The Ultimate Writing Machine: Quiet and Free of Interruptions
- 2007.09.20 - Tip Jar
There has been a lot of discussion on Low End Mac and a few other Mac sites about minimalist word processors and writing applications. Just this week Low End Mac posted an article about how an old Mac IIsi is a great writing machine, while elsewhere there were some reviews on modern OS X and Windows writing programs that either offer a feature-diluted approach to writing or a DOS-like black screen and no other distractions. Others have written about how they prefer Text Edit for most word processing and its predecessors, TeachText and SimpleText, or for the powerful text editor as word processor option, TextWrangler or the expensive (and powerful) BBEdit.
...using the same application as those I'm sharing with is not optional, it is essential....
I do a lot of writing, most of it professional, and I am forced to use MS Word versions 97 through 2004 or WordPerfect 8+, depending on which court I am dealing with. I've found that using the same application as those I'm sharing with is not optional, it is essential, and a primary reason why Linux is not an option for me and why I have to spend so much money on Word and WordPerfect licenses instead of open source or alternative applications.
Of course, legal work is specialized, with specialized document formatting that breaks in almost any conversion or import/export converter - and even in different versions of the same application. For instance, until recently I had to maintain WordPerfect for Windows version 6 in order to natively read and write WordPerfect for DOS files, which my local United States Attorney's office stubbornly clung to.
Distraction Free Writing
For personal writing, however, there are far more choices, and the priorities are different. For stories, articles, letters, and whatever else does not need absolute file format compatibility with institutions and agencies, you can use just about any application capable of generating text and saving it as a file. For complex formatting you can even write in a text editor and then paste your text into your heavy-duty word processor, where you add your footnotes, create a tables of contents, and do other formatting wizardry to create your final product.
Is there any merit in a distraction-free application for creative writing? Are there advantages in using a simple text editor or other program without toolbars and the like to write the great American novel?
I'm not sure that you have to spend money on such an application and find the thought of doing so something of a waste, but not because I don't agree that modern computers and applications can be distracting, but rather because you already have wonderful applications that serve the same purpose as these new distraction-free writing tools, offer just as little distraction, and save their output in the most compatible format of all.
Yes, I'm talking about the simple text editor that came with your computer. I love TextWrangler, but on an OS X Mac I still open Text Edit when it comes time to write a short story (something I do frequently). On a classic Mac I use TeachText or SimpleText, depending on the OS version, and on Windows there is good old Notepad.
These simple and elegant applications are just the first step to distraction free computing, and they may not be enough. Of course, a modern clean-screen application won't be enough, either, because there is the ever-present temptation to minimize the application and succomb to the distractions.
What distractions am I referring to? Well, there is email, instant messaging, music, alarms, calendar reminders, software update notices, and a host of other stuff that depends on what applications are installed on your computer. Instant messaging applications are probably the worst offenders here, with many offering options to start up automatically with your computer and to log on automatically whenever you are connected to the internet. It doesn't matter if you use iChat AV, some version of Microsoft Live, Yahoo, or ICQ: If you hear a chime or see a bouncing or flashing icon, you will want to read the message.
My solution is to make sure that all instant message programs are configured not to startup automatically, and to shut them down when I don't specifically want to use them.
The same goes for email and calendar, though both iCal and Microsoft (Entourage and Outlook do the same) will bug you even if the application isn't running. I then go one better and turn off my wireless network, which is enough to stop most applications and the OS from checking with the mothership for updates.
With all other applications close, the network disconnected, and my very simple text editor running, there are very few distractions, but again, it's hard to get things just right.
Eliminate Screen Clutter
Generally, I prefer to make my document window not more than about 9" wide, which keeps text lines readable and gives me a visual idea of how long my paragraphs actually are. With the window full-screen, especially on a widescreen monitor, you end up with single lines of text that represent three or more lines when printed to paper or displayed in a conventional document. It's also hard to read super-long text lines. Make sure that the word-wrap feature is enabled if your program requires it (Windows users, that means you), and finally put your tall and skinny window in the middle of your wider display.
If you have a busy desktop with lots of icons on it, you might try opening a second text window, stretching it to full screen, and then putting your actual masterpiece in progress in front of it. This creates a plain white background for you, hiding all of the distractions of your normal computing environment. [Editor's note: Mac OS X users might want to consider Screenshot Helper, a free app that can use whatever color background you find least distracting - or the desktop picture of your choice. dk]
A Dedicated Writing Machine
Another appealing option when you really want to write some serious words with absolutely no chance of interruption is to dedicate a second computer strickly to that purpose. OS matters little, but there are certain hardware features you should try to find, some of which haven't existed in years.
First, you want this computer to be as quiet as possible. If it has built-in speakers, make sure to turn the volume all the way down. Many older computer also have very noisy hard drives. In the last few years of my old PowerBook 145B the drive got so noisy that I stopped using the computer. When I came upon a quieter SCSI drive and installed it, the computer once again became my primary writing machine.
With modern computers, be aware of the number and sound of the fans - and if they are even required. On a desktop, running a slower processor may allow you to disable noisy case fans. On a laptop, you can configure reduced power modes designed for saving battery life. Even when plugged in, such settings often keep fans from turning on and give you quieter computing.
Older computers make great secondary machines for writing, and sometimes they are the absolute best choice. Take LCD displays and their usability in bright sunlight. Modern LCDs are all but unreadable in sunlight unless you get a special outdoor model or crank the backlight way up (if that's even possible). Older monochrome screens, however, are often very clear in direct sun, even with the backlight turned off completely.
The old PowerBook 145B I mentioned above had what was widely regarded as a horrible screen for its day, but in direct sunlight it was a real gem. With the backlight off, the processor slowed, and running from a persistent RAM disk (I used a utlity called Maxima), I was able to stretch a very impressive 4.5 hours from a single charge of its old-tech NiCad battery, along with beautiful text rendering in bright light and absolute silence. I've yet to use a better machine for pure writing.
An added bonus with older machines for writing is that they often lack the ability to run modern distraction-ware. Good luck getting a working instant message client running on System 6 or Windows 3.1. Such programs existed at one time, but even if you could find an old version, would it work on today's networks? And can you get such a computer onto the Internet with a fast enough connection?
My Newly Acquired Ultimate Writing Machine
I've longed for such a machine in recent months, and reading articles such as the recent one about the IIsi has sent me to eBay looking for a new toy. As I went through the older Mac PowerBook models (I am not a fan of desktop computers) looking at the merits of older machines and their used values, I ended up buying something right out of memory lane. Yup, a PowerBook 145B described as in "mint" condition. We shall see, but another auction got me a set of System 7.1 install disks, while a third netted a copy of Word 4.0 (which runs completely in RAM). Now to find a disk or image for Maxima and a new battery, then I'll be back in silent, outdoor writing heaven.
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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