Set Up A Writing System That Stays Out Of Your Way

It's easy to obsess more about your writing setup than your actual writing, but when inspiration strikes and you actually want to — you know — write something, nothing should stand between you and putting your thoughts on paper, digital or otherwise.

Distraction-free writing environments are all the rage, but here's the thing: You can set up a writing environment so free from distractions it's the writing equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank, but if all that fiddling places any barrier between you and your goal — to actually write — it's not worth it.

Cut Out Everything That Doesn't Involve Writing

Earlier this year I described my preferred writing setup using a web service called Simplenote in conjunction with some plain-text editors on my desktop and mobile devices. A few aspects of this setup really appeal to me; for example:

  • Everything's plain text, so all I can do is write. I don't fumble with formatting or style; I only have the option to wrestle with and write down words.
  • Everything I write using Simplenote syncs seamlessly between all my devices, so I can write on any of my devices and access that same text painlessly from anywhere.

But perhaps the most important "feature" of my setup is that when I want to write something, I can grab my nearest Simplenote bucket, whether I'm on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android or virtually anywhere else, and start writing as soon as inspiration strikes. Most Simplenote clients are fast, lightweight, plain-text applications, so i don't have to wait for something unnecessarily heavy like Microsoft Word to load up.

Use What Fits Your Style, but Keep It Simple

That doesn't mean that my setup's right for you. For me, using Simplenote (and various Simplenote clients) provides an environment in which I can start writing right away, and even though I work on a lot of different computers and mobile devices, everything I write in Simplenote follows me.

For you, syncing plain-text files with Dropbox might be the right solution. Microsoft Word might be your best fit. Or maybe you prefer to stick with the classic pen and paper (nothing's more portable or has a lower barrier to entry than a Hipster PDA). The point is, it doesn't really matter what tool you use (or, I would argue, how zen-like and minimal your writing software is), as long as you don't have to fiddle around with it every time you want to start writing.

Once you figure out what works best for you, you can forget about the cult of distraction-free and just focus on the writing.

Already got a favourite instant-writing setup? Share what works for you in the comments.


    I work as a web developer so it's natural for me to use the same tools when I'm writing that I do when working with code. I use subversion for version control and to make sure my work is accessible from anywhere (the repository is on an internet facing server) and vim for writing. I can have vim up and running in less than a second and the only distraction after that is that I can do a work count without taking my hands off the keyboard (':w !wc' on Unix/Mac).

    This however would be completely inappropriate for someone not familiar with these tools (unless they wish to procrastinate and spend time learning the tools instead of writing, but I don't think this article was advocating that).

    I carry around notebooks (the kind made of paper) for not taking and occasionally some prolonged writing, despite getting hand cramps using a pen for any length of time.

    I use google docs sometimes because of the write-anywhere appeal but I find writing at a computer to be way too distracting - there's always the temptation to fire up my IM or open a browser. In the end writing outside in my notebook is best and (mostly) distraction free.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now