Writing, and Avoiding Digital Distractions

In the recent stripping down of my life into the essential component parts, I've come to realise how sticking to the basics enables me to create content without distraction. In a way, it's very much in line with my return to a paper planner: eliminate the diversions and leave yourself free to think -- I've written about this sort of thing before (here and here), but in the context of productivity. The act of writing, however, is very much a day-to-day task for me, and the true focus of most of my productive hours, so it's essential to do it efficiently and effectively. That's where the dreaded three-headed hydra of distraction lies, and has to be conquered daily.

Now, I think I've used almost every type of text editor, word processor, mark-up system (e.g., LaTeX, SGML, HTML and XML), outliner, web-based editor, and personal content management system over the past 20-odd years. I'm to the point where I can compare and contrast how various systems and methods work for me. I've learned that --for me to truly write quickly, creatively and well-- the key is keeping things basic and focussed.

I'm of the opinion that an inquisitive mind is attracted to clutter. When the mind begins to slow down, or becomes mired in the doldrums of redundant thought, any stack of magazines, or downloads directory, or bunch of jumbled bookmarks, or box of unknown contents provides some welcome reprieve. While a mind can feed off these things as a pleasant diversion from the task at hand, this almost always results in a lack of focus. And thus nothing is done: certainly no writing, and very little by way of constructive thought.

Given an environment free of other distractions, paper is as good a way as any to write, unless you're like me and find that your handwriting can't keep up with your thoughts. At 80 words a minute, typing is much more conducive to my manic mind. An old-fashioned typewriter is an excellent option as well, providing that the clacking doesn't grind on the nerves of your family, and you don't care that the text isn't (immediately) digital. A case in point: when teaching in France about a decade ago, I wrote over 20 typed pages for my novel daily, without fail, on a simple children's typewriter loaned to me by a fellow teacher. Despite the fact that that I had to manually rewind the ribbon with my pinkie every half-page, and I had to relearn how to type (it was a French AZERTY keyboard, not QWERTY), those nine months were the most prolific I've ever been. I bought a beautiful 1920's Remington a few years back, but alas, it's very much unused for now because of its noise.

So the only options left for many people (myself included) are digital. But that's where the clutter comes in: the 8oo pound gorilla word processors like Word, WordPerfect and OpenOffice.org Writer are rarely conducive to focused writing unless one has a mind that can easily discard the notions of palettes, layout, font faces, embellishments, inter-paragraph spacing, and so on, even when one's words are surrounded by brightly-coloured toolbars, pretty icons, collapsable formatting tools, and stylists. I constantly find my eyes drifting to the palettes, or wondering about the best way to make a header stand out.

Thankfully, there are ways to keep things simple and focussed. Paper, as mentioned, is great if your hand can keep up without cramping. Then there are word processors like Ulysses and LyX that provide you with a non-distracting work environment. I've taken to using Eastgate's Tinderbox, a wonderful Mac-based outliner and personal content manager, as a way to write almost all of my articles and reports, since its rather (deceptively) simple interface doesn't encourage me to think about formatting or special functions, yet allows plenty of opportunity for structure and brainstorming. For fiction writers, I can certainly recommend Writer's Cafe for keeping journals, notebooks, scraps (graphics, links, and notes), graphical mind-maps, and plot line cards: each part of the application is essentially self-contained and created especially for creative writers. And of course, there are web-based word processors (like Writely) and editors (like wikis) with a minimum of distraction, as well as regular text editors, like my tool of choice for many years: Emacs. A Palm with a keyboard can work too, as well as a portable word processor like a Neo or Dana. I think that all these make great choices for writers, if only for the first few drafts, where creativity matters far more than formatting or tight editing. The key is to use the thing that possesses the fewest frills possible but which still allows you to get your words down as fast as your mind can create.

If you want to write and find yourself attracted to all the clutter of the "big three" word processors, or by other digital distractions on your desktop, try this.... Kill any applications that happen to be going (especially web browsers and email), then either call up a Writer's Cafe demo and jump into the notebook, or load up Notepad, TextEdit or your favourite plain-jane text editor. Set yourself a prompt (WC has a "cookies" tab with such things), and set a timer for fifteen or thirty minutes (again, WC has one built-in: click on it at bottom right).

