Keyboards vs. Long Form

October 21, 2019

I’ve been writing a decent amount this year, including some longer-for-me stuff that I’m reasonably content with. I do all of my writing on my laptop, with a keyboard, and I’ve wondered for awhile if that’s a hindrance at all to actual writing. The problem is that my laptop has multiple purposes that all fight for top billing in my headspace. There’s work, there’s coding, there’s the endless, boundless distraction of the internet, and there’s even the distraction of all the other writing ideas and projects I have sitting in my folder tantalizing me.

It’s gotten better since I switched to using Ulysses. This is hands down the best writing app I’ve used, and I’ve used a lot of em. The three killer features in my mind:

  • Distraction free and full screen mode is very well done. It’s simple, elegant, and highlights to maintain your focus very well. If I want to be actively working on something for my next writing session, I just leave the app in this state and I’m able to dive right in the next time I sit down.
  • The organizational structure is actually useful. I’m not doing anything particularly complicated just yet, but the folder and label construction and display is well thought out and useful. I can see how it will expand to something with chapters.
  • All of the content syncs through iCloud. At first, I thought I didn’t really care about this. I absolutely do not use iCloud for anything else. But 5GB is free and that’s a whole lot of text. Being able to reread, review, and edit from wherever on my phone is more useful than I expected.

So my on keyboard setup feels pretty good right now. I’ve eliminated a decent amount of distraction and I can get into the flow pretty well.

And yet.. there’s always been this feeling that I’m doing it wrong. The problem with using my laptop is still that I have to use my laptop. So for instance, and this may seem silly, but I can’t write on the beach. I’m relaxed and my mind is going a mile a minute on the beach. It’s an ideal environment for thinking things out. I should be able to write there too.

To solve this conundrum, I conducted an old school experiment. I started the next thing I wanted to write in a notebook with a pen. It’s not done yet, but I just transcribed about 3200 words from the notebook onto the computer. I think I have enough of a sample size to evaluate the results.

The results were poor. It took awhile to get used to the mechanical movements involved in writing again, but I stuck with it through that. I’m glad I did, because it started to flow after that and I was able to get into rhythm more quickly. That was the main positive result: there’s no potential distraction with an open notebook in front of you. It’s just you and the words.

But the main negative result felt larger by an order of magnitude. Having just transcribed the results by keyboard, the output felt poor. The thought processes were all over the place and choppy. There was less coherence, less metaphor, less creativity. The mechanical nature of the process seemed to have translated into mechanical words with no real story.

I’m sure this could get better over time, but I can also edit more quickly and follow my thoughts much better when I’m on a keyboard. I can keep up.

I do think I’m still going to use a notebook going forward a bit more than I have in the past. It’s super useful to get structure and ideas out and help organize them. Paper is the killer app for that type of thinking. That’s also the kind of thought construction that works really well at the beach.

So lesson learned: the notebook is for ideas; the keyboard is for writing. For me, at least.

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