Don’t “Hack It”: The Right Tool for the Job

I stumbled across this video by Carl Pullein:

His comments remind me of what my father used to tell me, “If the tool is not right, the mechanic is not bright.” :slightly_smiling_face:

I appreciated Carl’s comments about not “hacking” apps to make them work because inevitably they break. I also appreciated his approach to writing, which reflects my workflow (Ulysses for short to medium form writing and Scrivener for books).

You may or may not end up agreeing with him but the short video is worth watching.


My wife has started writing novels and we’ve settled on Pages at the moment for a free, low distraction app.

I set up a template with two styles, Title and Body.
The fonts were adjusted, as were long spacing and indents just how she liked them (mimicking Bear).
Then I made a page that is 10 times longer than usual, to imitate the calm, page-less feel.

She uses it on her iPad Pro with a keyboard, and there’s just one thin menu bar at the top, and a clutter free environment.

So, a good tool, well priced, and now carefully honed to the user’s specifications.


I think it depends on what you like and how you work. I compartmentalize tasks to specific machines but I am moving away from single purpose software tools to more generic adaptable ones. For me, the adaptability and ability to “hack” Obsidian is a feature not a bug. It fits with how I work. I can stay in one app and get everything done and I can flip in and out of projects as required with no loss of concentration. For me context switching by changing applications is far more jarring and reduces my productivity vs staying in one application and switching projects. I don’t have to get in the mindset of working in Omnifocus now and then in Libre Office and then in Scrivener and then in DEVONThink.

I am a generalist by training and in my work. I am better served by a single not quite perfect tool I know really really well instead of a dozen or more special tools I rarely use. I do have those toolsets (my slide and glass plate negative scanning projects use a bunch of specialized software tools) but they are tied to a specific project not my normal everyday uses.


I tried that approach but I found trying to navigate a large document difficult and moving sections to reorder them even more so. How is she getting around this?

But how can we see what the app is originally designed for? Because so many apps are evolving and want to become everything/everyday apps.

Ulysses and iA Writer are obviously for writing articles. Apple Notes and Evernote want you to use them every aspect of life. Even they may be suitable for certain circumstances, they try to blur the boundary so people may find a way to do (‘hack’).

On the other hand, people define the same word differently. For some people, note taking is to jot down some temporary information like the address or others’ contact (as a result they will use Apple Notes or Contact app); but for others, note taking is note writing to daily reflect themselves (in this case they will choose Evernote, Journal app, or iA Writer…).


I’m with @OogieM on this one. Carl really is talking about his own preference.

I appreciate that you shouldn’t use Photoshop to do your writing, but any of the apps he mentioned are all fine.

I’ve discovered that learning one app well, beats spreading your work over five plus apps. I’m slowly consolidating my tools to few and free ones where possible. I’ve spent to much time chasing apps and now just can’t be bothered.

Apps like Obsidian are interesting because they break the multiple apps mould because of their architecture. Obsidian is designed to use plugins. It’s designed to be hacked. There are dangers of course but it also moves it to being a single work environment for many tasks. And as @OogieM stated it keeps you in the zone longer as you don’t have to change your mindset by switching apps.


I understand and appreciate how the right tool, along with some level of comfort and pleasing aesthetics, can make sitting in front of a computer for a few hours feel nicer or less chaotic. I am a creature of habit, and I have an almost unhealthy preference for a tidy and well-ordered workspace. So I get why he’s pleased that he has found his ideal setup in Ulysses, with the full-screen setting, etc.

But I think this idea of distraction-free writing/computing has been blown way out of proportion in recent years.

And now I’m going to make a point using a hilariously overdramatic example:

Here’s a picture from the 1991 NBA Finals. There are 18,000 people at Chicago Stadium, many of them standing and screaming through the whole thing. Music and sound effects are blaring through the hyper-loud PA system almost continuously. Some of the greatest players of all time are doing breathtaking things every couple of minutes.

See that guy in the red circle? That’s me.

Know what I did for most of the time I was sitting there? I was writing.

I needed to write two or three stories about that game, and they had to be finished and sent to New York before the game ended so that newspapers and broadcasters around the world would have them on time. I made that deadline, and I’ve made hundreds of others, many of them in similar, albeit less historic, conditions.

