The Right Tool

A few months back, my precious (and venerable) Macbook Pro died after 5 years of faithful service. Shortly after, I wrote a post about carefully assessing what applications I really needed to install on my computer, and choosing only to install the ones that were necessary. I actually went further than that, and chose not to buy a new computer at all. My thinking was to see if I could do everything I needed on my little MacMini and for mobile stuff, just use the free iPad I got from work.

I tried. I really did. And the iPad is an awesome tool for reading ebooks, articles, websites, or jot quick notes. But even with the wireless bluetooth keyboard, (try negotiating all of that on your lap on a bus!) when it comes to writing book, it just don’t cut it. You know what does, though? This:

That’s right. An 11” Macbook Air, and I just got it yesterday. It will be running Scrivener, Writeroom, Notational Velocity, and not much else. I am so in love with it, I think I might name it.

An 11” Macbook Air probably isn’t the right tool for a lot of people. People who do a lot of work with graphics or need multiple apps open simultaneously. The screen is tiny, and even though I maxed out the RAM, it’s nowhere near as fast as the new iMac my friend Ryan Benyi just got for his photography business. But for my needs, it’s perfect.

My point is, there’s been this recent trend toward simplicty, of embracing limits. And I’m all for that. Limits can be an artist’s best friend. But as Patrick Rhone of Minimal Mac often points out, it’s not about getting rid of as much as you can. It’s about dispensing with the idea of “one size fits all” or more to the point, “one tool fills all needs” and taking the time to consider carefully what you need.

Focus on what’s important and give it the attention it deserves. That’s what I’ve learned.

Necessary Applications

My MacBook Pro, which has served me faithfully for almost five years, finally died yesterday. Really, three to five years is about all you can reasonably expect from a laptop. If I wasn’t freakishly obsessive about backing up everything in triplicate, I might have panicked. Fortunately, I am that freakishly obsessive about backing up. So there’s no data loss.

Now, I could have just put my entire previous profile on a new machine. The magic of Time Machine makes that pretty easy. But instead, I decided it might be time to start fresh. I always like it when my computer matches my life in some way. So instead, I’ve opted just to copy my docs, music, pix, etc, to a completely clean profile.

The first thing to do, of course, is install all of my “essential” applications. And I gave some serious thought to exactly what I think is essential to the way I work. Not things I think I might need sometimes soon, but things I actually need right now. I can always add more later.

Here is what I installed:

  • Dropbox – the back-up solution that allowed me not to freak out when my computer died. It also syncs docs between my computer at home, my computer at work, and my iPad.
  • 1Password – the encrypted database that stores my passwords, records, and software license keys (which I needed to install the next three items on this list)
  • Scrivener – When it comes to writing books, there’s nothing better out there.
  • Writeroom – Scrivener is awesome, but it can be a bit intimidating. As my friend Sarah Ockler says, when you launch Scrivener, you can almost hear someone like Laurence Fishburne say “Welcome to Scrivener. You must write a book now…” Which is way more pressure than I want for a first draft. So when the project is still small and manageable, I tend to write each chapter in a simple plain text file. Writeroom gives me the elegance and distraction-free environment to make that a pleasure.
  • Notational Velocity – This is the application I use to organize my plain text files, including early drafts, notes, research, outlines, todo lists, etc, and sync them to Simplenote on my iPhone and iPad. It’s difficult to say exactly why I love this application so much. The speed, the simplicity, the easy of use, the fact that I can call up anything with a few taps on my keyboard without ever having to touch the mouse. I dunno. I think you just have to try it to understand.
  • Chrome – I tried for half a day to stick with Safari. But Chrome is just so much more pleasant to look at. And the built in bookmark sync feature means I don’t have to recreate my bookmarks either.
  • Multimarkdown and MacTex – These last two prove, if there was any doubt, just how geeky I am. When I say I write in plain text files, I really mean it. No formatting. Instead, I use a markup language called Multimarkdown. I use that markup with MacTex (the Mac version of an open source system called LaTex) to create a perfectly formatted PDF or RTF file.

And that’s it! It might be worth noting that I do have a MacMini connected to my TV which has Plex, a complete media manager and player. That’s how I watch movies, listen to music, etc. None of that really happens on my writing laptop. I also have an iMac at work, which has all my technical writing essentials, Adobe Creative Suite, iWork, SnapZ Pro, and Screenflow.