Contextualising Devices for Creative Writing

For people who write, all-purpose computers that can both capture, sketch and edit texts can be appealing. I think most people are still attracted to all-in-one laptops β€” the Windows Surface is a good example of this paradigm. However, with an increasingly information-rich world, there is a relevant argument to instead set up our devices to do less.

For many years, the idea in personal computing has been to have super-devices that could do it all. However, this idea can be damaging to productivity because it blurs the line between different areas says Thomas Frank (source):

The problems with all of these all-in-one devices is that everything is at our fingertips, which means that when we feel the slightest bit of resistance towards what we’re supposed to be doing, an alternative i just a click or a tap away. So by building seperation between tasks, in our devices, in our workflows, we better cultivate the ability to focus deeply on one singular task for a long period of time.

As it turns out, productive work is deeply embedded in environmental cues. If we watch YouTube on our computer, our brain will come to expect entertainment from this device. Crudely, the more YouTube we watch, the harder it gets to decouple and get into work mode. While you can set up soft or hard content blocks on your computer (I’ve written about them here), there is a way to avoid resistance all-together: Contextualizing your devices, meaning specialize each devices towards certain elements of your workflow.

The Contextual Writing Device

Statuesque iPad Pro, photo from The Sweet Setup,
iPad Pro as a drafting device. Photo from The Sweet Setup

So, many writers actually need writing devices that can DO LESS to really DO MORE focused writing. Maybe this is why some novelists still swear by the typewriter. It just writes. As digital writers though, it can be empowering to create some barriers between not only work and entertainment, but also between different work and writing areas. Ideally, the most productive setup would have ONE device for capturing ideas, ANOTHER device for drafting sketches and a THIRD for editing them. This might be too expensive, though.

Alternatively, you could set up separate workspaces on your all-in-one laptop by using different applications for different writing modes. I conceptualize my writing as capturing, drafting and editing (see my sources here). Many people naturally conduct their writing according to these three modes. They might have a notes app for capturing thoughts on their phone. They might then synchronise the note to their computer and draft further there. Lastly, they might move the text to a word document and edit the text. Few people realize, however, that actual software exists for the middle step of drafting. For example, Ulysses or Scrivener features a writing experience that focus on word production and zero style (no headings, etc). In this way, a computer can become compartmentalised and more like a "single context device". The single context device is a device that focused on only one task element - it is what Thomas Frank calls the iPad Pro because it allows for less multitaskning than a computer.

The Writing Context that People Never Talk About: Anywhere

Write outside. Video from Apple.

How to get started with writing is an endlessly discussed question. I think it is Anne Lamott that advise writers to just sit down and β€œstare at the blank page” until they eventually start writing. While this might be necessary sometimes, I think that Lamott overlooks that many people write stuff naturally all day long. We write notes, recipes, post-its, letters, etc. By insisting on staring on a the blank page, we skip the crucial step of capturing writing on-the-go that is natural to us. Ideally, you could write down an idea at the bus stop, and when you open your laptop at home the idea has been synzhronised and pops up, ready to be fleshed out. I think few eureka moments come up while staring at a blank piece of paper. Instead, ideas show when taking a walk, when you are engaged in other writing, etc.

So, how to capture writing thoughts anywhere? It is quite easy if you have appropriate tools. Many phone apps, for example, synchronize directly to software on your computer and tablet. Using the right software, it is then possible to capture an idea in, say, the Ulysses app while at the bus stop, and then fleshing out the idea in the Ulysses application on your computer at home. A device for capturing ideas should ideally have a screen and will be the smartphone for most people. I use Omnifocus and Ulysses to capture ideas (I have described my workflow here). I can’t remember who, but one renowned writer admitted to writing most of her books on her iPhone while waiting for her kids to go to sleep. She just had to edit the text on her labtop afterwards. Many people also carry around a notebook or notepad for capturing. Start by setting up you capture system, make sure that the right apps are installed or that you have a notepad and pen always within arms reach, wherever you are.

β€œMore Information, More Problems” Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise.

There's always something more interesting to do on your all-purpose computer than to write. I think contextualized devices should therefore be embraced. Smartphones, wearables, tablets, etc. can support more contextually rich writing workflows than we have ever seen before.

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi