MVW: The idea of the Minimum Viable Writer

With all of the changes that are happening in the world as we dive headfirst in to 2017 I’ve started to inventory my needs as a writer. My name for this project is the MVW or Minimum Viable Writer. This is a play on the idea of a “minimum viable product” that is popular in the culture of tech startups. It’s an idea rooted in the concept of doing as little as needed to launch a product or service. The goal is to let the market decide if it will be profitable before investing too much time and money into it.

With this in mind I started to think about what are the minimum resources needed to write and publish. So let’s start with some definitions.
This is how I define what makes up a MVW:

  • Minimum: The fewest resources needed to produce text in an environment where the writer might not have access to her usual tools.
  • Viable: The writing and publishing happens successfully with no sustained interruptions.
  • Writer: The person writing is able to continue writing.

Origin of the idea

As any writer can tell you, there’s no end to the tools, apps, and how-to books purporting to make the writer’s life easier. Some of them actually manage to live up to their promises. A majority just seem to get in the way. So I started looking a what I didn’t need on my writing desk, both virtual and physical.

Part of this grows out of the purse-sized office I put together last Fall. As I explored the issue of what I really needed and what was getting in my way, I bumped into how much I was relying on a single vendor: Apple.

If it was just the hardware, I wouldn’t be so concerned. But things like iCloud have crept into my workflow. Along with this is the mildly terrifying realization that a fair portion of my writing is also locked into various app silos. While it’s backed up to iCloud and safe from device-related disasters, it could still require an Apple device to access.

To be fair, every app I use has the option to export or save to another cloud service like Dropbox. The problem is one that plagues every backup ever made. How do you keep things in sync with multiple saved versions floating around. This isn’t as large of a problem with a desktop computer. But it does get dicey when mobile devices are added to mix. The old faithful desktop tools like rsync don’t work the same (or at all). Dropbox does have a rudimentary versioning system, and old versions of files are recoverable, but it’s only there for emergencies.

To illustrate this dilemma, I’ll use my favorite writing app, Ulysses. It keeps all of my writing in its library which is a database stored in iCloud and synced to my devices. This is incredibly convenient, and makes switching between my MacBook and iPad seamless. I can also access files saved in my Dropbox and locally stored “external files,” but to get the unique benefits that Ulysses offers I need to use iCloud. Simply put, the app was designed that way. Exporting the files is an option, but at the same time creates multiple copies that need to be synchronized.

But should disaster knock on my door, I’m going to have a real problem. Granted, while the chances of losing the laptop, tablet, and phone all on the same day are quite slim, it could happen. I’ve traveled multiple times with both the laptop and tablet in the same backpack. It’s not hard to imagine losing both devices to a single thief. I’d still have my aging phone, but that would not a viable writing environment where I could get significant work done.

Having all my writing in the Ulysses silo means that I need an Apple device1 and a functional iCloud account to access it.

This is what I mean when I say that I’ve become overly reliant on a single vendor for both my hardware and my backups.

Data loss happens. It’s a fact of life when dealing with computers and electronic storage. When that data also lives on computers somewhere off in the cloud the data loss aspect is reduced. But now hackers and maintaining access to your account come into play.

iCloud hacking is a thing as many celebrities found out about. But losing an account to hackers is less common that losing it to Apple. There’s been a long history of Apple recommending people just create a new iCloud account instead of actually working to solve backend problems. This was mildly annoying when it was just an email address. It’s a major problem with important data stored there.

The point of a backup is to get the data out and onto a working device. If the backup isn’t accessible (in this case the Ulysses library stored on iCloud), it’s the same as not having a backup.

Most of the time the convenience of having everything connected and synchronized outweighs the worry of vendor lock-in.

But devices age, and at some point everything I own will need to be updated. My oldest device, an iPhone 5, is still getting updates. But with iOS 11 due this fall, I don’t expect it to be included in the list of supported devices. The iPad Mini 2 and 2013 MacBook aren’t far behind in the race to see which one will be dropped next. I’m nearing the point where Apple’s march of planned obsolescence has outpaced my disposable income.

How to be a Minimum Viable Writer

So the question becomes: what do when what I have no longer works (for whatever reason)?

As part of this MVW project, I need to answer that question in way that will allow me to keep working in a mostly uninterrupted way regardless of the hardware I’m using.

It also involves planning for the future and making sure my choices today don’t put me on a path that leads to more vendor lock-in. This means structuring a workflow in a way that is robust as possible while maintaining the greatest amount of cross-platform compatibility.

This is the root of the Minimum Viable Writer concept. To be able to write and publish regardless of hardware, location, internet connection, or economic condition.

As I continue this series, I’ll be figuring this out as I go. This is new territory for me, and I hope you’ll find it useful too.

Other Articles in this series:

  1. This is because of how Ulysses saves it’s data in iCloud. The database files are not accessible through the iCloud web interface and on the Mac they are stored outside of the iCloud user folder.