Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Green Screen" Distraction-free Text Editors

by Deren Hansen

I started playing with computers when green screen, character-mode displays were state-of-the art (I preferred amber over green, but that's another story). Then the original Macintosh (yes, that's what they were before they became hip enough to afford a three-letter name), splashed onto the scene with a full-time graphical user interface (GUI).

A few years later, folks from the English department at the University of Delaware published a study in which they argued that the quality of freshman papers written on a Macintosh was lower than those written on PC-class computers with character-mode displays. Oh, the papers produced on Macs looked better with well-laid-out text and proportional fonts, but (so the authors of the study claimed) the content of those papers was less well-thought-out than the papers composed without graphical blandishments.* They suggested that this was because the students tended to believe that their papers were good (and more importantly finished) because they looked good.

The study and its claims were controversial. But I think there was a kernel of truth in the observation that there's value in a writing system that gets out from between you and your words: that removes even the little distractions like formatting.

Of course, now that we all use graphical interfaces the point may seem moot or at best hopelessly retro. Perhaps, but there are several applications for various platforms that give you a full screen with nothing there but your words in a console font.

I use a package called WriteMonkey on my Windows systems.

Having an editor in which I can focus entirely on my words helps me use my limited writing time well.

You can, of course, achieve a similar effect with the Full Screen mode in your standard word processor. Perhaps it's the retro angle, but I enjoy the Matrix-like way in which the black background fades away and the glowing words float in prose-space.

Of course, life is never as simple as it should be and WriteMonkey has its drawbacks, most of which come back to the fact that it is a text editor, not a word processor. This means that you get plain double quotes instead of the nice opening and closing quotes that Word supplies as you type. Also, Write Monkey doesn't convert a pair of dashes into an em-dash (again, like Word).

I turned this liability into a feature: after writing about a chapter with WriteMonkey, I import the text into Word and use the fact that I need to correct the quotes and em-dashes as an excuse to edit the new material.

For those of you who prefer Macs, I understand that Writeroom provides similar functionality. There's also JDarkRoom, which is written in Java and should run on your platform of choice.

Deren blogs at The Laws of Making.


Scott said...

Back in the days before computers could multitask, this wasn't a problem. Multitasking computers are like poison oak to those of us who are focus-challenged. There's always an itch to scratch. Whether I'm writing on a PC or reading on my iPad, there's the constant temptation to switch over--just for a second--to check email or Facebook or a blog or some other thing that pops into my head mid-sentence.

Scott said...

If distraction is a problem, there's more advice here: