Posts Tagged ‘distraction free writing’

Computers, with all the windows, pull down menus and one-click access to the Internet, assault our attention, interrupting our muse, breaking our concentration, making creative writing difficult. Minimalist text editors like WriteRoom, Q10 and FocusWriter, try to eliminate these distractions by presenting a writer with a blank screen and a blinking cursor. I eliminate distractions by turning the damn thing off.

I love my desktop computer but it’s a left-brain tool that seems to short circuit my right-brain when I’m writing a first draft. I’m writing this piece on my AlphaSmart Neo while sitting in a comfortable chair on the other side of the room. My Neo has a small screen that someone on the Internet described as “about the size of a candy bar.” It’s not connected to the Internet and I can’t play games. Neo is only good for one thing — writing, writing on one of the nicest, full size keyboards I’ve ever used.

I keep my Neo on the floor next to my musing chair. When an idea pops into my head, I pick up Neo, press the on/off key and within a few seconds the blinking cursor is right where I left off last time. When I’m in first draft mode, I sit here and let my thoughts spill out as fast as I can type. I’m a touch typist so I don’t have to think about what my fingers are doing.

I don’t worry about typos or punctuation while I’m in first draft writing mode and never look back at what I’ve written. I’ve never been able to write this way consistently while sitting at my desktop, but with Neo, I’m relaxed and the writing seems easy. It weighs less than two pounds, doesn’t heat up and the only noise is from the soft clicking of the keys as I type. Neo gets out of my way and remembers what I type. When I’m ready to edit, I plug into a USB port on my desktop, fire up my text editor (I never use a word processor) and press the send key on Neo to transmit the file I’m working in (there are eight file spaces) directly to my editor.

I put fresh batteries in my Neo over a month ago, use it every day and the battery capacity is still at 91%. Believe it or not, three AA alkaline batteries will last about 700 hours in normal use.

Neo is one of my secret first draft writing weapons, the one I use most often. Sometimes I’ll grab a lined pad and uncap one of my fountain pens instead — depending on my mood at the time.

My Neo is the monkey bars in my creative writing playground and when I’m playing it’s impossible to make a mistake. I wrote the first draft of An Emerald Ring while swinging on those monkey bars.

If you missed the first parts of the series and would like to read them, here are the links:

Monday Musings: An Emerald Ring, the Story
Monday Musings: An Emerald Ring, the Story II

And here’s the link where you can download the full text of An Emerald Ring with my compliments.

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How moving my desk helped boost my creativity and changed the way I write.

The empty nest has given me the use of a couple of rooms. My “office” is in the back of the house. I keep my main computer with my window on the world via my Internet  connection in this space. I have another larger room in the front of the house where I keep my old computer. It sat out of the way in the corner on an old battleship gray desk. I only used it to scan my negatives.


I decided to move the desk and the computer to the middle of the room. What a difference this has made. I get tons of north light from my two windows and I’m not connected to the Internet. Not only that, I’m using an old 14 inch CRT monitor I’ve had for 15 years and I love it. Talk about no distractions. I can’t check my email and don’t have the screen real estate for multitasking windows.

MaxscreenSo where does MaxThink fit into this picture? Take a look at the screenshot. I’m still using my old DOS version of MaxThink from 1994. It’s a perfect match for my monitor. No mouse, no distractions as my fingers fly over the keyboard. I love it.

Use free-form thinking when you’re shaping your ideas in the beginning. Don’t stop to organize when you’re on a thinking/idea roll — just keepon keeping on. Organize your ideas later.

All outlines are lists. No matter which outliner you choose, they are all big lists in the end. And the best outliners assist your thought process and let you organize on the fly.

Outline hierarchy or flat list — your choice. It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve finally realized that the best way is to think first and organize my thoughts later. The flat list is perfect. Whatever your topic, simply enter each idea as it comes to you and move on to the next. Only when you’ve exhausted your ideas do you come back to put them into categories.

MaxThink makes categorizing ideas a delight. I use the binsort command to cycle through the list and toss each idea into an appropriate category. When I’m finished, I have a hierarchy that I can continue to massage until I have a logical flow of my ideas.