Then write, just write, without the urge to format or structure or stylise text. It's freedom, sweet freedom, and a chance to focus for once. It's truly a beautiful thing, and possibly even an addictive boost to your productivity. Of course, when the draft is done, it can be brought into Word or Writer for heavy editing and formatting, but till then, keep your workspace basic and focussed on the task at hand: I truly can't imagine writing any other way now.

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RoughDraft! RoughDraft! RoughDraft! RoughDraft!

I absolutely agree that simple is best for creative writing, especially for the first draft. And my own bias is different programs for different uses: I don't want my wp bogging down because it's also a character database or a submission tracking program. I want a lean mean writing machine that opens in ten seconds and stays the hell out of the way.

If you feel the same, and are running Windows, there is only one WP you should consider using:

RoughDraft v3.0

The Word Processor for Creative Writers

It caters to the paranoia of writers: you can have it autosave all open text files every X minutes PLUS you can save one or all open files to your hard disk with a single click PLUS you can also have it auto save everything to a separate drive (like a floppy or cd or flashdrive) still with just one click.

It has the basic text formating abilities (choice of font, size, bold, italic, center/right/left alignment, that sort of thing)and an optional spellchecker, and just about nothing else.

No, that's not true: it has this lovely notepad in a side window, just the place for capturing fast thoughts and notes about things you need to research and so forth. It's automatically created for you, it's automatically saved for you every time you save your text...and I absolutely don't want to ever have to write without it.

(Okay, sometimes I have to pull the final draft into Word for places that insist on Word .doc format, but that's the only times I use Word any longer.)

And did I mention? Completely free! Not just for 30 days, forever! Take a look at it and you'll see why I'm addicted. :)

And for the Mac


For us on the mac, I can wholeheartedly recommend the following creative writing and word-centric word processors:

CopyWrite ($30USD, 30day trial) by Bartas Technologies.

Ulysses (payware and about $110USD) by Blue Tec.

I use Ulysses. Mostly because it was the most robust Writer-Project Manager at the time (did I mention only?). And it also didn't choke when I was working on a nanowrimo project or had lots of words. This is one of the most used apps on my system. I've loved it and the interface does not get in the way of writing. It also has a full screen mode where all you do is nothing but write in addition to allowing you to keep notes and links open while you write. It also allows for LaTEX integration.

The main difference between the two programs is that CopyWrite allows you to bold, italicize, underline in the processor and Ulysses does not (which can make it a pain when yer writing and want to italize something for removal later). However, since Ulysses does use LaTEX, I suppose it's able to render those styles in export. Unfortunately, I do not know LaTEX so I've almost come close to buying a copy of CopyWrite due to that reason alone. CopyWrite also has a built in word counter for the overall project... which is great for nano. Ulysses only has a "doc" word count, so at the end of the nano days, I have to export all my project's files and then get a word count from another app.


Ulysses Word Count (And for the Mac)

innowen --

As a fellow Ulysses user I too missed the opportunity to do a word count on my entire project rather than one document at a time. A tip on the Blue-Tec forums solved the quandary. In the top left panel, where there is a list of documents contained in the current project (along with their status, etc), you highlight all of the document names. When you do, you'll see a cumulative word count for all of the highlighted documents at the bottom of the left-hand pane. Why doesn't Blue-Tec list this feature? I have no idea.

FWIW, I also tried CopyWrite, and just couldn't get used to it. I think it was the overly simpy icons or something. Definitely a look-and-feel issue.

I'm still looking for just the right solution -- maybe it will end up being plain text again after all. My favorite word processor ever was XyWrite, a 1980s DOS program that rendered nothing but ASCII files, with all the formatting commands also in ASCII. The formatting was hidden behind little triangles, though, so the screen was nothing but text. The whole thing resided in RAM, making it as fast as any text editor I've used.


hey, thanks for the tip. I tried it and it works, however... it's off by almost 1,000 words... which is odd considering the export gives me more than the quick summary bit. You also have to check a preference for "counting the left hand pane" before it works... which is something I had turned off because it was a distraction to the words.

Thanks again and happy new year!

