Are Minimalist Writing Apps Necessary?

We live in a busy world nowadays. What with our e-mail, text messaging, and even phone calls interrupting our flow, it can be difficult to sit down and write something of substance. And when it comes to multitasking on the computer, well there are almost always ten windows open at any one time, and if that Apple Mail icon starts bouncing, we know it’s time to go get our dopamine fix…

Because of these distractions, there have been a crop of writing programs that have popped up for the Mac and iPad recently that strip away all of the apps running in the background, letting you focus on the task at hand: writing.

But is any of this stuff necessary? Is there any reason why you can’t just sit back with your laptop and a good word processing program and get the next great novel written?

Let’s talk this out after the break…

The Problem

The problem – as perceived by many – is distractions. Theory goes, the more things that take you away from the task at hand, the less excellent writing you’ll be able to produce. This is an understandable dilemma.

You’re trying to focus on the next great book about talking pigs while your iChat icon is bouncing like a three-year-old boy who just ate a bag of sugar.

To solve the problem, these apps wipe out everything else on the screen, leaving you with just a blank canvas on which to write.

One viewing option for Writeroom

One viewing option for Writeroom

There are quite a few of these programs out there, all of them with their own little accoutrements. Writeroom, like many of these apps, goes fullscreen with its word processor. Everything is covered by a wash of black, with just a white piece of paper left for you to write. Of course, it’s fully customizable, so if you prefer the 1980′s PC look, you can go black on black with green text.

OmmWriter Dana steps it up a notch by giving you a pretty background to view and soothing background music to boot. Those are two of the more popular options, but there’s also FocusWriter, JDarkRoom and others, too. It seems like there’s a new one of these out every day.

Making Excuses

Choosing one of these minimalist writing programs really isn’t a bad thing. Pages isn’t for everybody, and there are so many buttons on the top of Microsoft Office that you could spend 20 minutes choosing the right font size before you get anything accomplished.

So it’s not that these apps are bad, because they’re not. It’s just that there really is no reason for them to exist.

OmmWriter takes away distractions.

OmmWriter takes away distractions.

You could have everything off your desktop, with a full-screen writing app whirring away, and your hands blasting down the keyboard but there will always be some kind of distraction. We all have cell phones, right? Better turn that off before you get distracted. What if someone knocks on your front door? The kitchen timer goes off? The mail comes? Cousin Bob knocks on your window? A squirrel runs through your backyard?

Unless you’re sitting in a silent plexiglass room a la Magneto in X-Men 2 (which means you’re not only a mutant, but also a very bad person), there’s no real way to pull away all of your distractions. It just doesn’t happen.

Core Functions

When it comes right down to it, there’s one way to get your writing done: You write.

Yes, it sounds like I’m oversimplifying things here, but it really isn’t very complicated. If you want to bring it home, let me use a real world example, one that’s happening to me right now.

As I type this, it’s a Sunday afternoon. I’m in my office, which is in the corner of our single-story house, far away from any distractions. My wife is in the other room, working on dinner, with a few pots and pans bustling about.

Our one-year-old son seems to be calling the Kraken, and is trying to figure out which ear-splitting note will work the best. One of my dogs is sniffing my feet to see if I dropped a crumb when I had that english muffin this morning.

Through my office window I see a neighborhood cat (we call him Lucky because naturally, he has three legs) straggling through our backyard, and the smacking sound of the dog door indicates that our mostly-blind Dachshund is going to try to catch him. From the sounds of the barks, it’s more likely that Lucky will live to limp another day.

But here I am, writing. Distractions everywhere, no seemingly reasonable way that I could focus on anything, yet putting out this article for you to read. And I’m not doing it on a fancy writing program either; Chrome is running the Mac.AppStorm interface, Numbers is behind it with my mammoth Article Tracker 2000 spreadsheet running, and Photoshop just a layer below that.

If the e-mail goes off, I check it. If I get an IM, I answer it. Life is going to hand you distractions, it’s just a matter of how you deal with them.

Conclusions

If you don’t like Pages and Microsoft Word, then I get it. Not everyone wants a traditional word processing program, and that’s one reason why OmmWriter and WriteRoom do so well. But don’t just buy one of them because you think it’s going to improve your writing productivity.

As a professional writer for the better part of 10 years, I can say with full authority that there’s always going to be something to distract you from doing the job you need to get done. But if you really want to call yourself a writer, the best thing to do is to push on through it.

As Dori the fish says in the Pixar movie Finding Nemo, sometimes you’ve just got to keep on swimming.


  • Joshua Tan

    Actually, Word 2011 does have a “Writeroom” mode (the bar disappears if you don’t move your mouse to the top):

    http://cl.ly/402Q0A0K2J0y262Q3H1V

    • Joshua Tan

      (Although I realise your point was that full-screen writing apps aren’t necessary, but I just thought it’d be something to point out)

    • Kyle Decker

      Pages actually has a very similar function, if you just go to View > Full Screen.

      http://cl.ly/4mk4

  • http://vardy.me Mike Vardy

    Couldn’t agree more. I love the piece that Merlin Mann did where he parodied ia Writer. Brilliant.

