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New Writing Software Expedites Procrastination

This started out as a post about word processors, but it’s really about writing and the fine art of avoiding it; hence it is not filed under Computers.

Let’s go back to the early days of computer-assisted composition to the first word processors. Here’s a screenshot of Christopher Smart composing “My Cat Jeoffry” c. 1760:

My Cat Jeoffry in vi

Note that Smart is using vi. It was the only tool available on the 18th-century steam-powered hardware he was using.1

Those were simpler times. The text was green, the screen was black, and there was little or nothing superfluous on screen to distract the writer from the task of writing—just you and your words. Today, things are different. Here is a screenshot of Smart’s poem in a 21st-century version of Microsoft Word:

My Cat Jeoffry in Microsoft Word

You can hardly see the poem for all the toolbars. Would Smart have been more productive and creative in this environment? Would anybody be?

Of course I’m exaggerating. You don’t need any toolbars visible to write in Word, but the program is chock full of features that don’t support creative composition. While you can disable all of these features, to me Word always feels “heavy.” If not Word (or another conventional word processor), then what? If I could peer over the shoulder of some hipster in film-school glasses pecking away frantically at Panera Bread, what program would I see?

It could be one of several. Lately I’ve been seeing concrete signs of a backlash against bloated word processors and evidence of a desire to get back to basics by creating a streamlined tool just for writing. Khoi Vinh conceived of a program he calls Blockwriter that would emulate a typewriter. He makes a good case for software that doesn’t let you edit or even backspace in order to prevent what he calls “authorial dawdling... that propensity to continually re-edit a sentence or a paragraph.” Gee, I’ve never done that. Blockwriter would also mute sounds, hide other apps, and disable network access to lock out distractions. Sounds good; too bad you can’t buy it.

Jesse Grosjean of Hog Bay Software actually implemented many of these ideas in the new program WriteRoom, which looks a lot like that vi screenshot above. It’s free and it’s cool, so check it out. Another editor, Ulysses, also offers a minimalist full-screen mode as well as a host of features to aid the writing process, as opposed to the typesetting process. Often-overlooked plain-text editors by their nature offer a no-nonsense environment for composition. You probably already have one of those.

Cutting out distractions is more challenging. One way is to simply pull the plug. The science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle installed a computer with no network connection in a room he calls the Monk’s Cell. You needn’t go that far, just yank out the Ethernet cable for a while.

Software solutions and strategies can help you concentrate on writing, but I don’t have a remedy for just plain old lack of inspiration and procrastination. In fact, evaluating software and strategies to improve one’s writing efficiency or whatever are for me just another distraction itself. I’m not really improving my productivity; I’m just treading water while waiting for those rare moments of inspiration. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I actually enjoy it. There are times when I would rather just sharpen my chisels instead of actually building something in the workshop, and it’s good to know that at least I’m not alone.


1 This is actually GLTerminal running vi. GLTerminal slavishly emulates an old CRT terminal, flaws and all, including screen curvature, scan lines, and flicker. I imagine one of those standalone Wang word processors from the 1970s looked like this although I’ve never seen one.


First - congrats on the Philly Future win.

Second - I HATE HATE HATE MS Word so bad - in my job we "need" some of those "useful" features, but they'll just flake out mid-use alot of the time and are NOT easily corrected.

I wish I could get away without using it, but we share documents and that would mess up my coworkers.

I remember the bad ol' days when I was temping, I used WordPerfect with the blue screen and white letters in Courier type. Those templates for the function keys you had to put over the keyboard in order to remember which function does what. Needless to say, whenever I was doing any "real" writing at the time, it was not on a word processor.

(I second the congrats on the Philly Future featured blog! I enjoy reading your writing, and hope others may do the same.)

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