Just an FYI, CopyWrite

Just an FYI, CopyWrite actually lets you use it indefinitely but you're limited to five documents in your project. It's not a thirty day trial.

an alternate freedom

I'm surprised to say this, but for me and the business-related writing I do, I find that the interface and immediate access to features in Microsoft Word provide their own form of freedom rather than being a distraction. I've tried the "focus on composing, format later" approach off and on over the years (I used to use WordPerfect for DOS and VDE, an excellent DOS text editor, both with on-screen elements removed), but lately I find the process of composing and formatting going hand-in-hand.

I don't worry about the final appearance when I start a document, but as I'm writing I find myself thinking about how both the words that I'm putting down AND the layout will contribute to the reader's understanding. For example, if I decide to express items as a series of bullet points, I tend to compose differently than I would have if I had used standard paragraphs, and having the option of quickly and easily playing with the format is a big help.

There are certainly times when I block out thoughts about formatting and focus entirely on writing, but much of the time I'm able to balance composition and layout. Overall I'm finding the process taking less time and needing fewer revisions than when I write first, then format. Having the ability to quickly switch back and forth between composing and formatting is, for me, freedom.

That's just me, however, and, again, that's primarily for business documents. I still agree with this article and encourage readers to try removing distractions and see what works best for them. Note also that if switching to the excellent applications mentioned in the article isn’t an option, products such as Microsoft Word can be made less distracting by removing unused elements such as toolbar buttons and items on menus.

Word for DOS, WP6.2 still options, and full-screen AbiWord

You can't beat a DOS box for zero-distraction writing on a Windows machine. Microsoft offers Word 5.5 as a free download. It plays pretty nicely with long file names, but I find I need to save as RTF if I want to open docs in other programs.

WordPerfect is still pretty widely used. You can find all kinds of tools and tips for using WP under windows XP here.

Modern WordPerfect and the opensource word processor AbiWord have great full-screen modes that offer the text-first interface of older applications. Before I found Word for DOS, AbiWord on my laptop was my first choice for heads-down writing sessions.

I must admit I often still revert to Nano in a full screen terminal for a lot of day-to-day work.

Creating verses processing...

While word processors are great for processing data, nothing beats a good text editor for creative writing. I have paper and pen; portable typewriter; bloatware word processors yet I always return to Notepad for my text and Quark (QuarkXpress Passport 4.11) for my formating needs. Quark is an overpriced DTP program used in the publishing industry. Passport denotes it is the multi-language version. Files can be imported and linked rather than embedded. Anyone who has tried to open a Word Doc at four in the morning with everything embedded into it will know why it's not such a great leap forward. Lol.

Anyone here familiar with Quark who know of an equally good Word processor?

I agree...

Some other ways to do this are to use old technology, like older PC's or Mac's that can readily be used to write, but don't have any easy way to get online. Just make sure they have some way to tranfer the text back to a modern machine when you're done.

Another method is to use technology made for writing, and just about writing only- such an an Alphasmart ( www.alphasmart.com ). Some people also are big fans of the old TRS-80 model 100's, which are almost identical to the modern Alphasmart in functionality.

DevonTHINK, Markdown

DevonTHINK has a full-screen mode that I use to do some distraction-less writing. If you do a plain-text document (and, really, if you're writing that's what you ought to be doing), it's green text on a black background, fairly old-school look to it. Even with the most excellent DevonTHINK, though, most of my writing gets done as $deity intended: in vim.

I, too, think there needs to be a strict delineation between the creating, and the processing. But if you must do some formatting, I strongly recommend a formatting style like Markdown that allows formatting hints to be done in plaintext, while still keeping it much more readable than HTML.

The Obvious

As I've been working (and working and working) on my dissertation, I must admit that the best way to avoid distraction in the earliest stages of drafting--and even when reviewing and revising--is pen and paper. Many trees have died (or, at least, many other manuscripts recycled) so that I can work on printouts of chapters.

Set up a separate account

Apart from all the suggestions about simple vs bloated word processors the thing that immediately crossed my mind when thinking about a distraction-free digital environment is setting up a separate account on your computer. I did this recently to do a project for my sister and it occurred to me that you can do this for any project: set up the parental controls to disable all internet-related software (to avoid distractions), remove all aliases/shortcuts from desktop, dock, quick launch bar, menus and finder. Add just one link on the desktop for your favorite processor or the text you're working on or add it to the startup items. All to get you started as quickly as possible.