The December 20 issue of the New Yorker ran an article called “Focus Mode” that chronicles the author’s search for the “perfect tool” for the distracted writer – by which he means a focused, distraction-free environment dedicated to the writing craft. In his words, such a tool would “temper tech solutionism with analog nostalgia.” I was surprised to learn that his quest was in fact a rebellion against my writing tool, good old Microsoft Word. It seems that Word’s many features are so irresistible and disorienting that he fiddles with them more than he writes. This disability afflicts a good number of writers, as evidenced by the astonishing array of solutions to choose from.
Some Tools for the Distracted Writer
One writing app is called Write Or Die. One setting will delete your text if you take your hands off the keyboard. Seriously. iA Writer features very few features – but there is “focus mode,” which squeezes the sentence at hand into a vertical column and grays out everything else. OmmWriter – you guessed it – goes Zen on you. Spacy background music and images opens you to mindful writing. FreeWrite Smart is a clunky typewriter-like device that lets you see only ten lines of text at a time on an index-card size screen. The reMarkable tablet offers a digital experience very much like writing on paper, and claims to decipher handwriting in thirty-three languages (as long as your handwriting is really, really neat).
The AlphaSmart, designed years ago as a cheap device for typing classes, shows four lines of type on a cruddy little green screen. What you type into it is unformatted, so you have to send the file to your computer and, um, a word processing program like Word. Some writers praise its portability, but it’s no lighter or smaller than many laptops. It’s way cheaper, but you get what you pay for. It won’t let you on the internet, but that smartphone next to you will.
The author clearly gets that these are gimmicky, and that perfection is an illusion. He ends his article as he fires up his new AlphaSmart Neo2. I hope this will get him closer to his goal, but I suggest that the problem was never Microsoft Word. Word is indeed loaded with features, but I use the ones that help me and leave the rest to those who need them. I can strip the Word screen down to a white page and a cursor, and I can resize the window to display as much or as little text as I want. Then it’s just me, the screen, and the keyboard.
If one of these alternatives to Word ends up floating his boat, great, but this dude is a staff writer for the New Yorker! Whatever he writes with, his writing skills are a priori better than most. My advice, humbly offered: if you haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize yet, quit blaming your tools. What writer isn’t a distracted writer sometimes? Trust yourself. Take yourself and your writing tool to a quiet place with some coffee. Play background music if you like, but with no lyrics. When you find yourself distracted, which is inevitable, forgive yourself and get back to work. That’s Focus Mode.