Writing Tools Don’t Matter

Some of today’s best writing about writing is coming not from creative writing teachers, novelists, or other full-time writers. It’s coming from software developers and entrepreneurs. This is exciting, because shibboleths about the craft are falling in their wake.

One fallacy is that writing tools matter.  In fact, the more complex the tool, the better (Microsoft Word, I’m staring at you).

Matt Linderman, who works for the web design firm 37signals, rebuts this claim in a masterful post. He worked with Jason Fried and David Hansson to create Rework, a best-selling business book.

Their writing process:

1. Matt dumped a bunch of 37signals blog posts—along with transcribed interviews and speeches—into one big-ass Pages document.

2. He, Jason, and David edited that document multiple times.

That’s it, basically.

In response to a reader who asked if there were any other tools involved, Matt writes:

No other tools. I think it was just time and iterations. Things were a mess at first but we kept refining the doc over and over until it started to become more cohesive. It was just a pruning process. Not sure any tool would’ve made it easier…. Usually my process is this: Write too much. Edit it down. Repeat if necessary.

Those last 3 sentences are key: Deciding what to cut from a draft is a matter of careful thinking. And, it’s the thinking that matters, not the tool.

Matt also quotes from an interview with Google developer Mark Pilgrim (please forgive the gritty language):

I’m a three-time (soon to be four-time) published author. When aspiring authors learn this, they invariably ask what word processor I use. It doesn’t fucking matter!… Just fucking write, then publish, then write some more.

So here’s how to evaluate a writing tool: Does it help you think better? If so, use it. 

P.S. I want to qualify my assertions a little. I’m currently gravitating toward writing tools that have few features and do one thing well. For a while it was TextEdit or Pages on the Mac. Now it’s Notational Velocity, the speediest, simplest writing tool you’ll ever find.

P.P.S. I agree with programmer and venture capitalist Paul Graham in this post. If you’re writing nonfiction, focus on good ideas. You don’t have to worry about voice or style. Just offer solid content in the simplest, clearest words you can find.

2 thoughts on “Writing Tools Don’t Matter

  1. I forget where I read it (maybe here), but I was awakened by the idea that ”reading about writing” won’’t make you a better writer; only writing will make you a better writer.

    If that’s the first rule of writing, certainly the second rule is what you’ve offered here, Doug. Tools won’t make you a better writer; only writing will make you a better writer.

    Personally, I find the more complex the tool, the more it distracts me. Love the Mark Pilgrim quote too. Thanks so much.

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