    Writers write, distractions or no.

  • Tim

    All good writing starts with a pencil and paper, just like good art and design.

    • http://everythingishistory.com/about/ Tamahome Jenkins

      +1

  • BG

    Pages also has a full screen mode – don’t use it much myself but its there

  • Dave Mason

    Many writers, including myself, have had the opposite experience of this author. Microsoft Word is as much about formatting as it is about content, and does a million things most writers will never need. These programs were a reaction to this bloatware. Give writers a clean environment to get straight to their work, and not worry about playing around with fonts and such.

    Does using a Mac feel more elegant than a PC? For some of us it does. Does quickly starting up Writeroom feel a million times more elegant than MS Word? For many of us, it’s the same answer. Why pick up a 300lb hammer when a 5lb is all the job requires.

    Yes, there are always distractions in life, but there’s plenty of easy things to do without being Magento. Many writers turn off their cell phones, disconnect email and chat, etc. to give themselves creative writing time. If that’s your style, these programs would work well for you too. I understand the author feels they are not for him, but he is too quickly dismissive about their overall value for others.

  • http://www.appforthat.de Julia Altermann

    In parts I agree and in parts I don’t.

    Of course, if there is no self discipline, no program will make you a productive writer. Everyone needs to know their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to distractions and a good writing environment.

    I for one couldn’t write in the situation you described yourself in. I get distracted way too fast even by the smallest things. Of course, I could force myself not to check other apps or look out the window, but then I’d be focussing on not doing that instead of writing.

    With those minimal writing apps – I love them and use the on a daily basis; especially PlainText, the iPad version of WriteRoom, is my daily companion on the tram where I write a lot of articles while I ride to work.

    I think what those minimal programs also do for us is remove a mental block – we’ve learned that Word and Pages and their likes are fully powered word processors with tons of options that are all useful in their own way. So, launching them feels like the need to do some heavy weight lifting, like having some obligation to actually put to use all those options.

    When I fire up PlainText, I know there are no options. I can’t make text bold or underline it or make it italic … it’s JUST text. I don’t need to worry about any options, I can’t activate anything by mistake and then spent 20 minutes trying to figure out just exactly what I did. I KNOW all I need and all I CAN do is write.

    For me, that’s the perfect writing app. Distraction free. As I said before – some measure of self discipline is necessary in any case, but I think it’s no shame to accept some additional help in the form of the absence of options.

    Cheers.

  • Aquaman_Tom

    Personally I get distracted by Word and Pages because there are so many buttons for me to find out what each of them do. I mean all I want to do is type and format later but I can’t. So Ommwriter saved me that much. For $5 you can’t go wrong if all you want to do it type first format later. There is the issue of things like a cat walking in or some other distraction but Minimal writers help a ton.

  • Mark Ware

    How many times does it need to be said: Ommwriter doesn’t eliminate distractions, it adds them – “pretty” background and “soothing” background music are distractions from writing, just different ones.

    • Jack

      I couldn’t agree more. OmmWriter also adds other obstacles:

      Sometimes I want to emphasize text with bold or italic type. OmmWriter won’t do that. Sometimes I like to print out a draft to read at my kitchen counter, on the train, or somewhere other than at my Mac. Ommwriter doesn’t do that, either. I could go on, but you get the point.

      There is a difference between streamlined and spartan, but some of these minimalist apps don’t seem to recognize that. Besides, how much of an attention deficit must you have to get “distracted” by TextEdit, which comes included with your Mac?

  • Liam Rooney

    I personally love Omniwriter purely for aesthetics (Im a Mac user after all, i like pretty pixels xD) as well as those clicking sounds when I type, theres just something satisfying about hearing a click when you type a letter. Focuswriter also has this, it has a typewriter sound which again i love, but focuswriter also makes the sound of the typewriter when you come to the end of the page and have to pull the “thing” (i dont know whats its called) back to start typing on the next line, so when you press enter you get that sound – awesome.

    But yeah, I sort of agree with you about the distraction thing, I dont think that these apps distract you more by making a sound or music or whatever, but I dont really think they eliminate distraction any more than Word of Pages, I think the main reason people claim it helps them write more, is because when they first get the app, they have that “new” feeling and it makes them WANT to write, but once this wears off, I feel they would just be back to how they were with Word or whatever.

  • http://www.NickBlogsBigTime.com Nicky B

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. I’ve been a dedicated OmmWriter user for over a year now. Does it ‘eliminate’ distractions? No, not really. But does that funny sound it makes when you type make you want to find something to say? You’re damn right it does.

    It makes you want to write a novel. Or an epic poem. It just makes you want to GO. And I appreciate that.

    Ommwriter inspires creativity. And Dana is free…

    That said, it doesn’t have spell or grammar check which makes it difficult to produce much more than rough rough drafts.

