by Gene Wilburn
TOOL REVIEW || updated 5/3/2014
Simplify, simplify, simplify.
—H.D. Thoreau, Walden
Let’s face it: desktop, laptop, and tablet computers can be distracting. You only just begin writing and achieve a little momentum when your mind decides to take a quick email break, or see what’s new on Facebook, or dash off a tweet. Or an alert informs you that there’s a fresh New York Times crossword puzzle waiting in your crossword app. The next thing you know, your writing session is over and your time has been frittered away by addictive, fun, but nonproductive pursuits. Don’t feel alone. Most of us find our computing devices distracting. What we need is help in blocking out distractions.
The most obvious way to avoid distraction is to screen it out, like a blackout curtain in Oslo used to screen out the midnight sun at midsummer. Happily, your current word processor may already have a screening mode that will hide the menus and icons of other programs so that what you see resembles a blank sheet in a typewriter.
The latest versions of Microsoft Word, for instance, offer a view called Focus View that opens your writing palette full screen and hides all menus and scroll bars. Similarly, the Swiss army knife of writing tools, Scrivener, has a view called Composition Mode that effectively screens out the complexity of the menus. In LibreOffice Writer this view is called, simply, Full Screen, and it’s also called Full Screen in Apple’s Pages word processor.
If this mode helps you and you’re happy with the result, then you’ve already found a solution. However, if you’re yearning for even more freedom from distraction, or are simply curious about what other writing tools offer, there are products that also screen you from the complexities of, say, Word or Scrivener by keeping things minimal. These apps don’t try to be full word processors or outliners. They simply let you write text, the way you would on a typewriter. With the addition of spellchecking, of course.
In general, minimalist editors share certain characteristics. They usually create plain text files that end in the file extension .txt. They sometimes offer rich text format (RTF) for preserving attributes such as italic, underscore, bold, and font choices. RTF files end in the extension .rtf and are easily imported into any major word processor.
The simplest editors of all are the text editors that come with your operating system. In Windows, this is Notepad or a third-party substitute. For Mac users this is TextEdit. For Linux users the editor would be Vim, Gedit, Emacs, or one of the many open-source variants.
The reason some writers write with a text editor—Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon), for instance, uses Emacs, a Unix/Linux editor—is that text editors are fast, lightweight, and nimble, as well as being free of any formatting distractions. They also perform well on older computers. You don’t need the latest in hardware to run these peppy little programs—you just start typing and go. The following distraction-free editors, however, offer additional support for writing not generally found in text editors.
WriteRoom (http://www.hogbaysoftware.com) may be the quintessential minimalist editor aimed at writers. Available for Mac and iOS, it costs $9.99 and $4.99 at the respective app stores.
WriteRoom offers two modes: a text window similar to Windows Notepad or Mac TextEdit, and a full-screen mode that blocks out all distractions from the system. One interesting option it offers is “typewriter scrolling” that, similar to a typewriter, keeps the current line in the center of the screen so you don’t have to type looking at the bottom of the page. WriteRoom has customizable sounds, including typewriter clicks for those who miss the typewriter experience. You can set the color palette of your choice, such as black background with soothing amber or green letters, like an early PC monitor. WriteRoom offers spellchecking as you type and it tracks word count. It can also convert between plain text and rich text formats. This time-proven product is a solid choice for Mac and iOS users.
Q10 (http://www.baara.com/q10/) is a free Windows minimalist editor similar to WriteRoom but with a few extras. It offers a spellchecker, timer (for timed writing sessions) and statistics that include word count, character count, and page count.
It has a useful “notes” feature: any paragraph starting with “..” is considered a note. You can get a list of all the notes in your manuscript and jump immediately to any of them. You can also set goals: a target count of words, paragraphs, or pages, and view a percentage stat of how close you are to meeting your target. This is particularly useful for writers adhering to a strict daily word count.
Like WriteRoom, Q10’s color schemes are customizable. Unlike WriteRoom, Q10 produces plain text only, with no option for rich text. This editor is an excellent choice for Windows users.
FocusWriter (www.gottcode.org/focuswriter) is a free editor that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux computers. Similar to WriteRoom and Q10, FocusWriter combines some of the elements of both. Like Q10, it offers daily goals, timers, and alarms, and like WriteRoom it can produce both plain text and rich text files. It also provides support for basic OpenOffice/LibreOffice .odt files.
Its appearance is especially customizable, not only in terms of colors, but also in terms of background themes for those who prefer a bit of pizzazz, even in a minimalist editor. It includes a spellchecker and an optional scene list sidebar. FocusWriter can put you into a focused text mode in which the current sentence you’re writing stays in full view while surrounding sentences are dimmed. This can be useful for keeping your mind on composing rather than editing.
Running on multiple computer platforms, FocusWriter is an especially good choice for writers who use more than one operating system.
iA Writer (http://www.iawriter.com) is available for Mac ($4.99 [price currently reduced 50% until next update]) and iOS ($4.99) at the respective app stores. It presents a white background with black letters, like a sheet of paper in a typewriter; a full screen mode that blocks out distractions; and a focus mode that focuses on the current sentence, in the manner of FocusWriter. Unlike the rest of the minimalist writing tools, it doesn’t offer the writer a choice of screen fonts. Instead it supplies a single, attractive fixed font, akin to a typewriter font.
iA Writer can export to both .rtf and .html. What makes this little editor hot is its secret weapon: it employs standard Markdown symbols to add attributes such as bold, italic, lists, or block quotes. For instance, in Markdown language you can italicize iA Writer by typing *iA Writer*, surrounding it with asterisks. If the concept of plain-text formatting piques your interest, you can find out more about Markdown syntax at daringfireball.net/projects/markdown/basics on the website maintained by John Gruber, creator of Markdown. (For more information on Markdown, see “What is Markdown?“) Even without using Markdown, iA Writer is a pleasant writing tool that can sync files between a Mac and an iPad, via iCloud or Dropbox, for those who switch back and forth between computer and tablet.
These distraction-free editors are great for any writer who needs help concentrating on the work at hand, especially while composing. Once you’ve had a taste of distraction-free writing, it’s jarring to go back to a writing mode that displays menus and icons. As Thoreau implies in Walden, simplicity can be deeply profound. Productive, too. ■
Gene Wilburn is a writer/photographer residing in Port Credit, Ontario, Canada. Gene serves as an advisor and nonfiction editor for Small Print Magazine.