Distraction-Free Writing Tools

rewrite edit text on a typewriter
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There is an interesting article in the current issue of the New Yorker on “Can Distraction-Free Devices Change the Way We Write?” The article, by Julian Lucas, initially made me jealous. How I wish I could have written that piece for the New Yorker. But I soon realized that it was likely that I’d be able to do it. I like to think I have the writing skill. The problem is I am too distracted by distraction-free writing tools to actually sit down and write. Early in the piece, Lucas writes,

I’d fallen into the trap that the philosopher Jacques Derrida identified in an interview from the mid-nineties. “With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy,” he complained. “An interminable revision, an infinite analysis is already on the horizon.”

This seems to describe why I get very little non-blog writing done these days. I am constantly fiddling with writing tools, telling myself that this one will be the one to work for me. Indeed, after finishing the article, I decided to take another look at both Ulysses and iA Writer. I did this, of course, instead of writing, telling myself what I always tell myself. If I find the right tool, one with just the right set of features, one that eliminates distractions just so, all of my problems will be solved. In reality, the distraction is not all of the elements on the screen, not the endless notifications, not the array of features, but the very existence of the tools to begin with. The distraction is the search for perfection.

Yesterday, for instance, I wrote two posts for the blog. One (Episode 11 of my Practically Paperless series) came in at about 1,600 words. The other, a post that will go out a week from today, came in at 1,200 words and isn’t quite finished. That’s nearly 3,000 words of writing in a day, which is marvelous. It is not paid writing, but considering my full-time job and family obligations, 3,000 words is amazing. I wrote them entirely in the WordPress block editor tool inside my web browser. For some reason, I don’t hunt for writing tools for blogging. I sit down and write. I am more professional about my hobby than I am about my professional writing. The WordPress block editor let’s me get my work done. I don’t worry about “distraction-free” features. I just write.

Why can’t I do that for my fiction writing? Why do I feel compelled to revisit tools that I’ve tried before. I spent maybe an hour last night comparing the features of Ulysses and iA Writer. The former has packaged a lot of functionality and appears to be designed to get you from first draft to final manuscript. The latter’s focus is focus. Getting words on the page. I keep telling myself that if I could minimize the time I spent on all of the other stuff (formatting, tracking revisions, etc.) I could spent more time writing. Therefore, a tool like Ulysses is alluring: it helps with that stuff.

On the other hand, I am not writing, I am spending my time looking at tools for writing. iA Writer’s focus is on minimalist. It dumps all of the bells and whistles and says, just get to work, willya? It doesn’t format my manuscript the way Ulysses or Scrivener does, but then again, if I am not writing, I have no manuscript to format in the first place.

Later in the piece, Lucas discusses the FreeWrite Smart Typewriter:

Released in 2016, the Freewrite Smart Typewriter is a hefty little lunchbox of a machine with a noisy mechanical keyboard and an e-ink display the size of an index card. The user can type and backspace but not much else, and, with the default settings, only ten lines of text are visible at a time.

Back in late 2019 or early 2020, I got a FreeWrite. I told myself this would be the ultimate distraction-free writing tool, and that it would be the thing to get me writing again. After all, it looks and feels like a typewriter. The problem was that one of its noted features just doesn’t work for me: there are no arrow keys. You can backspace to edit, but you can’t go back and insert a word, or correct a typo. That’s just not how I write, so the FreeWrite has sat in a drawer for the better part of two years now, unused.

What I need is a tool like the WordPress block editor. It gives me the basic functionality I need to write, and nothing else. iA Writer seems to be closest to this model. It gives you the basic tools to write, and you just write. I love tools like Scrivener, but they combine many things into one. They are as much desktop publishing systems as Microsoft Word, and I don’t need a desktop publishing system.

I’ve often said that my favorite all-time word processor was Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5. This was back in the days before Word has a WYSIWYG display, and more features than there are words in this post. I transcribed all of my class notes in college into Microsoft Word for DOS. I wrote all of my papers there. And I wrote dozens of the first stories that I sent out to magazines on that word processor. I never thought about “distraction-free” because there were not distractions, just the words on the screen. WordPress’s block editor is like that: just words on a screen. And more so than Ulysses, iA Writer is also just words on a screen.

I will likely play around with iA Writer while on my holiday vacation. Maybe, I’ll pretend it is the only solution out there. If there is only one option, you get used to it. It is still possible to use Microsoft Word for DOS via DosBOX. There are reasons that people like George R. R. Martin and Robert J. Sawyer still use WordStar for DOS. It might be what they are used to, but I envy how distraction-free that writing must be.

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    1. Michael, is the Word 4.0 for DOS for the later Word for Windows? I’m assuming the former. The whole “windows” concept is a distraction, if you ask me. Didn’t Isaac Asimov deliberately shut the blinds in his office so that he wasn’t distracted by the beautiful day outside his windows?

  1. Have you tried writing in Obsidian ? There is a plugin called longform which is designed to help with keeping writing organised plus you can use hotkeys to hide the left and right panels leaving you with just writing space.

  2. I got turned onto Cold Turkey (https://getcoldturkey.com) which blocks distractions on the computer at 20 Books to 50K Vegas this year. (Several writers used it.) I use Scrivener as my long-form app, and it has a distraction mode. Specifically, I use the free version called Micromanager. I’ve had some very solid sessions.


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