Hamilton Ulmer

Tools for Data Analysis

The writing tool of my dreams; a meditation
Feb 14, 2023

It’s probably hubris, but I can’t think of a solid free/web-based writing tool that nails the actual ergonomics of serious writing. I think Google Docs is probably the closest for pure writing, and no one gets the web presentation part right.

The writing tool of my dreams has these features:

  1. It’s collaboration-first, & not just comments-off-to-the-side. Any good online writing tool should design for collaboration and commenting first, not last (which is the norm). Google Docs is probably the best I’ve seen in this regard, but the comments themselves become an off-to-the-side part of the experience instead of a central element. A lot of docs end up with “comment graveyards” – unaddressed points where you have no idea what the endpoint of a conversation meant for the doc. (Notion’s collaborative features are too underdeveloped to even merit discussion.)
  2. It keeps space for ideation and annotation. Collaboration comes in two forms: with others, and with future versions of yourself. A unified collaborative workflow should consider both of these cases. Yet very few writing tools make it easy to attach notes or metadata to paragraphs as you’re writing. So it’s hard to annotate what you’re doing so you can get things right as you go.
  3. It exploits the web platform for all its strengths. The web is the most revolutionary communication medium since the printing press. Yet most tools treat the web itself as an implementation detail and not a target. It feels like a huge waste of potential that we’re still authoring solely for a paper experience – especially technical writers. Let me effortlessly embed interactivity into my writing!
  4. It honors the idea graph. The linearity of most writing tools only really makes sense from a presentational point of view; but when writing, you’re basically creating a graph of insights. Being able to reshape your document and figure out the flow != skeuomorphic typewriter experience.
  5. It’s fundamentally spatially-oriented. I think “skeumorphic” does make sense if you think about the physical approach to writing – a bunch of paper you can re-arrange spatially. This is why I think the future-best writing tool is probably an infinite canvas, or at least has some spatial affordances.
  6. It feels like a “professional tool”. A good writing tool is a “professional tool”, much like Pro Tools, Figma, or Photoshop. Professional writing tools are made for deep work, designed from the correct holistic conceptual model of the task and workflow, and require a bit of learning to really unlock their power. For me, Tana is probably best-in-class in the tools-for-thought space.
  7. It uses LLMs not as a hat-trick, but to augment the actual deep-writing task. We’re obviously entering a period where people stick LLMs into existing writing tools. Incredibly useful writing aid. But it’s still basically a robot-using-typewriter experience. An LLM should go way deeper than curing writer’s block. I want it to help me structure arguments and improve the flow of my writing, not just auto-complete an idea in a mundane way. In this sense, an ounce of UI is worth a pound of AI.