Discussion boards for fiction writers frequently discuss book-writing software, and writers weigh in on their favorites—Scrivener, Final Draft, and others, including LivingWriter, which was named “Best Book Writing Software of 2021” by Ameridian. These programs are designed to overcome the shortcomings of “the No. 2 pencil of the digital age”—that is, Word. Word, some authors say, is simply not designed for them, with its distracting toolbars, its ease of making changes that invites endless revisions, the hyperlinks that encourage disappearing down research rabbit-holes. Could “distraction-free” writing apps help?
Is it time for a rethink of the whole word processing thing? In a recent New Yorker article, Julian Lucas seems to say “yes,” and he’s not the only one. The industry has heard the complaints—even shares them—and has responded with focused writing tools and devices. For example, some have developed tools that make it harder to make constant revisions, in some cases going so far as to eliminate the backspace key. (Yet, I’m reminded of why the ability to make changes is so valuable. In her letters, Flannery O’Connor, miserable with lupus, repeatedly complained about needing to retype whole novels in order to accommodate her changes.)
In general, these new writing devices are stripped-down. Distractions discarded. Lucas’s first such device was the Swiss-developed iA Writer. It was designed to do one thing right—write. Or, as its developer hoped, “eliminating the agony of choice.”
The Freewrite Smart Typewriter (pictured above) is a stand-alone word processor that shows only ten lines of text at a time. Rewriting as you go is difficult. The machine encourages you to just keep going. Text is saved to the cloud and synced with your “real” computer for later editing.
If you like to mark up your text with scribbles, arrows, and underlines, word processing is a clunky way to do it. The reMarkable is “digital paper” that responds to a special stylus, “a computer disguised as a non-computer,” Lucas says. Call it an antidote to distraction, as described in this promotional video. Apparently academics especially are attracted to the improved mental focus and are taking up the remarkable. Competitors are appearing.
Lucas’s article contains more examples of dedicated work-processing hardware, as companies try to adapt writing devices “to our selves and to our circumstances.” For myself, I’ve never thought of distraction as a problem. When I’m in the middle of writing and need to look something up, I switch over to the Internet to answer my question and learn more. Not doing so is a little niggling loose end that’s more distracting than the menus and toolbars. Everyone has to find their own best toolkit.