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My writing stack

Writers’ tools have changed a lot over the years. We’ve gone from noisy typewriters in busy newsrooms (filled with cigarette smoke, which was undoubtedly a lot cooler if you don’t take into consideration the massive health implications) to laptops and tablets used anywhere from cafes to airports. But some things stay the same - writers still need to jot down ideas, shape their words, manage tasks and file our work to meet tight deadlines.

Focus and efficiency are scarce commodities for a writer. And - for my money - no productivity apps can ever replace a notebook and pen. My Moleskine and a cheap black marker go with me everywhere.

But a thoughtfully selected software “stack” can help. Good tools can scale a time-poor writer. They can corral the daily deluge of research, interviews and half-formed thoughts into something coherent.

My own productivity stack revolves around three core apps:

Butter for drafting, Linear for managing projects and to-dos, and Readwise for wrangling research material. The glue that holds them together is the universal “command-K” shortcut.

But more on that later.

iPad, Browser, Focus

My earlier forays into iPad-first workflows ended ignominiously with missing apps or sub-par tablet interfaces. But the resurgence of web apps built with modern front-end frameworks has been the killer app for the iPad.

Butter, Linear and Readwise all sport first-class experiences in the browser, with full support for Safari and Brave. Many thoughtful touches ease tablet usage, such as large, easy-to-tap buttons and menu options, and the judicious use of screen real estate. And of course, the command-K navigation works a breeze.

This means I can comfortably work on articles with just an iPad and the Magic Keyboard when away from my desk. Constant iCloud syncing of highlights and notes between keeps everything tidy. Researching and writing feels much more cohesive when it can all happen within a single piece of glass.

Focusing work on the iPad also provides a certain amount of“scope insensitivity”. The constrained display size forces me to home in on either the task at hand in Linear, or the document I’m working on in Butter or Readwise. Procrastination excursions are curtailed - as is the temptation to stuff too many windows onto the screen at once.

Finally - I chose an iPad partly because having a 5g connection means working from my Third Place (the cafe at the end of the street) is a whole lot easier. But as it turns out, construction in my area means my broadband connection goes down once a week (minimum) so getting anything done at my desk at home is pretty much dependant on my iPad’s sim. Insert eye roll.

Readwise Reader is my research assistant

A writer is only as good as their research. Extracting the salient facts, quotes and insights from interview transcripts, studies, reports and background reading is a huge part of the job. But keeping this torrent of research organized and accessible has always been a challenge.

The new Readwise Reader app has quickly become the backbone of my research workflow. It vacuums in articles from around the web via its versatile browser extension and iOS share sheet. PDFs, newsletters, tweets and other reference material are frictionlessly corralled into its library.

Highlighting key passages as I read is a breeze, and everything syncs with the Readwise review platform, where I can easily resurface the excerpts later. Full-text search across all ingested documents means I can quickly find that key stat or quote without hunting through a rat’s nest of browser bookmarks and PDFs.

Reader’s killer feature is its ability to extract highlights from almost any text-based source. Kindle books, email newsletters, web pages, and even the automatic transcripts generated from YouTube videos I save - all my highlights flow into a single, searchable repository.

This highlight-slinging superpower makes Readwise the research arm of my writing operation. The simplicity of highlighting while I read creates a treasure trove of information I can draw upon when crafting an article. An idea for a story can germinate from the collisions and connections that arise during Readwise’s daily and weekly review notifications. And syncing everything to Notion is the final piece of the puzzle.

The universality of the “command-K” keyboard shortcut holds true in Readwise as well - it’s the simplest way to swiftly navigate around and trigger actions - like sorting, filtering, saving a highlight. This consistency reduces cognitive friction when switching between tools.

Linear is my only task and project management tool

A typical writer is always juggling multiple works-in-progress alongside research, interviews, pitches and admin tasks. It’s become a meme. Wrangling this whirlwind of to-dos requires an air traffic control system to keep everything on track.

Linear is my choice for project and task management. At its core, it’s a software development tool. But as a writer’s tool, it’s powerful, and it works. Born out of frustration with cumbersome legacy project tracking tools like Jira, Linear streamlines the planning process with an opinionated approach. By limiting customization, it provides guardrails against organizational chaos.

Every assignment or task becomes an “issue” in Linear. These can be grouped into “projects”, typically a specific article or series in my case. Recurring “cycles”, similar to sprints, keep me focused on what I need to ship each week or month.

The spartan, no-nonsense UI of Linear dispenses with the cruft that plagues many project management tools. Creating and triaging tasks is fast and fluid, aided by the same“command-K” palette that is Readwise’s secret weapon.

Each issue can be sliced and diced with priority levels, estimates, assignees and due dates. Sub-issues allow an article to be broken down into concrete steps like interview, research, outline, draft and revise. I can see at a glance what I should be working on now, and what’s still on deck.

Linear’s opinionated stance means I can’t endlessly tweak statuses and workflows. This constraint is a feature that keeps me out of fiddling mode and focused on execution. Seeing issues flow across the kanban board from “Backlog”to “Done” is a dopamine hit. Every time.

Every project has a team. Every “team” is divided into projects. Every piece of content I’m working on, from an article to a short story to a pitch, has an issue. Every issue is linked to the Butter draft. It’s that simple.

I write every draft in Butter

Writing, at its essence, is a solitary pursuit - the old cliche of the lonesome scribe grappling with language to pin elusive ideas onto the page. Etc. But an article rarely springs perfectly formed from my brain to the page in a single sitting.

Drafting is an iterative process of spewing out rough copy, shaping it, rearranging chunks, and polishing sentences. It requires the freedom to explore tangents, the flexibility to easily revise, and the fortitude to murder your darlings by chopping out irrelevant passages.

This is where Butter shines. It’s an online writing app built for collaboration, and it excels at helping me manage the messy process of massaging my drafts into something readable.

With Butter, a writer can hammer out a first draft, make a snapshot, then continue refining, secure in the knowledge they can always refer back to or revert to a previous version. Butter’s “alternates” feature is my lifesaver, making it simple to audition multiple word choices or phrasings in situ.

When I’m working with an external publication, comments and suggestions can be traded asynchronously with editors, without ever losing track of which draft is the latest. Everyone can work on the same canonical version of an article, instead of creating an explosion of attachments and losing track of which Word document is the authoritative copy. Sure, you can do the same shit in Google Docs. But it’s clunky. It’s difficult. And to be honest, on my iPad at least, the entire Google apps suite is about a decade out of date.

The writing experience itself is uncluttered and focused with Butter’s clean, minimalist UI. Markdown support keeps fingers on the keyboard and formatting friction to a minimum. The ever-present “command-K” palette is the gateway to navigating the app, organizing documents, and activating powerful features.

In the juggle to keep multiple articles and deadlines alive, I’ll take every edge I can to streamline the journey from the first glimmer of an idea to a published piece. Every minute saved on admin is a minute that can be put towards higher-value writing and research.

Some may scoff at the trendiness or cost of such“productivity pr0n” compared to cobbling something together with free alternatives. But I’ve found the thoughtful design and integration of purpose-built tools like Butter, Linear and Readwise pays dividends in speed, focus and output.

Even the slickest software is no substitute for the hard graft of reporting, critical thinking, and staring down the blank page. Tools alone won’t manufacture brilliant prose or penetrating insights. But they can drastically reduce the friction in the process, carving out more space for the disciplined creativity at the heart of the craft.

When the tools get out of the way, the work can flow.

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