Know what I wasn’t worried about, ever, when I was hitting those deadlines? Which word processing software I was using, what background color I had on the screen, or what was happening in the four inches of space between what I was writing and the edge of the screen.

I believe this is true for most types of work, but I know it is true when it comes to writing: Being properly engaged with the task at hand is far and away the most important step toward solving any distraction problems. Anything else is probably an excuse for not being properly engaged.


By writing linearly mostly!

As she writes more of this long form fiction her needs may change, but for now her superb memory and chapters are fine!
She’s only one book in so far, and that was drafted on paper.

My writing tool of choice is Scrivener. I will be using it from Wednesday to write my latest great unpublished novel during NaNoWriMo. Scrivener has become so much a part of my writing workflow that I no longer use a traditional word processor like Pages or LibreOffice; I no longer give disk space to Word or any other Microsoft product.


First, you had a great seat!
Second, I have to ask, what app did you use to write the story, and what app do you use now for most of your writing?
Third, I’d give you a good run for your money on this, “ I have an almost unhealthy preference for a tidy and well-ordered workspace.” Everything in my office, vehicles, and computing devices are impeccably neat and orderly. :slightly_smiling_face:

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How do you deal with the fact that everything is “locked” into Scrivener unless you export/compile everything one by one out of it? Do you compile and save a copy of your work elsewhere after you are finished with it?

I’m on that same path, consolidation as it becomes harder for me to switch my concentration so the previously loved specialty tools are giving way to a more general toolset that is perhaps ugly but effective. Which has become the motto for my AnimalTrakker development too. I’ve got rules that define my SW development work:

  1. Ready, Fire, Aim!
  2. Ugly but effective.
  3. No code survives first contact with the sheep (cattle, goats, pigs, horses or donkeys).

I was embedded/invested in using best in class special tools for a very long time. When I had to switch one out the entire app stack fell apart. I’m actually amazed at how rebuilding it into fewer general purpose apps with ability to add specific features has dramatically improved my overall performance. In the last 5 months I’ve gotten more done on AnimalTrakker and other major long term projects than I did in the prevoius year and a half. My new tools make it really easy to get the important things done.


Yes Scrivener is locked in but you can export an entire folder into separate files. My only glitch is the metadata is in a separate text file but I’m working on code to combine them appropriately into Obsidian.

OOOO yes, Some of my best code has come out of a 6 screen 4 device mess with 20-30 scraps of paper with notes and code snippets all scattered about and reference hard copy books on the side. Somehow I thrive in the perceived mess. It’s well ordered to me. I know exactly where to go to get the snippet I need next but it looks like a tornado hit my desk.


I did not realize that was possible. I need to figure out how to do that.

The other big bugaboo about scrivener is I hate to have to subscribe to dropbox. I’m afraid that overtime I will run out of space with my free version of dropbox and dropbox is an expensive subscription.

Back then I was using a TRS-80 Model 102. Most journalists were using those Tandy portables for remote work, I think.

These days, it’s mostly Word at work and Pages for personal stuff. When I have something longer to write and I need to frequently consult interview transcripts and other various types of source material, I use Scrivener. First because I like the ability to use that second pane for browsing through the source material, and second because I’m likely writing discrete sections that I may want to juggle around and don’t necessarily need to be able to see them all put together all the time.


Seems like hardware wise you were already using a distraction-free writing tool by modern standards.


True, although I’d call it more of a distraction-free typing tool. For writing — most of which is rewriting and requires moving paragraphs around, inserting new information, reviewing, copyediting, refining, etc. — the interface presented some fairly formidable/irritating obstacles that made it all go a lot slower.

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Click in the left hand sidebar to highlight the folder or group of files. Files/Export then Files and select the location and type of export.

Yeah that’s a big one I didn’t keep many Scrivener things in Dropbox, that was only for when I was doing NaNoWriMo and using my iPad as an input device at the pub. Most of my stuff I just worked on at my main machine. Slowly exporting all that stuff out into Obsidian markdown files. As I said the only glitch is the metadata.

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I don’t consider it locked in! I know where the files are and what format they are in. If I were ever to fall out of love with Scrivener then I would leave the documents where they are (in ~/Dropbox/Scrivener) and process them with

pandoc -f rtf …

to convert them to any format that I desire which would probably be DocBook.

There also zipped versions each Scrivener project saved automatically to my local hard drive from which I could extract any or all of the files should that ever be necessary.