Writing: mind your toolkit!
Writing is an important, if not the most important, part of my professional life as a writer and as an academic. A lot of the writing advice out there is about writing strategies to make you more productive; most of the writing classes we offer at our university are about things like structure and crafting your prose. However, there is surprisingly little attention for something that may be just as important: the tools we use to write.
Writing is a conversion process
At its core, you need to think of writing as a conversion process: the ideas in your mind need to be converted to a message on a medium — just as with painting or playing music. As with any conversion process, there is going to be friction during that conversion. There are two levels at which that friction will occur. First, of course, *within* your mind. Distractions, looking for words, struggling with writer’s block — you name it: these are all examples of friction, tiny or large barriers between your brilliant ideas and their realization on paper. However, we often forget the second stage of friction: friction also occurs at the level of the *tools* you use. We don’t often realize it, but your computer, your keyboard, but also the apps you use, yes, even your chair, your desk, and your memo-system, are all tools to convert your ideas to words. And since no tool is perfect, each of these tools does pose a little barrier between your thoughts and your medium.
So, what creates the best setting for writing? Simply put: minimize friction loss. The tools you use for writing are vital to minimizing friction loss.
Choosing the right hardware tools for writing
If writing is your main activity, you will spend a lot of time typing and reading from a screen. It is easy to forget about this physical interaction with your computer, but it can be an important source of friction loss. Cramped keyboard layout? Hanging keys? Bluetooth connection issues? Eye strain because the refresh rate is too low or your screen is too dim? All serious potential sources of friction loss. There are two things I do not comprise on when buying a new device, and those are screen quality and the keyboard.
With regard to screens, you need to look at two specs: pixel density and refresh rate. For both goes, the higher the better. In particular pixel density determines how easy and comfortable a screen is to read from. As a rule of thumb, if you cannot see the individual pixels from your typical reading distance, you’re fine. Unfortunately, such screens come at a premium. However, if I had to choose between a faster processor or a better screen, I’d always go for the latter. It’s actually the reason I used iPads as my main writing machines over the past years. Sure, there’s much to be desired in terms of overall functionality in i(Pad)OS, but nothing beats the portability of a tablet, and the Retina screens have been just brilliant. They allowed me to read and write for hours without eye strain. And, yes, you can write a book completely on the iPad. My first book is the actual proof of that.
The second easily overlooked piece of hardware is the keyboard. Very few things can be so distracting from writing as a bad keyboard. Probably you will recognize the frustration of a hanging key or a dropped bluetooth connection, or the pain in your wrists after typing on a keyboard that’s too small or cramped. Your keyboard is the most direct interface between the thoughts in your mind and the words that will appear on your computer screen, and as such the most important tool you own. Choose it with care.
The most important thing is that a keyboard feels nice to use. It must feel good to type on — satisfying clicks, a nice sound; those things. Stuff like programmable keys, lighting, or additional USB ports — that’s all nice, but at the end of the day it only matters if the keyboard is nice to type on. Although you often read that mechanical keyboards are the best keyboards to type on, it is a bit overhyped. Yes, mechanical keyboard are very nice to type on, but they’re also noisy. I own a mechanical clicky keyboard which types great, but the thing makes such a noise I felt totally awkward every time I used it. Moreover, mechanical keyboard are a lot higher than for example the flat keys on my Macbook. Using my Keychron K2 puts more strain on my wrists than using my laptop keyboard, even though the feel of the K2 is a lot nicer. In sum, try out a lot of different keyboards. Personal experience is the only thing that matters. If you have found your keyboard, go for it, and don’t be cheap. Like I said, it’s the most important tool you own as a writer.
Finally, there are other ergonomic aspects to take into account. A nice chair. A proper table. A good coffee machine. However, as long as you have a basic setup that allows a decent posture these things are ‘nice to haves’. A proper screen and keyboard are absolute must-haves, though.
Understanding your workflow
Once you’ve got your hardware sorted, it’s time to look at your workflow. If you’re writing, you’re not just producing words. Writing a book, for example, requires doing research, reading up, keeping notes, having a synopsis of your book online, and, in a later stage, working with your editors to revise your manuscript. In order to optimize your workflow and choose the right tools to support it, it is important to understand your workflow properly.
The key thing here is that it is very well possible that you will find that you in fact have more than one workflow, even though all your activities may be called ‘writing’. Writing a blogpost, for example, requires a different set of tools than writing a book. Although it is of course very well possible that you might have a workflow that works for all your writing, I found that I required more than one, and thus different sets of tools.
After reading up on a lot of ‘advice for writers’ and ‘what is the best writing app’-type posts, I spent a lot of time on optimizing my own writing workflow, and looking for that one ultimate application or ecosystem that would support my full workflow. Spoiler: that app does not exist. Just like you cannot replace all your kitchen appliances with one multitool, you will end up with a collection of apps and/or ecosystems to support your writing. And that is ok. Remember: friction loss occurs at the stage of converting your thoughts into words. What happens after you’ve written your text is of less consequence. For example, I used to frequently write blogs on a Wordpress site, and was rather impressed with the feature of the Wordpress app to directly post my blogs to my website. Unfortunately, that nifty feature came at the cost of a sluggish editor. After a while I found myself back writing my posts in Ulysses (another writing app) and then simply copying text to Wordpress. That might sound cumbersome, but here’s the catch: copying and text is a hassle, but the friction loss caused by a sluggish editor was killing my creativity.