And I can flip back to a segmented list (more on segmented lists in another post) any time I like. MaxThink makes it easy to switch between flat or categorized

Mouse? What mouse? My hands never leave the keyboard. What good are windows when you’re writing?

I’m having fun and being much more productive now that I’ve moved my desk and decided which program, MaxThink or BrainStorm, I’ll use to organize my ideas in the beginning. MaxThink wins this round. MaxThink beats BrainStorm on a couple of counts — the ability to quickly manipulate flat lists and to flip back and forth between flat and categorized.

BrainStorm stomps MaxThink in some other features, but they come later. I’ll keep you posted on the outcomes as I explore and experiment.

Meanwhile, I think I can use MaxThink to do clustering on the fly from the keyboard.
I haven’t tried it yet, but when I do, I’ll chronicle my adventures.

As I said, I’m using a very old DOS version of MaxThink. I see no reason to use the new windows version. If you want to know more about MaxThink, head on over to the website. The price is reasonable (I have no connection with MaxThink except as a satisfied user) and comes with a one year money back guarantee.

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Let’s play a game and change the name. Instead of saying I’m going to sit down to write, say I’m going to sit here for awhile and let my imagination run. I’m going to daydream or muse or whatever you want to call it. While I’m sitting here, I might pick up a pen or turn on my computer and simply capture my thoughts as they occur to me.


We stiffen up when we think or say the word writing because writing has all these rules. Can’t make a mistake, must be grammatically correct and so on. Horse hockey. I’m not writing, I’m simply musing, remembering, drifting, and while I’m at it, capturing my fleeting thoughts. I’ll organize (or toss some) later.

Yes, that’s important. Capturing thoughts for later. I’m not writing now, I’ll do that formal stuff later. Right now, at this moment I’m just spilling my ideas without a care in the world.

Now that’s liberating. I might record something silly. So what? I might make a mistake or two. Really? How can you make mistakes when all you’re doing is capturing. It’s like filling up the bathtub. Turn on the water and let it flow.

Turn the tap on your thoughts and ideas and let them flow. Instead of scaring yourself with the task of writing an article, just start typing or writing longhand. You’re not writing an article, you’re simply thinking about a topic and capturing your thoughts as they occur to you.

Relax and allow your thoughts free rein. When you sit down to “write” you have a certain outcome in mind — an article, finish the next chapter in your book, a report, and so on. When you sit down next time, don’t write anything. Instead remember and capture your ideas without concerning yourself about outcomes.

The focus on outcome changes the way we think and act. I’m writing therefore I must do this and this and this and this or I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Can you see your stern English teacher looking over your shoulder? Just tell her to go away for awhile. Tell her that you’re not writing, you’re simply musing. Maybe she’ll leave you alone with your thoughts. Watch what happens next. You’ll be amazed.

PS I didn’t “write” this post, it evolved out of my musing. I switched my NEO on and began typing ideas that were drifting through my mind. I astonished myself. I uploaded the file to my editor on my main system. I dumped the first two paragraphs and tweaked a few things here and there. I had no intention of writing an article when I picked up up my NEO, it just happened.

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Writing with a typical word processor comes with a stiff price. A power hungry desktop or battery eating laptop turns a power cord into a leash. We wait for the beast to boot and when it’s finally ready for us, we’re confronted with menus, the Internet, and other distractions that have nothing to do with writing.


When I sit down with my AlphaSmart NEO I press the on key and I’m up and running, the cursor exactly where I left off last time within 2 seconds. How about power? Did I charge NEO? Don’t have a charger because NEO runs on three AA alkaline batteries. I’ve had my NEO for 3.5 years and I’m only on my fourth (fresh set of batteries). Hard to believe but this puppy runs free without a leash and will run for 700 hours on a single set of batteries. Honest. It seems incredible but it’s true. You have no idea how liberating this is. I put a new set in last week and my batteries still show 100%.

Writing is a solitary contemplative state, at least it wants to be. The typical computer connected to the Internet, boasting the latest copy of Word is more like a crowded bazaar, vendors of all descriptions shouting for our attention, crowds of people shoving this way and that knocking our elbow sending our virtual pens skittering across the page.

