For years, I have sought a simple, calm, distraction-free writing environment, separate from the computer I use daily for my work. Here’s my latest attempt to build a system that works for me.

The goals of the exercise

As a professional writer and editor, I spend my entire working day at my Mac. It’s a MacBook Pro hooked up to a large 27” monitor, and it’s packed with all the software, files and information I need to make a living: Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Cloud, task managers and project managers, vast amounts of email, a huge collection of files, utilities galore. Lots of… stuff. It’s an environment tuned for editing magazines, features and books, writing web content, processing photos in Lightroom, all the other tasks I need to do to get me through my working week.

It isn’t a very good environment for the fundamentally more basic task of writing.

While a big screen is great when you need lots of windows open, I’ve always found a setup like this overwhelming when I want to focus on a single column of copy – when it’s time to just sit down and write without the need for research, notes and style guide open at the same time. You know, creative writing rather than technical writing. Telling a story.

This yearning for simplicity is about removing distractions, but for me it’s also about using a tool that is perfectly tuned to the task. Yes I can quit my email app, unplug my big monitor and just write, but conceptually I have always liked the idea of using a machine dedicated purely to the task of writing. Pen and paper carved out of silicon and aluminium.

Previous attempts

For a long time, my strategy of choice was to maintain vintage Macintosh systems and use them exclusively for writing. Vintage computers are inherently simpler, and I wrote several of my early novels on old Macs years ago, so it made sense. In 2013 and 2014 I wrote on a Macintosh LC475 hooked up to a 12” black-and-white monitor and Apple Extended Keyboard II. It would be a terrible computer for my day job, but for writing fiction it was actually pretty good. FTP handled file transfer without too much clunkiness.

The only problem with the LC475 was its sheer bulk, so I replaced it with a 1990-vintage Macintosh Classic1. This introduced even more severe creative constraints – its built-in screen is only 9” diagonal, and transferring files back to my modern Mac was an arcane process involving disk images and a Floppy Emu SD card reader. The complexity of getting data in and out of the Macintosh Classic was its undoing in the end. Because the simple act of transferring a text file across almost 30 years of technology was so tedious, I often couldn’t be bothered to use it.

The Macintosh Classic – more nostalgic than practical in 2017, even for plain text files

My current requirements

Back when I used to write fiction2, I easily fell prey to distractions and had to work hard to find my ideal environment, keep that fragile spark of inspiration alive. Now that I’m a professional writer I don’t have the luxury of succumbing to writer’s block, so the idea of a dedicated writing station is more of a creative affectation. I have absolutely no problem sitting down at my regular computer and writing a technical article when a deadline is approaching.

And yet I keep coming back to the feeling that my tricked-out workstation isn’t the right environment for freeform writing. When I’m working on a storytelling feature or a personal project, I don’t need windows all over the screen; I just need my text and a keyboard.

I decided to dig out some old parts from the attic and build a dedicated writing workstation. This time I’d do things a little differently.

  1. My writing lives in Dropbox, and I’ve become very comfortable both writing and managing my documents in the Ulysses app. No more faffing about with vintage text editors or so-called ‘creative friction’; I would aim for a highly efficient and familiar writing environment. That means it has to be able to run the latest version of Ulysses.
  2. It also means the workstation needs fluid and unhindered access to my stack of documents. I want to be able to switch the computer on and immediately work on any part of my Ulysses library without moving files here and there.
  3. I want to use the same keyboard I write with every day at my main workstation. Again, the goal is for everything to be completely familiar, from input devices all the way through to keyboard shortcuts and markup colour schemes.

 The setup

I dragged my old Mac mini down from the loft. This is the 2012 Mac mini I used as my main computer for several years, until I replaced it with my current MacBook Pro. It’s actually faulty; it can’t read internal hard drives, meaning that the boot drive has to be attached by USB. I plugged in a 128GB SSD and installed a fresh copy of macOS 10.12.6.

I’ll probably go back to my default 50% grey background, but I quite like the new iOS 11 wallpapers

I paired the Mac mini with an old 19” LCD monitor on an articulating arm, and – at first – I plugged in my 2001-vintage Apple Pro Keyboard and a generic USB mouse. As soon as possible, I replaced these input devices with eBay-scrounged Apple Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse (the same peripherals I use on my main workstation, and perfectly tuned to my needs).

The whole setup lives to the left of my main workstation, on the small desk formerly occupied by the Macintosh Classic. I decided to mount the LCD in portrait orientation, which I find better for pure writing.

On the SSD I have installed Ulysses, Dropbox (set up to selectively sync only my Ulysses document stack), 1Password, SelfControl3, the Magnet window manager4, and that’s it. There’s no Microsoft Office, no Creative Cloud, no email, no games.

It’s early days so far, but I’m really enjoying using this minimal setup for writing. Unlike the vintage Macs I’ve used in the past, there is no technical trivia or nostalgia factor getting in the way. The setup is quiet, calm, and incredibly focused. If I want to write something and feel myself uninspired at my hectic main workstation, all I have to do is turn to the left and boot up the Mac mini instead.

  1. Which, until I finally caved and set up a 1Password account, also served as a backup for my offline password manager. But that’s a subject for another post.
  2. It’s no secret that I haven’t written any fiction in well over a year now. I’m sure I’ll come back to it at some point, but my focus is on non-fiction at the moment.
  3. This brilliant app can help you focus by selectively blocking web access for periods of time.
  4. An essential utility I use for moving windows around with keyboard shortcuts. Less important on this machine, but I’d still feel lost without it.