Finally, it’s good to keep in the back of your mind that there are external factors that might affect choices in finding the right tools for your workflow. For larger projects, such as books and essays, I use Scrivener. However, my editor uses Word in order to mark edits, and to make up the final text as it goes to the printer. That means that, no matter how much I dislike Word, I will have to use Word at some stage in the writing process. It is important to map out and accept such elements in your workflow as well.
In other words, it’s important to isolate those elements in your workflow that are directly related to the conversion process of ideas in your mind to words on paper. All the rest, such as nifty export functions and what more, are side issues — important, sure, but not critical. Once you have isolated the elements in your workflow you can start on minimizing your friction loss by carefully looking at each element. Ask yourself: what are my tools/routines to support the conversion of thoughts to words at this step? And are these the right tools?
Choosing the right software tools for writing
Any writing app is basically a text editor with additional whistles and bells. From the philosophy of friction loss minimization, when choosing a writing app your main focus should be on the text editor. However, as I noted before, it is very likely that you will end up working with different workflows with different requirements. Don’t be surprised to find yourself using more than one word processing app — and realize that that is ok!
So, what app(s) to choose? Thinking back to this idea that you want the words in your mind’s inner voice to materialize on your computer screen, it is nice if there is no noticeable delay between hitting a key and a character appearing. Default options Microsoft Word and its macOS counterpart Pages are relatively heavy ‘wysiwyg’ (‘what you see is what you get’) word processors, and often feel a bit sluggish when typing: there is a small, but noticeable delay between hitting a key and the display, in particular if you’re working on an older machine. Personally, I find that very distracting. I am very fond of lightweight text editors with minimal functionality, also because for most of my writing I do not need to make up text, and do not require Word’s or Pages’ wysiwyg-features. For me, Markdown-compatible editors are just fine for most of my writing. For posts such as these, I use Ulysses, for example.
However, when it comes to writing a full book, Ulysses does not have the features I need. Scrivener is my preferred app for writing larger monographs, such as books, but also essays and (short) stories. Scrivener has a very nice organization which allows me to keep notes, my synopsis and separate documents for chapters in one folder, and easily export this to one large PDF or Word file when I send it off to my editor. I prefer that over having a single large Word document, and this has to do with building a mental model. Whenever you’re working in a document, you are building a mental model of that document. Obviously, keeping a mental model of a 60,000 words book in your mind is more work than keeping track of a shorter text of 6,000 words. Because of Scrivener’s organization features, I don’t need to keep the entire model of my book online in my mind when working on one individual chapter. And that, in turn, minimizes friction loss quite substantially.
However, as I noted earlier, most of these texts are subsequently read and revised by an editor, who uses Word. In practice this means that I write the first draft for books and stories with Scrivener (again, to minimize friction loss when getting the most important ideas on paper), and do the revisions with Word.
Academic papers are another category. The modern academic paper is hardly ever a monograph, but a joint enterprise with one or more co-authors. This means that features for collaboration are very important. To me, this is an example where extra features such as online collaboration start to weigh up to the text editor. Presently, I use Google Docs for collaborative writing, since my institute uses Google Workspace for Education, but Word offers similar options as well.
In sum, the best app for your workflow is the one that has the snappiest text editor given the additional feature set that you need for your project. And, of course, no one is stopping you from using two separate apps (e.g., a text editor and an FTP client).
Money, money, money
The problem with tools is that they cost money. Word and Ulysses are pay-by-subscription apps; Scrivener is a relatively expensive app that you will need to buy separately for your iPad and your Mac. Why buy additional apps if you already have one word processor that works, and perhaps even has better features as well? Actually — why buy apps at all if there are great open source alternatives such as LibreOffice or OpenOffice? In the end, it’s not as if your readers are going to notice you wrote your book using Scrivener rather than LibreOffice, right?
However, this is where the element of subjectivity kicks in, and where it pays off to understand your own workflow and priorities. I am happy to pay a premium for a feature that makes my life a lot easier. Scrivener is far better for writing books than Word that it was a no-brainer for me to buy it. However, a Scrivener project is overkill for writing something simple as a blog post — Ulysses is far more convenient for that. Given that I wanted to pick up writing shorter pieces such as blogs, as well, I ended up getting both Scrivener and Ulysses. Oh, and I had to keep Word, of course, in order to be able to collaborate with my editor.
Technically I could replace all these tools with OpenOffice for free. But I am not doing that, because the tools I have support my workflow in a way that enhances my creativity and productivity. And I am in the fortunate position I can afford these tools, so I would be doing myself a disservice if would not make my life a bit easier.
All in all, it is a matter of setting priorities and personal preference. It can be very worthwhile to pay a bit extra to get some additional features or a better feel, although it’s hard to put a price tag on it.
Keeping your toolkit up-to-date and the sunk cost fallacy
Workflows change over time, and tools do, too. It doesn’t hurt to periodically evaluate your writing workflows and your toolkit. Does your keyboard still fit your workspace? Do your apps still support your workflow? Have better solutions come up in the meanwhile?
It’s important to take a step back from your present toolkit when doing this. Very often, we’re prone to the sunk cost fallacy: once you’ve already invested in an ecosystem or in a product, it’s hard to let go. Nonetheless, it often pays off to let go an old product or workflow in favor of a new one. After all, we’re talking about just tools. Ditch your Mac for a Windows machine or vice versa? Why not? Your toolset should support your writing process; you should not be adapting your writing process to suit your tools.
Moreover, there is a benefit to changing your habits every now and then. Doing things just a bit differently sometimes gives a new, fresh perspective.
So, to sum up: there’s a lot of great writing advice out there. Tips on how to improve your writing, how to improve your productivity and how to enhance your creativity. All great advice — but don’t forget to check up your toolkit every now and then as well.