    Cheers,
    Nicky B

    • Benjamin Steephenson

      +1

    • Bryan

      The version in the App Store has spell check. Just hit command+; and it will highlight the next misspelled word. You need to turn on grammar checking but it will do that as well.

  • http://stillinsists.blogspot.com Constant Writer

    I’ve never heard of programs like these! Sometimes I feel like I live in a cave, but I guess we can’t all keep up with everything out there.
    Totally agree that it seems silly that people think they need these. If you’re that distracted by email, IMs and whatever else is running on your computer, maybe you should get a typewriter or write longhand. Whatever you use to write, it’s a matter of discipline–if you’re committed to your writing, you should be able to live without the email/IMs, etc for a couple hours.
    PS: I am one of those people that sits and spends 20 minutes choosing a font in MS word, which is why I’m trying to get back into writing longhand again… My handwriting is a better font than anything Word can come up with.

  • robwiz

    The excellent (and free) Bean has a full screen minimalist option. Just choose alternative colour scheme in preferences and then view view screen. Et voila!

  • Dak Splunder

    What a self-riteous piece of trash. “I don’t use this product so anyone who does is wrong, deluded, and inferior to me as a writer.” “I’m strong and anyone who chooses to use technology to make their writing environment nicer is weak.”

    Mr Whipps, why do you have a home office? Why don’t you just sit at the kitchen counter on a stool and write? Or would that be too distracting? Perhaps you choose to set aside an entire room in your house as a place to work to keep yourself more organized and to separate your writing from the rest of your life. Nah, that couldn’t be…a real writer would just sit on the kitchen floor and ignore or deal with any distractions.

    And your proof that your system works is that you managed to write this egotistical fluff piece of an article even while being distracted? Allow me to start the round of applause you so clearly deserve.

  • http://twitter.com/teddyzetterlund Teddy Zetterlund

    Personally I love OmmWriter. OmmWriter really has helped me get on with my writing. I don’t always use it, but when I feel like I want to write something and I’m not sure about what, I launch OmmWriter and just let the music take me away.

    And I love the typewriter sounds it makes when I write. Makes me wanna get myself a real typewriter.

  • Taylor T.

    Another +1 for OmmWriter. I don’t agree with this post… at least for myself. I’m a designer and love the simplicity and minimalism that a program like this brings to the table. It turns writing into a creative process, not a dull and monotonous routine. What do you guys think?

  • http://www.btko.ca BTKO

    I like to write in Writeroom and then bring it over to Pages for formatting. When I’m not using writeroom for what ever reason I find it takes me a lot longer to get the same amount of writing done.

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  • http://www.7design.it/blog Mr_White

    The point is: how much is distraction? Where we draw the line between useful tools and unnecessary gimmickry? As one can guess, it depends. It depends on the amount of personal attention; it depends on how much important is the background (a client email is surely more critical than a Nigeria scam spam); it depends on how much of “shape” (bold, italic… but also images, etc) is part of the “substance”.
    In the end, if somebody use this kind of softwares after a few months… they work (for them).

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  • http://www.appleiphonereview.com iPhoneChris

    I applaud your level of focus, but I personally have a hard time lots of times focusing on writing for my blogs when there are so many other distractions, not to mention other productive tasks a website owner can do (that are not writing). I find even full-screening the window and working on just the WordPress page is easier for staying focused than having all the tabs open and visible.

    I’m going to check out some of the apps you mentioned, thanks!

  • Dan

    The bottom line is that it all comes down to personal preference. There is no debating that you either write or you don’t. If you are spending too much time strategizing your writing method and not enough time writing, you are in trouble. Everyone knows this. Now, with this out of the way, it is up to each mature person to simply do a little research, do a little trial and error, and pick a tool or two that will help you work efficiently.

    One fallacy often perpetuated in some posts is that Word or Pages are somehow the standard. The truth is, neither of these programs were actually designed to be ideal tools for simply writing a story, a blog post, an essay or a non-fiction book (among other things). They were designed to do everything decently as opposed to doing any one thing extremely well. Or to think of it another way, for the typical writer, the leap from a typewriter to Word is a ridiculous over-reach, but that is essentially the choice writers were given. Add to that the fact that Word, etc. were such monumental technological leaps and it was very difficult for anyone to deny the space-age lure. But the fact remains that they are far more than almost any writer could ever need, and so, there is a legitimate place for word processors designed for lesser tasks. Personally, I also think there is room for new ways of thinking about how we write. The semantic approach offered by Ulysses and others is a good example of this (meaning > formatting vs. formatting > meaning).

    All that said, I know that I struggle at times to just write. I often spend too much time window shopping and trying new apps when I should just put pen to paper, but that’s on me. Any article that wants to deal with this issue should be very short: “Be sure you are not looking for new tools and strategizing new methods thinking they will magically make you a better writer, when your first goal should be to simply write. Window shop in your off hours.”

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