I recently found out about full-screen writing applications like OmniWriter and DarkRoom and I'm interested in using them, but I'm skeptical as to whether or not these are actually useful for improving productivity. Based on experiences, do these applications really help one towards writing? Why or why not?
If you're easy distracted by shiny things (or Twitter, your RSS feed, Facebook page, chat window, weather updates, email, or desktop photo) then having a program which blocks them all out may help keep you focused on your work. So it depends on your workflow and your weaknesses.
Full-screen writing environments help me focus but I bounce back and forth between two specific tools depending on the eventual destination of the writing.
The two I use most often are Scrivener and Blogo.
Scrivener is a full-featured writing environment for the Macintosh only. [Edit: Scriveer is apparently available as a beta for Windows, as well. Great!] It has a quite beautiful, powerful and customizable full-screen mode. I use Scrivener to organize notes and research and write longer articles and short stories.
For blogging, I really enjoy using Blogo. It also has a full-screen mode that's ideal for banging out something quick but unfortunately it's not very customizable. Still, it's a much better interface for tumblr than the native, Web-based one. (I've found tumblr to be a good place for writing experiments that are easily created and easily disposed of.)
My own theory is that when I'm writing, it's not really the distractions that count - it's the access to the features. If you write stuff in full-featured word processors, you can spend all day tweaking useless little details in formatting. In these programs, you have zero control over formatting, as it should be. When I type text, all I really care is support for UTF-8 and typography (pandoc, the tool that I use for Markdown conversions, does the smart quotes and en dashes for me, and the LanguageTool in LibreOffice does the rest of the fixups), support for text files with long lines, and a way to enter emphasis (just do this in Markdown).
And as far as user interface goes, all I really need is that the text is readable. WYSIWYG programs force you to look at the text in the "final" form, which is probably not the same as the final final form anyway. TextRoom and Bean, on the other hand, just let me edit the text with blue background and white text. No need to dig up WordPerfect 5.1 and run it in DOSBox. =)
I'm in big favour of the Unix toolbox approach: there's no single tool that does all aspects well, but if you have a bunch of individual tools that do one aspect well, you get things done one way or other.
I don't believe that full-screen writing on a computer, which is designed expressly to allow you to multitask, helps to eliminate distraction.
The problem with becoming distracted is not in seeing the edge of your Facebook window behind your writing app: it's having Facebook open at all, or letting it invade your mind.
I do, however, find it visually pleasing to write in a full-screen editor, and use them for that reason.
I've not found it helpful; I work in bursts, and need to let some steam go from time to time. Having nothing to quickly distract me from the problem at hand for a few seconds is distracting in a counterproductive (and slightly annoying way).
The usefulness depends on your style of work. If you find yourself stopping your work unnecessarily because chat windows pop up or so, you're better of closing the chat programs instead of working full screen; changing the work environment slows down your work until you get used to it.
Also, using those editors you mentioned would slow down some quick editing (at least I'm prone to using different fonts, bolds, italics, superscript (
like this), among other things, and those are usually absent in full screen text editors.
As I said, it depends on the way you work. The only way to find out if it works for you is trying it for at least a week.
I created one of my own because I have a windows computer and I like to program. I have a version on my work computer to help with notes and keeping a log of what I'm doing. The home copy is more personal.
Here are some of the features I added an why I like them:
- Typewriter 'Tap' and Carriage Return Sound - I started on a manual typewriter and this brings back a few memories and is nice feedback. Recently I purchased a keyboard that happens to be a little loud.
- There are no formating features, bullet points, numbering, spell check or even bold type. There are only 3 font sizes and the font type is fixed. Just get words/thoughts on the page/screen and forget about formating.
- Everything automatically saves. - Don't have to think about it. There's a timer and auto save on close.
- Archives to Evernote. Nice backup feature and a way to get at it from other computers/devices.
- There is only one file that gets date/time stamped when you open/use right-click menu. This is more like diary/journal. Again, less to think about, just write. The only organization is the chronology of the entries.
- It is full screen always, but can be made semi transparent. You can have a picture in the background if you prefer for inspiration or to breakup the monotony of a plain background.
I've thought about adding a timer. This could make you keep some sort of writing schedule or free up your brain by not having to worry about making some appointment. Kind of a time management strategy.
In general I find that discussions over the tools associated with writing are distractions from writing itself, in much the same way that I used to distract myself with endlessly tweaking my IDE/text editor when I was an undergrad CS major. We do this because tweaking and experimenting is easier than doing the thing itself. It's a form of procrastination, but it's a "productive" kind of procrastination--unlike gaming--we're better able to fool ourselves into thinking that we've accomplished something.
(This phenomenon's close cousin is incessant checking of social networks, IMing people, refreshing email, etc.)
All that being said...
My preferred tool is determined by the type of writing I'm doing. When I'm writing fiction (rare), I like a fullscreen environment, specifically DarkRoom, because it's just me and my characters. That being said, Notepad is my favorite writing application. I compose emails, replies to people (like this one, for instance), and I even wrote ~85% of my thesis in Notepad before moving it to Word.
Why Notepad? Well it's basically pure writing. There's nothing between you and your words: no UI bells and whistles. No distractions, no formatting beyond what you can do with whitespace and capital letters. (That's really all you need when you're doing an initial draft, anyway.) But you can look at other open windows, which is helpful when I'm composing a reply to someone, or need to reference another document or webpage.
One of these days I'm doing to re-write it to get rid of the bugs that've been in it since at least Windows 95. One of these days...
I find full screen writing environments to be very helpful, because it's just you and the page. This may be a function of my distractable nature, but any aid to focus is a good thing in my book.
It is also quite easy to simulate a full screen writing environment using any text editor with a minimal UI. I like gvim, but this should work with Notepad or even emacs.
- set your screen background to something minimal, like black.
- minimise everything.
- open your text editor as a narrow strip down the centre of the screen, or placed to cover all your desktop icons.
If you have a busy desktop with more icons than can be covered while keeping the narrow strip aesthetic, then:
- create a simple HTML page with a black background and no text.
- open that page in Firefox.
- browse in full screen mode.
- use that Firefox as the only other application which is open on your desktop behind your editor window.
I follow this approach when I am on a Windows machine away from my Scrivener session.
If you're an Office 2007, Office 2010 user, you can use Word with no Ribbon. I do this when I'm working on some creative writing.
It's a combination of things. I like using Word 2010 but want to see as much of the document as possible. Minimising the ribbon helps but if I'm in the thick of a writing burst I don't want to distract myself with anything on screen I don't need.
Press ALT then v then u
Press esc to make the ribbon return.
I use Q10 a lot and find that it really helps me focus. But I'm not certain that it is all down to the fact that it is full screen. It also has keystroke sounds and a carriage return like an old style typewriter which I'm sure help keep me writing.
It's a love it or hate it thing though.
I always a have a browser open and use Alt+Tab to flick between the two windows when I need to check external sources.