real life, watching the television, watching Desperate Housewives on the television, using a sewing machine, singing while cooking.

These are all perfectly legitimate activities in one’s own home. But when you’re trying to write, the noise from elsewhere can be distracting.

So I stick things in my ears.

More than muffling

Now I know that opening gambit implies that the only reason to stick things in your ears is to shut yourself away from the world. And that’s fine. My list covers that.

But actually, there are things you can stick in your ears that can seriously improve your writing in other ways too. And for reasons you might not expect.

1. Earplugs

Pretty straightforward considering what I’ve said so far in this post. But there’s more to it than you’d think.

Earplugs cancel out sound, that much is correct. However, they also transport you to another world. The world inside your head. You can almost hear yourself think. It’s mental.

Wearing earplugs is like being underwater. You can hear the faintest of sounds in the distance, but you can’t make them out. And you don’t care what they are because you’re lost in the moment. You’re somewhere else.

And that’s good for writing. Sometimes, even if I’m on my own when I sit down to write, I still stick earplugs in my ears just to get that sensation. True story.

2. Headphones (music)

A lot of people listen to music when they are writing. They say it helps them relax and allows them to focus. Other writers say the exact opposite.

I’m somewhere inbetween. While I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to write while listening to Megadeth or something else that’s suitably shouty, I’m quite capable of pumping out the words to a little Fionn Regan, Bon Iver or even The National.

If you’re not sure what you can handle, go with something ambient and instrumental, like Nightmares on Wax or Röyksopp. You can even pretend you like listening to classical music, if you like.

3. Headphones (audiobooks/podcasts)

You have to be a special kind of nutcase to be able to write effectively while listening to spoken word, but I believe it’s possible. Not by me, but certainly by some lunatics.

However, if you’re normal and can’t listen to words while writing them, you should still be listening to audiobooks and podcasts as a matter of course. Especially podcasts.

I can hugely recommend The Guardian’s range of writing-related podcasts, including the Books podcast, Front Row podcast and Digested Read. I also rather like the fiction podcast from the New Yorker. All very good.

In terms of podcasts from blogs, we have our very own right here on Write for Your Life, and I know Joanna Penn runs one on her site, The Creative Penn. Then there’s the Grammar Girl podcast too.

Writer Unboxed has some good tips if you’d like to create your own podcast.

4. Cotton Wool

You know that wonderful underwater sensation I described when i talked about sticking earplugs in your ears? Cotton wool is like that, only not quite as good.

It’s more children’s paddling pool than river glistening in the sun on a hot summer’s day. But still.

5. Your fingers

I know what you’re thinking. If you stick your fingers in your ears, you will not be able to hear the din from downstairs, but your ability to type might somewhat suffer too.

You’re absolutely right.

However, what if you didn’t need your fingers to type? What if you tried using some of this newfangled voice-to-text software that used to be absolutely useless but is now much, much better?

Then you could stick your fingers in your ears. You wouldn’t have to. But you could.

6. The sound of your own voice

You don’t have to be a complete egotistical maniac to be a good writer, but it helps.

Everyone talks about how you should read your work out loud to improve the rhythm of your writing and listen for problems. Heck, even I’ve suggested it for bloggers – although that was specifically reading to an audience.

Seriously though, how many of you actually record yourself doing it? Reading your writing, that is. It’s good to read out loud, but you’re effectively doing two things at once. Reading and listening.

Here’s a suggestion. Why not record your reading, then stick it in your ears and listen to it later? That will makes the whole process a whole lot easier, including the bit where you work out what could be improved.

What do you stick in your ears?

If you think post is a bit silly and rather tongue-in-cheek, you’re correctomundo. But the truth is, we’re hugely affected by our writing environment and it’s important that we experiment and get it spot on.

Come on, I must have missed a few things. What’s your writing environment? How do you block out the noise? What’s your favourite podcast? Let us know in the comments section below.


joanna@TheCreativePenn.com 28 September 2010 Reply

Hi Iain, Thanks so much for recommending my podcast for writers. I learn so much from interviewing people and I love to share.Other great podcasts for writers include:
I should be writing with Mur Lafferty @mightymur
and Writing Excuses http://www.writingexcuses.com/
I also like the Guardian Books podcast for people who long for the home country! I need to refresh my English accent now and then!

Thanks, Joanna

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

No worries and thanks for the extra recommendations!

sloanwriter@btinternet.com 28 September 2010 Reply

Thanks for making me smile with this post! I am certainly affected by my enviroment. Would love to have separate utility room so do not have to hear the washing and tumbling of clothes.I try to unplug phone, not always easy and bann folk from knocking on the door, near impossible. When the situation is right though, and you can really hear the thoughts in your head, the words fly!
Feeling on top of world this am as just published 1st ebook on smashwords.com Take control of your pain, so probably going to bore everyone today yaking about it, but the juices are flowing for book 2!
Thanks again

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Glad you liked it Lesley. And yep, the hardest noises to avoid tend to be those that emenate from humans, I’m afraid. Get locks!

c@cjeggett.co.uk 28 September 2010 Reply

I write for work and pleasure.
At work the one sure-fire way to pound out press releases is to listen to %@!$ Buttons*: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLL7SXbF3kA (its that sort of nonsense)

At home, and for pleasure, I agree that a kind of separated silence is needed.

