Scrivener, Medium, iPad

how I learned to stop worrying about tools and love writing

We all need better tools to write. But the search for perfect tool can distract us from the real job: write. This is a dilemma that most today’s writer face at some points in their career.

For the last four years since I started to use scrivener I grew used to its interface to the point that it stops to call attention to itself. It became a simple thing, like a notepad. The software became transparent and I stopped to discover new ways of doing things: there are things I use everyday and there are things I never use (e.g., cork board view). I have lost the desire to become a power user, mainly because I feel that knowing more tricks would not significantly improve my productivity. As numerous “distraction free” writing apps can testify, a writing tool should only be there when you need it; it should minimize a writer’s effort in anything that is not writing itself, so that he/she can focus all the energy in what really matters.

Writing a blog is a similar matter. I have recently resumed doing that. And I took the chance to reinvestigate the tools available now. Turns out it is still the same scenario: to make your blog look perfect and responsive and mobile-friendly you need to spend time to tweak it. All this time you are doing your writing.

I choose Medium because it doesn’t require me to do anything other than writing. The idea of writing in a web browser was suspicious at first. But I have since discovered that the ease and feel of composing in medium is such that I sometimes even prefer it over using a local software, e.g., scrivener. I guess the reason is that medium gives you an aesthetic pleasing if not finished product while you are working on it. It is true that writing long articles in medium with a lot of images and videos can cripple your browser. But that points to what is wanting in scrivener and the possibility of doing the same thing there.

Thinking about the tool has led me to the following revelation:

For a writer in the electronic age, the most important tool is not keyboard, or a text editor. It is a virtual context in which a writer can produce work.

Let me explain what I mean.

Different writers develop different habit of writing. Sometimes this has to do the paper or pen used; or it can be the amount of ambient noise and light.

Long time ago I have seen a documentary about Marguerite Duras. At one point the film showed (inevitably ) how she worked. She had a small room, a tiny desk in the middle, and many stacks of books on the floor. I googled and could not find this image from my memory. But I find one quite similar, with Susan Sontag. This makes me believe that putting stacks of books on the floor is perhaps a common behavior for certain writers. Why? Because they couldn’t afford a bookshelf?

There are of course those who prefer to write outside a cozy corner surround by books. Why did Hemingway chose to do his writing in a coffee shop? Because he couldn’t afford a writing desk at home?

Beneath this surface diversity there is common ground; the writing context is largely virtual: to write is to be surrounded with your ideas, no matter these ideas are presented in the form of stack of books, scraps of papers, a folder of text files, lively voices, or something entirely invisible.

This is why when scrivener for iOS is released this summer, writing on iPad suddenly becomes possible for me. Scrivener serves as a sort of virtual desktop where all, well nearly all, my ideas are stored. So not only do I have a way to start by looking at stuff already there but I can easily integrate it into the existent network of writings. To me, writing is about producing as well as finding a place for my thoughts. This is perhaps similar to how knowledge is represented in the brain. You don’t just paste it there; you need to make it connect to your other thoughts. Scrivener, or any similar software, does exactly that. And this is I think how a writing tool differ from a typing tool such as Microsoft word.

Of course, the said place is far from fixed. It keeps changing. We forget, we reinforce, we make new connections, we learn new things so as to see old thing in new lights. In scrivener you have to manually control these changes. But this could be a good thing. Thoughts stored in our brain are vague, ephemeral. Writings are the exact opposite. So the way to organize writing also needs some precision. But it can also benefit from uncertainty.