I’m writing this post on my NEO using the built in AlphaWord word processor.
The only sounds are the radio playing soft classical music in the background and the soft click of the keyboard. Check my e-mail? Can’t because I’m not connected to the Internet and NEO doesn’t do e-mail. Play a game or check my financial records? Nope. NEO is only good for writing. Hey this is 2009 what gives here?

NEO has a small screen that will only display text. It comes with 512K built in memory. Whoa, that can’t be right. Only 1/2 Megabyte? What can you do with a paltry 1/2 megabyte? How about store 200 pages of text for starters?

I thought the small screen would limit me. It doesn’t. I like the five line display but I could choose 6 lines or 4 lines. When I’m writing a draft, I don’t need a full screen editor. I’ll take care of that later when I transfer my files to my desktop.

Meanwhile, if I’m stuck for a word, I press Ctrl + T and my thesaurus pops up. Press the dedicated spell check key to check my spelling. Ctrl + W tells me how many characters, words, paragraphs and pages are in my file.

I can switch instantly among eight different files and add more files any time I like. AlphaWord has the usual compliment of cut, copy, paste, clipboard and cursor movement. I don’t do much editing on NEO. I’d rather write first.

When I’m ready to transfer my file, I pull up my desktop editor, connect NEO via USB cable and press the send key. If I could type this fast…

Oh. I almost forgot. NEO remembers each keystroke so you never save files. NEO remembers for you. How easy can it be?

There is so much to like about NEO,
but wouldn’t matter if NEO’s keyboard wasn’t one of the best keyboards I’ve ever used. I like it better than any of the desktop keyboards I’ve had over the years. Did I mention thin and lightweight?


NEO doesn’t do a lot of things. By today’s standards it’s retro and downright primitive. All you can do with NEO is write. That’s why I love it.

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Help! I can’t connect to the Internet. I logged into my computer this morning only to discover that my cable was out. I wonder if we’re at the mercy of our electronic toys. What will I do if I can’t “communicate” with the world? What if I could write without the distractions of email, click this, click that…?


Well, I never have to boot up my fountain pen when I want to write. I’ll just uncap my Namiki, with a nib like the beak of it’s Falcon namesake, pull out a fresh sheet of paper and get to it. Speaking of paper, I had been using Ampad Gold Fiber pads for my writing. Nice paper but pricey at $15 for a half dozen pads. I was in Staples last week to stock up and discovered my new favorite paper.

My Falcon loves my new pads. They’re simply called “eco-friendly writing pads” and they’re made from 80% sugarcane waste aka “bagasse.” I endorse Staples’ claim that “the quality is just as good as traditional tree-based paper…” In fact I like this paper better. And the best part is the pads are cheap. I spent $2 for two pads.

I’m writing this post with pyroom, my latest simple electronic tool. Writing with only the words on a simple screen is liberating. The temptation to respond to an email alert is gone. The screen clutter of menus and other doodads is gone. Writing this way is the electronic version of a fountain pen and a clean sheet of paper. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.

I finally got my Internet connection back. Instead of sitting in front of my computer wringing my hands in despair waiting for Comcast to get their act together, I went for a ride on my bicycle. Riding my bicycle on a warm June morning is more fun than surfing the Internet anyway.

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The first post I wrote for The Aware Writer was Google Docs Secrets For Distraction Free Writing.  I still like Google Docs but I like working on my own system with my own tools. Looking for a new writing environment is like shopping for new shoes. I hate shopping for new shoes. My old sneakers are comfortable and they still work, so why buy new ones?


My Favorite Desktop Background Image

I thought I solved my distraction free writing environment yesterday
when I changed my desktop background to the moonscape. The more I looked at it the more I missed my old background. So I changed my mind and put the old one back. Here’s a screenshot. I love the picture.

So what did I do instead? I found new sneaks that fit almost as well as the old ones. When I used windows, I had a neat, full screen, leave me alone and let me write in peace without the dodads program and it’s a freebie. If you’re a windows user, Q10 gives you a very nice, uncluttered writing environment and it even makes typewriter noises. Sounds like the old typewriter carriage return when you press enter. Give it a try. The author just released a new version this month.