All the best,


*Iain’s edit: pick a swear word, do a search, rock out.

lee.davy@btopenworld.com 28 September 2010 Reply

Buy yourself a pair of Bose Noise Cancelling Headphone – Superb!

Anonymous 6 January 2011 Reply

I agree with you. However, one must think of his or her pocketbook.

noreen@beamazingtoday.co.uk 28 September 2010 Reply

The soundtrack to the film The Fountain has been my creative music of choice lately!

marysecoziol@gmail.com 28 September 2010 Reply

I listen to music before writing to put me in a certain mood if needed, but I prefer writing in silence. I need to hear my character’s voice in my head, the rhythm of the next sentence…
Thanks for the podcast recommendations, I’ll try them this week 🙂

finch.victor@gmail.com 28 September 2010 Reply

Music has always helped me shut everything else out. Ambient stuff with no lyrics helps get through narrative, and if I’m having trouble with dialogue,
I keep playlists on standby that fit the personalities of the main characters, which helps me get into their heads and write in their voice with their reactions.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Wow – playlists for characters, that’s an interesting idea. I’m definitely down with the ambient thing but that’s a new one on me. Does it work?

harperlucy@hotmail.com 28 September 2010 Reply

Personally I prefer the sound of silence when I write, at best a bit of bird song. No phone, no twitter, no music. Ironically this helps me get connected.

Thanks for another entertaining post.


roz.morris@vampireslayers.co.uk 28 September 2010 Reply

Loved this post. I use music of all different types, depending on what I’m writing. I once wrote a cracking action sequence to a Fatboy Slim album. Recently I’ve had Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ on repeat as it’s perfect for one section of my WIP.
I hadn’t thought of focussing on internal head-noise – that’s great! I used to swim a lot and had to wear earplugs, and rather enjoyed the swooshy sound-world that created.

Recently I had a similar experience in the hairdresser. I was reading, with my glasses off so as not to get tangled with hair dye. I’m extremely short-sighted and couldn’t see more than 7 inches in front of me. Around me was a background hubbub of piped music, and several hairdryers going full blast. As all I could see was the pages of my book right up against my nose, it was like entering a hyper-immersed state of concentration and I was having great ideas. I’m tempted to look for white noise soundtracks to replicate it.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

I don’t have any to hand but there are defintely white noise tracks that you can buy. Not sure how different that would be to, you know, just being really quiet, but worth a try!

eastutsire@gmail.com 28 September 2010 Reply

If you’re writing paranoid espionage fiction (or anything that requires a world-out-of-kilter, unsettling, paranoid feel), you could plug a pair of headphones into a shortwave radio, and listen to non-stop diet of Number Stations while you write*.


*warning: prolonged listening may not be good for your mental health. Also might get you arrested as spy.

hayesbeetee@aol.com 28 September 2010 Reply

From the Guardian’s interview with Jonathan Franzen:
On Franzen’s desk sit a pair of earplugs that he wears when he writes, over which he places noise-cancelling headphones that pipe “pink noise” – white noise at lower frequency.

Me? I tried putting ear plugs on and had a near deaf experience.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Pink noise? What’s wrong with the traditional white? These fancy authors. Pah.

Anonymous 28 September 2010 Reply

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ghostwritermc@gmail.com 28 September 2010 Reply

Excellent stuff, Iain (says he reaching for the earplugs he’s had all along and totally forgot about). For some months I worked in a busy real estate office and couldn’t concentrate for twenty odd rather competative staff screaming at each other all day. I solved that one by plonking a gigantic set of earphones over my ears. Nothing was coming through them, but I made my point.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

I often sit at work with my headphones on and nothing coming out. As in out of the headphones. They’re like semi-earplugs.

george@tumblemoose.com 28 September 2010 Reply

Well Mr Iain, this is just too durned funny.
Noise is the one thing that will cause my concentration to get blown to Kingdom Come.

Classical music does it for me best. I’ve tried my middle fingers but (as you say) my typing suffers and pointing them at my neighbor’s wall seems to have no effect.


iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Classical music is a good one. I tried that for a bit and even made an attempt at enjoying it. Failed on both accounts in the end though.

chrisanimelo444@gmail.com 29 September 2010 Reply

I must say, Iain, you really caught my attention with this post. Superb heading!
I have tried earplugs once and they DO help… quite wonderfully. However, using earphones to listen to music while writing – not so much. Even classical music distracts me, though there have been times when I wasn’t distracted. But, if I have to do some extensive research and write at the same time, music is out of the question.

