FocusWriter… whether or not you need “distraction-free”

Those who know me well know that I’m a bit of a paradox when it comes to writing. On the one hand, I do have issues with distraction and I do approve of the concept of separating composition and typesetting, but, on the other, I can’t use an ordinary distraction-free writing tool for two reasons:

  1. The sheer novelty of it sends me spiralling off into the “technology geek” side of my mind, which is generally quite disjoint from the creative side.
  2. They’re simply too spartan

There’s not much I can do about the former, but I may not need to. When I’m writing something like a blog post or an essay, it’s the “sitting down to write” part that’s the biggest problem. (My troubles with writing fiction seem more oriented around mentally modelling the characters and world… and I’m in the process of  using a mockup to refine a potential solution for that.)

However, the latter point definitely is something worth mentioning in more detail. Distraction-free or not, word processors optimized for composition rather than typesetting are a greatly under-explored market. LyX works beautifully for academic papers, textbooks, and the like, but tools intended for fiction seem to either be too minimal (notepad.exe with chrome trim) or too heavy (MS Word with more task-specific features).

Perhaps the most visually-distinctive examples of the former category are “distraction-free” word processors, like WriteRoom, which take over your whole monitor and present no GUI elements.

Originally, I just assumed that I disliked them because thought these simply weren’t for me but, after reading someone else’s blog post, it dawned on me that, no, WriteRoom just sucks and some people are better at living with it than others.

That blog post introduces FocusWriter, a cross-platform, open-source writing tool that’s primarily intended to be distraction-free, but can still be run in a window if you want (Alt+Enter to switch) and has so many author-oriented features that, even if you don’t need distraction-free, you’ll probably still want it. (Payment is optional. Just choose “$0.00” from the Tip drop-down.)

Like most distraction-free writing tools, FocusWriter is highly themable [1] [2] [3] [4] and can be fine-tuned with “experience features” like playing typewriter sounds when you press keys.

However, where WriteRoom and its clones are the digital version of fancy stationery in a typewriter, FocusWriter asks and answers the question “What does the writer need to be more productive?”

Here’s the mix of answers it came up with:

  1. Minimize distraction without killing discoverability by using auto-hiding menus, toolbars, panels, and a statusbar.
  2. Not everyone needs a fullscreen writing tool. Allow the user to toggle windowed mode via F11 or the menu system.
  3. Keep the author “in the zone” by offering basic standard word processor functionality like rich text support. (Not everyone natively thinks in Markdown-like languages)
  4. Trust skilled authors to know to separate writing and proofreading. Don’t force them to open a whole other program just to run operations like spell check or search/replace.
  5. Provide a tab bar. “Distraction-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “single document”.
  6. Support saving and loading sessions. People who can only spare a few minutes at a time are authors too, as are people who juggle multiple projects.
  7. Acknowledge that some people may need extra help focusing. Offer tricks like greying out all but the line, three lines, or paragraph that the user is actively working on.
  8. Recognize that authors don’t always write in a linear fashion. Provide a jump-to-scene panel on the left and a scrollbar on the right.
  9. Help people meet their goals. Offer to track a daily goal, measured in minutes or words, and support tracking how many consecutive days the user has met their goals.
  10. Make it easy to check your word count, paragraph count, page count, character count, time, and progress toward your goal. Put them in a configurable statistics panel hiding at the bottom of the screen.
  11. Provide a timer system so users can let the outside world fade away without missing that upcoming appointment.
  12. Support auto-saving everything… right down to cursor position.
  13. Allow the user to export in plain text, RTF, DOCX, or ODT formats for easy compatibility with whatever their pre-readers may be using.
  14. Themes are a great way for authors to really get into the right mindset. They should be easy enough to create that anyone can do it. (Ink on Parchment? Typewriter on coarse paper? Phosphor on a VT100? A snowy field or futuristic slum? Google up a background image and a font, open up the “new theme” dialog, and go wild.)

There’s even a Portable Apps release of the Windows version for when you can’t get into the zone on your phone, but didn’t bring along anything else bigger than a thumbdrive.

In summary, don’t prejudge FocusWriter for its status as a “distraction-free word processor”. It’s a very elegantly designed, highly customizable word processor for creative projects that just happens to have distraction-free writing support as its most visible feature.

CC BY-SA 4.0 FocusWriter… whether or not you need “distraction-free” by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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