When I went over to the other side and bought my Linux box last year, I couldn’t take Q10 with me. I finally found a decent replacement last night. It’s called pyroom. The program is written in the python programming language (that’s why the py prefix) and is inspired by WriteRoom, the granddaddy of the the full screen writing programs. WriteRoom is a Mac only program and the only thing I know about the Mac is that I can’t afford one.


pyroom with the Soft Letter Paper Theme

Here’s a screenshot of pyroom. I wrote this post as my first real test drive of pyroom. I like the black screen with green letters theme, but it turns my monitor into a mirror. I don’t need my face in the place. Nothing on the screen but words. What a concept. No bells, whistles, menus, windows, emails clamoring for attention — just me and the words. If you haven’t tried the full screen experience, give it a go. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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I love my fountain pens. I have a half-dozen quality fountain pens including a Mont Blanc Meisterstuck 149 that I rarely use because it’s just too big. Oh it’s a status symbol and an expensive one at that, but what’s the point if it doesn’s suit the task? My favorite pen is a Parker Vacumatic. I bought this 1947 vintage pen five years ago. It writes like a dream, it’s a great sketching pen and it’s comfortable in my hand.


As a writer, I’m concerned with words and ideas. It feels good to simply get a clean sheet of paper, uncap my Vacumatic and start writing. Do I write out all my articles and posts? No. I write longhand when I’m thinking, when I’m in the flow of the words and I don’t want the distractions of a computer.

When I do turn my computer on, I only use a word processor when I must. I don’t use Word, I have Open Office Writer installed on my system. But both of these programs are a lot like my Meisterstuck. They’re too big and cumbersome.  To quote another writer who shall remain anonymous because I don’t remember where I saw the quote: “I’m a writer, why would I want to process words?”

When writing a first draft all you really need is a simple text editor. Spelling checkers, word count, thesaurus, or dictionary are all distractions when you need to get the words and ideas out there.

All writing is rewriting. When you’re editing and refining your drafts, then you need to check your spelling, track your word count, look up meanings in an electronic dictionary and search for the perfect word with a thesaurus. My text editor gives me all of these and stays out of my way otherwise.

Why do so many writers use a bloated word processor like Word? Sometimes you don’t have a choice. If your editor insists on a Word doc, that’s what you give them, but if you need a plain text file to paste into your blog’s editor, why not use an editor that’s designed for the task?

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typewriterAre you fed up with all the doodads and distractions of a typical word processor?  Imagine rolling a clean sheet of paper into your virtual typewriter. No tool bars, no pop ups, nothing to distract you – just a plain screen so you can think and concentrate on your words as you write. Minimalist writing applications like Write Room for the Mac have gathered a cult following of writers who crave the simplicity of a blank screen. A few simple tweaks and Google Docs will give you the  ideal writing environment. It’s easy when you know the secrets.

Here’s how to set up Google documents for distraction free writing:

  • Open a new document, click on the View menu and select “Fixed width page view.” This setting will give you a virtual page on the screen.
  • Go to the edit menu and select “Document Styles.” From here, you select the font, line spacing and even the document background color. There’s a check box where you can make these the default styles for all new documents. I like Tahoma 14 pt. because it gives nice contrast that’s easy to read on screen.
  • Go to the View menu again and select “Full-screen mode” to make the tool bar and menus disappear. You’ll see a blue message at the top right of the screen “Full-screen mode; press ESC to return to normal mode.” Click on the X to make that go away if you find it distracting.
  • Now all you have to do is put your browser into full screen mode. Simply press F11 and you’ll have a distraction free writing environment.
  • Google remembers all your settings so you won’t have to. Just open a new document, go to full screen mode and you’re ready to write with zero distractions.

You can easily switch back and forth between full screen and normal views. Google documents have a full compliment of keyboard shortcuts so you may not even need the menu until you’re finished. You can return to the menu to add the final polish before you publish.

Google Docs gives you more than a distraction free writing environment. When you use Google Docs, you can access your documents from any computer with an Internet connection. Best of all, Google Docs works with all the major browsers, doesn’t care what operating system you have and won’t cost you a dime.

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