Great tips, though, I think I’ll stick with the earplugs. 🙂

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Thanks Christina! And if you find a way that works, stick with it!

wrouillie@rocketmail.com 29 September 2010 Reply

Great advice, great read, I giggled till the end!
Think I’ll check out “…Nightmares on Wax or Röyksopp…” as a supplement to my classical and jazz piano listening. 🙂

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Thanks! I particularly recommend Nightmares on Wax’s Carboot Soul album.

writeleisa@gmail.com 29 September 2010 Reply

Ok, well I don’t stick them in my ears, but I could. I use Q10, a free, really cool text only editor. Three best features in reverse order of coolness 3) it’s really simple 2) it’s full screen, eliminating other online distractions, and 1) wait for it – it has really great old-time typing sound. It makes me want to keep typing and typing just so I can hear the sound. Try it and enjoy.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Yikes! I can’t think of anything worse than another keyboard noise on top of the actual keyboard noise. But if it works for you…!

iain@writeforyourlife.net 29 September 2010 Reply

Thanks for all your ace comments folks. I’m just getting threaded comments installed on the blog, so I can reply to everyone properly. Hold tight and I’ll be back to continue the chit-chat shortly.

jethine@gmail.com 29 September 2010 Reply

I’ll have to try the earplugs sometime. 😀
Röyksopp is a fantastic recommendation for energetic music (so I think, anyway, as I listen to them all the time). For anybody looking for more contemplative/eerie ambient or something along the lines of drone, I’d highly recommend checking out the Downloads section of Quiet World:


The album “A Lonely Place” and the track “Sound On An Empty Road” are some personal favourites. Or try picking up the soundtrack to the game Riven. All of these have helped me immensely to get into the zone.

wordstrumpet@gmail.com 29 September 2010 Reply

I’m not so good with earplugs as they freak me out that something important will happen and I won’t hear it. But I do love listening to things, and one thing that helps a lot is meditations of all sorts. Very relaxing, calms the brain after (or during) a long day of writing.

vordak@vordak.com 1 October 2010 Reply

What about tiny Elmore Leonard clones?

admcgrath@loyola.edu 5 October 2010 Reply

I second putting your fingers in your ears! I have also read academic papers and fictional works aloud to myself, to hear the cadence and the structure better. Sometimes you’ll be horrified at how things in your mind don’t make it quite right to your ear.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Hi Lisey – reading aloud is an essential part of the writing process for sure. A must-do.

davidtpennington@gmail.com 9 October 2010 Reply

Personally, I’m a fan of white noise.
This site has been invaluable to my writing as far as how I keep focused: http://www.simplynoise.com/

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Ooh, very interesting. Thanks for the link.

destinystarseneca@yahoo.com.sg 14 October 2010 Reply

I listened to mainly Chopin last year for Nanowrimo mostly since I found it relatively unobtrusive, unlike maybe Beethoven. My problem with reading aloud is that I don’t like listening to myself read — I find my Singaporean accent strangely humiliating…

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Well, that’s a sad tale. No one likes the sound of their own voice at first, but you do get used to it and I think reading aloud is so valuable, even if it’s just to yourself in a darkened room.

jasmin.nanda@gmail.com 15 November 2010 Reply

Nice article! I write when I am in a mood to write, then nothing spoils my focus…;)..Though I prefer to write at night when the whole world sleeps..

iain@writeforyourlife.net 15 November 2010 Reply

I’m the same actually. If I didn’t have to get up for work in the morning, I’d happily save all my writing until the early hours.

Anonymous 6 January 2011 Reply

I am glad the author mentioned “putting your finger in your ear”! I do all the time. Needless to say, I do use headphone to listen to boring music or gospel music. It helps me to get rid of the stress and/or pray at the same time.

mokie@paper-tigers.org 16 September 2012 Reply

I know this is an old post, but in case it’s helpful to anyone else who stumbles in: Rainymood.com and Monoprice.com.
RainyMood plays a continuous loop of thunderstorm sounds, which blocks out most background noise and takes the edge off of what it doesn’t block. It layers really well with audio, too, so it helps on those days when even your normal playlist is a little too distracting and you just need to blunt it a little bit. All the benefits of white/pink/red/grey noise, but without that ‘nails on a chalkboard’ quality it can have.

And Monoprice sells a great set of closed-back headphones for just $20. They come with an extra-long detachable cord, which is handy if you regularly jump up to grab notes and forget you’re tethered (me, all the time), and many audiophiles consider them on par with $80, so you can save money and reduce noise without sacrificing the quality of your playlist.

Anonymous 7 June 2013 Reply

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