Let’s be honest. The modern word processor is more a hindrance than a help for those who write creatively. Perhaps you spend time fighting against autocorrection, or simply perusing the vast array of options, but modern software can eat time and energy. After all, who hasn’t spent far too long searching for that perfect font?
What if there was an alternative? What if somebody created a word processor that, rather than adding new features, took away all but the essentials? This is what this month’s Technophobia looks at.
Arguably the first distraction-free editor was WriteRoom (http://goo.gl/rY3pCW), which was released for the Mac around 10 years ago and is still going strong.
When the app starts the entire screen turns black. There’s no toolbar, no menu and no status bar. A word count appears at the bottom left of the screen but only after you haven’t typed for a while and even this can be turned off.
In other words, it’s just you and a flashing cursor. Make a typo and it’s strictly stet unless you notice it and hammer that backspace key. Incorrect spelling will not be underlined. Bad grammar will stay bad. The start of sentences will not be automatically capitalised (and I know several poets who will appreciate that last anti-feature.)
When you start to type you’ll see that the font is of the monospace variety – a typeface that’s extremely legible, like a traditional typewriter. Forget about that fancy Times New Roman. You can’t bold, italicise or underline text, or alter its size, and by default WriteRoom saves only text (.txt) files. These are one of the most basic forms of files that simply doesn’t include formatting information other than line breaks and tabs.
At one time all word processors were like this. Indeed, WriteRoom lets you “theme” the interface to make it look vintage – you can switch to a green font that makes it feel like you’re typing on a dumb terminal circa 1985, for example. It’s can be a lot of fun.
As WriteRoom evolved more features were added to soften the hard edges. You can change the on-screen font to one of your liking, for example, although this is strictly for your pleasure only. As mentioned, your work is saved as plain text so font choices simply aren’t included.
At the core of WriteRoom and similar apps is the idea is that you just start writing. Once you’ve completed your work you can take the file and import it into a “proper” word processor, like Microsoft Word, in order to fix the formatting, and to complete a full editing pass-through.
However, Microsoft Word can just about do distraction-free editing although it needs some setup work first. If you’re using Windows, start by clicking the small down arrow at the right of the Quick Access toolbar, then select More Commands. In the dialog box that appears, select All Commands from the dropdown list headed Choose Commands From, and in the list below select Toggle Full Screen View and click Add. Then click OK.
A new icon will now appear on the Quick Access toolbar and clicking it will hide all of Word’s “page furniture”. Tapping the Esc/Escape key at the top left of the keyboard will restore everything.
The taskbar at the bottom of the screen will still stick around when you’re in full-screen mode with Word but you can make it slide in and out of view as needed by right-clicking a blank spot, selecting Properties, and then putting a tick alongside Auto-Hide The Taskbar. From now on the taskbar will only appear when you move your mouse to the bottom of the screen.
In Word for Mac all you need do is click View > Enter Full Screen, and then remove the toolbars by right-clicking them and removing the ticks alongside them on the Toolbars submenu.
Although you’ve now got rid of most distractions in Word, this technique still won’t turn off things like spelling and grammar checking, or autoformat/autocorrection. You can do so in Word’s settings dialogue box but it’s annoyingly convoluted and, let’s be honest, if you also use Word for everyday tasks like writing to the bank manager then spellchecking and autocorrect can actually be useful.
Far better is to use a dedicated distraction-free editor for your creative writing, and there are many examples. Certainly worthy of investigation is FocusWriter (http://goo.gl/uGX61V), which is available free for Windows, Mac and Linux, but only Dark Room (http://goo.gl/Mw1M5u) offers the truly stripped down experience. It’s a somewhat blatant PC clone of WriteRoom that has the advantage of being entirely free of charge, although you can donate to the creator if you find it useful.
Installing it on your computer is a bit of a trial but something that needs only be done once. If you’re using Windows XP you might need to first install .NET Framework, which is a necessary behind-the-scenes component. It’s free from http://goo.gl/ull996. Then download Dark Room itself. Extract the files from the zip and place them in a new folder on the desktop. Dark Room doesn’t install like other apps. You just open the folder and double-click the DarkRoom file to run it.
Tips for writing
Using Dark Room is very simple. Just start typing. Tapping the Esc/Escape key at the top left of the keyboard (or tapping F11) will switch you into and out of standard window mode if you want to view what program options there are on the menu. However, there really isn’t very much!
If the look and feel is just a little too basic for your tastes, right-clicking on the page and selecting Properties allows you to change the font colour, font type, and background colour. But do remember that these won’t be saved with the document, which is again outputted as a plain text file (tap Ctrl+S to save the file, as you would in any other word processor).
Keyboard shortcuts you might be used to with other software will work fine. Ctrl+Z will undo, for example, although beware that it’s nowhere near as sophisticated as Word’s undo function and tapping it will likely remove the last few sentences you’ve typed rather than the last few words.
Cut (Ctrl+X), copy (Ctrl+C) and paste (Ctrl+V) all work fine, as does Ctrl+F in order to search for text – although there’s no replace function. A very useful keyboard shortcut is Ctrl+/, which will bring up a window showing document statistics, such as the word count.
What about writing on your tablet computer, or even your smartphone? Surely that’s where you most need to lose the distractions. Again you’ll find a handful of solutions but perhaps the best is iA Writer (https://ia.net/writer), which is available for both Apple and Android devices and costs £3.99. A version is also available for Mac that costs £7.99.
Like many distraction-free editors, iA Writer includes a focus mode, which is activated by tapping the icon at the top right. This dims all the text apart from the sentence you’re currently editing to create an even more distraction-free environment. You can also add bold and italics, although only in a primitive way – words or sentences in bold should be surrounded by two asterisks (**like this**), while anything in italics should be surrounded by single asterisks. Tapping the share button on the menu then lets you preview the document to get an idea of how it will look complete with formatted text, and you can also choose to email to somebody (or even yourself) the formatted text in order to make eventual conversion to a “proper” word processing document easier.
In order to access the work you create via a desktop computer, you can link iA Writer to your Dropbox cloud storage account. Just select the option after tapping the folder icon at the top left. To learn more about cloud storage, see my guide in issues 161 and 143.