A free distraction

The recent dustup over Information Architects and their new Writer Pro application reminded me that I’ve been wanting for some time to write a post about “distraction-free writing tools.” As you might guess from the quotation marks, I don’t think much of them. I’m sure that certain kinds of writers and certain kinds of writing can benefit from a spare, almost featureless writing environment, but I can’t because of who I am and the kind of writing I typically do.

Let’s start with who I am. Several years ago, in a post on vi, I wrote this:

As I see it, there are three types of writer:

First, there’s the kind that write final copy directly. Words, sentences, and paragraphs flow out in a smooth stream with no need for editing. While I don’t think any professional writing gets done this way, I know many people who can do correspondence like this. I’ve often gotten mail from clients with the notation at the bottom that the letter was “dictated but not reviewed.” Since these people don’t edit, the text editor they use is immaterial.

Second, there’s the kind that write in drafts. When I was a kid in the pre-PC era, school essays were always written as a longhand draft first, then edited and typed up as a final copy. Even today, when everyone writes on a computer, many writing guides suggest that you “get everything out” in a first draft and then clean things up with a good editing session. Vi’s modal editing can be great for this kind of writer. All of the first draft is done in insert mode and all the later editing in command mode.

Finally, there’s the kind that constantly fiddles with the text. This is me, and this is why my experiments with vi failed. I tend to rewrite sentences as I’m typing, stopping in the middle to go back and reset the tense or flip clauses around. It’s rare that I can type an entire paragraph without stopping to edit it. The need to keep shifting in vi from command to insert mode makes it a very clumsy editor for this type of writer.

I’ve tried to change my writing habits. I’ve tried to turn my brain’s internal editor off and just let the words come out, trusting myself to fix them later on. It would make writing much easier, regardless of the text editor I use. But I can’t do it.

One of the few advantages of reaching middle age is coming to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and knowing what you can change and what you can’t. This is something I can’t.

I recently started reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. I haven’t gotten into the meat of it yet, but I was pleased to see in its introduction an acknowledgement that different writers work in different ways. Not all of us can “just let the words flow out,” comfortable that our clumsy phrasing will be fixed during editing.1

What does this have to do with the recent crop of distraction-free editors? None of them require the mode shifting that vi does. Well, one of the common suggestions for maintaining the flow of words when writing a first draft is to put markers in the text for information that isn’t in the writer’s head and will need to be looked up later.2 But if you’re not that kind of writer, if you can’t bear to leave a paragraph unfinished, you want to have your reference material handy so you can fill in that information as you go. Sometimes that means having books and papers scattered across your desk, but more often it means having other windows open on your monitor. Distraction-free editors cover up all that essential information.

Which brings us to the type of writing being done. I don’t write fiction, but I can imagine that a lot of fiction writing can be done without any reference materials whatsoever. Similarly, a lot of editorials and opinion pieces are remarkably fact-free; these also can spring directly from the writer’s head. But the type of writing I typically do—mostly for work, but also here—is loaded with facts. I am constantly referring to photographs, drawings, experimental test results, calculations, reports written by others, textbooks, journal articles, and so on. These are not distractions; they are essential to the writing process.

And it’s not just reference material. Quite often I need to make my own graphs and drawings to include in a report. Because the text and the graphics are all part of a coherent whole, I need to go back and forth between the two; the words inform the pictures and the pictures inform the words. This is not the Platonic ideal of a clean writing environment—a cup of coffee on an empty desk in a white room—that you see in videos for distraction-free editors.

Some of the popularity of these editors is part of the backlash against multitasking, but people are confusing themselves with their computers. When I’m writing a report, that is my single task, and I bring to bear whatever tools are necessary to complete it. That my computer is multitasking by running many programs simultaneously isn’t a source of confusion or distraction, it’s the natural and efficient way for me to get my one task done.3

Many of us aren’t writers, per se, but we end up doing a lot of writing to communicate what our real jobs are. This utilitarian writing often consists of taking a mound of disparate facts and explaining them through organization. This is a complex process that’s hard to do in an information-free writing environment.

  1. A case in point: while the first clause of this sentence came out easily, the second was revised at least five times before I made it to the period. 

  2. TK is a one such marker, chosen because it’s fast to type and is an uncommon combination of letters in English, making it easy to search for. 

  3. That this same computer can be a source of distraction—through Twitter and email and the like—is true but immaterial. Turning off the sources of actual distraction doesn’t mean restricting myself to a single application. 

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