Let me explain why I have no interest in buying a “writing environment,” especially one that promises to be distraction-free.

This afternoon I wrote a report for a client about some equipment I had collected, inspected, dissected, reconnected, and reflected on.1 The report ended up with about 2½ pages of text and two dozen photographs of the equipment. My reports usually have more text and fewer photos, but this wasn’t outside the normal range.

I was in the office at my 24″ iMac, and this was how my computer workspace was set up:

My physical desktop had a small stack of reference material sent to me by the client, the paper notes I took during my inspection, and a couple of small sample parts from equipment similar to what I was writing about.

(Because this was a relatively simple report, my workspace was pretty compact. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to also have a Safari window opened to some online reference, another Preview window or two opened to other engineering reports or drawings I’ve made, and another Terminal window [or tab] running Octave so I could check calculations as I write. And I usually have a book or two on my desk, with Post-it notes stuck to the relevant pages.)

As I wrote, I continually shifted between all of these things. I had to decide which photos best depicted what I wanted to say in the report. Sometimes I noticed a feature in a photograph that I wasn’t planning to write about, but which had to be included. As I made these selections, I dragged the photos out of Preview’s sidebar and dropped them into the Finder report window so LaTeX could find them when the report was assembled.

This TextMate-Preview-Finder dance went on throughout the writing of the report. When I was done—apart from final editing—I reduced the size of the photos to be included in the report by executing

sips -Z 800 *.jpg

in the Terminal window. I then ran the Markdown file through a pipeline of MultiMarkdown, SmartyPants, xsltproc, and a couple of custom scripts to generate a LaTeX file which was, in turn, sent through pdflatex to produce the PDF version of the report.2

Final editing was done by having Alex read me short sections of the PDF as I followed along. Typos and poorly worded sentences were corrected in the Markdown source as Alex and I worked our way through the report.3 When we were done, the PDF was emailed to the client.

I simply can’t do this kind of writing in a full-screen editor or one that otherwise blocks or dims my view of other windows as I write. The other windows I have open aren’t distractions, they’re part of my writing process.

Should you work the way I do? I have no idea. Maybe you’re the kind of person who can bang away at a shitty first draft, leaving markers in the text for the details you’ll add during revisions. If so, a distraction-free editor may be just the thing for you. But I know I can’t work that way. I labor over my sentences as I write them, and I can’t stand leaving details to be added later.4

So I’m not going to tell you to work like me. But I will tell you that I’ve saved myself a lot of time by recognizing my strengths and weaknesses and avoiding systems that experience has taught me would be a bad fit.

  1. grep .*ect$ /usr/share/dict/words 

  2. I don’t run all these filters “by hand,” I have a master script that runs them for me. 

  3. Like David Sparks, I’ve been good friends with Alex for quite a while, but I was happy to read that Lion’s new voices are even better

  4. The single exception to this is when I’m writing on my iPhone and simply don’t have access to the details because I’m away from my office.