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A picture of Audrey Watters

Audrey Watters

Writer (Hack Education)

in mac, writer

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Audrey Watters, and I write about education technology. I do freelance here and there, but primarily I write for my site Hack Education, which is best known for its education technology criticism. (It's funny how no one thinks a restaurant critic hates restaurants or a movie critic hates movies, but everyone thinks that, as an ed-tech critic, I hate ed-tech. I don't hate ed-tech. I mean, most of it is terrible. But most movies and restaurants aren't that great either.)

I do a lot of speaking as well. I've found that it can pay better than writing. And as I like to write out my talks in advance (and then post them afterwards on Hack Education), speaking does double duty as writing. Bonus: I love to travel.

I am also in the middle of working on a book called Teaching Machines, which will be published by MIT Press. It traces ideas like "personalized learning" back to the early and mid-twentieth century, decades before computers.

What hardware do you use?

I use a MacBook Air that's four or five years old. (My god, I hope it never breaks because the new MacBooks suck.) I also have other Apple products (an iPhone 8, an iPad Pro) but I don't really work on those. Or I try not to. In the past, I've found myself working all the time -- it often feels necessary when one is self-employed. But I'm really trying to limit how much time I spend in front of screens.

I prefer to edit my writing on paper than on a screen, so I do print out longer essays and chapters and make changes by hand. I have an HP OfficeJet printer. I used to have a special fountain pen, but printer cartridges and fountain pen cartridges are annoying and expensive, and so these days I stick with the ol' Pilot Gel Ink Retractive Roller Ball pen. Blue ink. It's got to be blue ink.

And what software?

For writing articles for my website, I compose in Byword, which is a Markdown text editor. (I like it because it syncs between my Apple devices. Even though I should not be working on the iPhone and iPad, dammit.) I have long found Markdown to be the easiest way to write for the Web, allowing me to add links and and formatting without distracting me from the important stuff: expressing my ideas.

I export HTML from Byword into Sublime Text. My website runs on Jekyll and I use the GitHub desktop tool to commit files to my site. I've run all my sites on Jekyll and GitHub Pages for a while now. I have found it easier to manage than WordPress (particularly as I know next to nothing about databases), but I have been thinking lately about moving on from GitHub and hosting the Jekyll sites myself.

When I'm writing articles etc that need to be shared with an editor, I typically write in Microsoft Word. I hate all word processing software, and anyone who insists that Google Docs is so much better than Word is a liar.

Indeed, I have tried to cut back on my usage of all Google products. DuckDuckGo is my default search engine. Firefox is my default browser. I do still have a Gmail account, I won't lie.

For my book, I've used Scrivener to store all my research notes. I don't actually write in Scrivener; but it's been really useful to help me organize this big writing project.

And I use a lot of sticky notes. Are those hardware or software?

What would be your dream setup?

Currently, I'm writing at my kitchen table, which is not ideal. (There's a guest staying in the spare bedroom / office.) I miss the desk in the other room -- it's a big, solid wood, kitchen table so I can spread out. I miss my monitor that sits on it, a device which as I grow older and my eyesight gets worse, feels increasingly necessary -- particularly with the tiny writing and faint typing on some of the archival materials I'm using for my book.

So, my ideal set up would definitely include a big table, so I'd have space for my monitor, as well as all the books and papers that I surround myself with when I write. Sure, I could do that now -- cart the monitor out here to the dining room table -- but I'd have to dismantle everything before we ate dinner each night, and that would upend all my organized piles of print.

The chair is more comfortable in my office too -- it's one of those proper office chairs. Oh sure, there's a cushion on the dining room chair I'm sitting in now, but there's little back support and my posture is already quite terrible. And, again, as I get older, where I sit and how I sit and how long I sit are becoming more and more important to my ability to work.

Despite the terrible chair and table, the room I'm writing this in right now does have great sunlight. Windows are one of those vastly underrated technologies when people list their ideal work set-up. Indeed, other than power and wifi, I'd list lighting as something that either makes or breaks any work space.

For me, the ideal set-up is much less about the hardware or software I am using. It's about the ideas that I'm thinking through and whether or not I can sort them out and shape them up in ways that make for a good piece of writing. Ideally, that does require some comfort -- a space for sustained concentration. (I know better than to require an ideal set up in order to write. I'd never get anything done.)

When I first started working as a tech journalist, I would try out almost any kind of new software that came out. But I've been burned several times by startups that went away, by software that locked me in. So I really don't use a lot of different software tools. Ideally, the software and hardware we all use would protect our privacy, be strongly encrypted, and be easily interoperable so that we could move it from program to program, from system to system. I don't want anything fancy or fantastical. But damn, I do want to use tools that don't suck.