Friday, November 25, 2011

On Writing: Don't Let the Web Kill Your Work

     Daniel Brian is a long-time chum with an oft-sardonic writing style perfect for the many music, movie, and game reviews he's written over the years. He's a blogger, podcaster, practicing fictionista, and all-around good guy. He's so good, in fact, he offered this post-turkey guest post on fighting Internet distraction. Thanks, Dan. -rob

    Chances are if there's a keyboard under your fingertips, the interwebs are throwing several pieces of distracting fecal matter at your corneas every second. Tweetdeck may be one of the biggest productivity killers since television or masturbation, while Facebook is a hypnotizing abyss staring back at you.
     It's hard to escape the deluge if you enjoy using a computer. It’s even harder if you're using one to write.

     I am writing this post in JDarkRoom, a simple text editor that blacks out your entire screen, leaving you alone with your word count. Mano y mano. No distractions. When I first heard about this type of program, I filed it under the "things I might toy with" section of my brain, but have since come to rely on them heavily. I'm a man with vices, the Internet being my first love since I was 11 (I'm 28 this week), with whiskey a close second. While these virtual-distraction-free zones don't discourage the latter, they certainly help with the former. If I want to check what BS Wil Wheaton is hocking on Twitter or ogle Fleshbot's latest "Top 10 Amateur (insert obscure ilk of person here)(insert sex act here) Videos,” I have to save and exit out of the program before I can.
     There are quite a few of these programs available, most of them free- or donation-ware, while others range from $4.99 to $24.99. I have found two (one for Mac and one for PC, respectively) that are well-balanced and simple, yet powerful and free.

     I first discovered Q10 during my NaNoWriMo stint back in November 2010. I wrote the majority of my novel in Google Documents but learned halfway through there was a massive discrepancy between G-Docs' word count and the NaNoWriMo site. I found myself almost a full day behind. Someone recommend Q10 as having the same word count parameters as the NaNo website, so I downloaded  it and became attached fairly quickly.

     Q10 has a number of different aesthetic options (fonts, colors and all that: I prefer the green monotype default) and a few interesting quirks geared toward productivity. You can set a timer, so that during that time you must be writing, or you can set a word-count goal and your percentage toward completion will be displayed at the bottom of the screen.
     It has spell check, is thumb-drive portable (just under 400kB), and can make typewriter sounds as you type. The last option may sound aggravating, but I found myself enjoying it. You can hear the rhythms in your writing a little better and you start noticing personal patterns. It's interesting.
Q10 remains my favorite out of the half dozen I've tried, but sadly, it remains shackled to PC. No mas, no Mac.

     This was the first of these distraction-free applications; I remember Joe Rogan Tweeting about how awesome it was two years ago. WriteRoom is a lot like Q10, but it's for Mac. It was lucky to gain popularity and capitalized on it immediately. WriteRoom has most of the options that Q10 has, but costs $24.99, so I won't waste your time. Paying $25 for a text editor in the 21st century is like paying for music, books, movies, Word Pad or Text Edit. It has all the same abilities of those two editors but has a customizable background and full-screen blackout capability.

     Huzzah! A savvy programmer ported WriteRoom (which is a port of Windows' Darkroom) to a Java application. Since it's Java-based, JDarkRoom can be used on any platform and is completely free. It has everything WriteRoom has except the sexy WR icon in your dock menu. Thus far, I have yet to find a difference between the two. JDark works like a champ. The only advantage  Q10 holds over JDarkRoom are the typewriter sounds, but I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority when it comes to championing that.
    Considering I sunk myself into a little more debt for a brand new MacBook Pro, this is the current distraction free editor that I'm attached to.

    I'd avoid this one like the plague. First off, it costs money ($4.99). Secondly, there is some New Age BS working in the background that gives me the willies.
     OmmWriter is unique in the respect that it has a number of serene and abstract backgrounds that you can write against. You define a text box against a snowy meadow or a Nine Inch Nails album cover, or whatever, and start writing — but then you start to notice shit. Weird shit. There's ambient music, the backgrounds become 'dynamic,' and there are clicking noises when you type that are more aggravating than soothing.
     According to the developers, "OmmWriter Dna pays special attention to audio and visual effects that contribute to the overall writing experience. We have spent a considerable amount of research time and effort in the audio-visual experience to promote and enhance creativity."
    That's something I don't want to hear from my writing apps, that someone is trying to help shape my writing experience.
     If you've watched the demo video of OmmWriter, ask yourself: “How the fuck can I write a gritty detective novel using that?”
     The overall effect of OmmWriter feels like you're writing on a virtual postcard, and makes it difficult to take the writing process seriously. It definitely caters to that cutesy, “I’m artsy” crowd that sits in their breakfast nooks on snowy, Saturday mornings while banging out a few letters to Grandma.

     A few caveats about these distraction-free text editors: the formatting options are limited. Like italicizing? Nope. Like the on-the-fly spell checks that we all have come to lean on? Nope. Like centering certain passages? Sorry. You're lucky the TAB button works.
But if you can deal with formatting at a later time, some of these applications are great.
     — Dan Brian is a SF writer and reviewer from the Granite State. Follow his adventures in writing and architecture at Manchester Oblique.


  1. Dan, great candor. thanks for these thorough reviews. I can't wait to give Q10 a try.

  2. I've always been a FocusWriter man myself -- same concept, but I like the themes and the simplicity of it. And it's always been the most robust for me.

    I try to beat most of my productivity woes by making a separate "writer" account for the computer. It's locked down tight -- no games, no admin abilities, basically as little as I can get away with. It keeps me at least a little more focused.

  3. Just by commenting on this post I am exhibiting the fact that I am distracted from writing (what I should be doing right now) by the shininess of the internet. Excellent. I needed that reminder.

  4. I totally agree about Tweetdeck...oh, wait I have a message...

    Sorry...what was I saying? Oh yeah... Distractions on the internet can be so frustrating. But at the same time the internet is how we get people to read what we write. Oh there goes that Tweetdeck again...

  5. I'm a Q10 fan, and I am with Dan in liking the typewriter sounds. I prefer a good, noisy keyboard and Q10 is the closest my laptop will come. Q10 is my go to for drafts and outlines.

    Some of my students have had success with Writer or Die. Anyone else use it?

  6. I'm with Kelly on this one. I can't believe you distracted me by pointing out how distracting all this is! :)

    Also - "Freedom" is a good and (I think) free program that very simply just blocks access to the internet for a predetermined time period. Works.

  7. This would mean I have to learn something new again ... I'm so confused ... or too easily confused ... but it makes sense ... the other option is electrodes that shock when the cursor skims over the Internet icon ...

    Or waterboarding.

  8. Or working on a computer that is NOT connected to the Internet. I think they still make ones that do that. I may try Mr. Swensen's idea.