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.


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.