Tue 09 May
As we all know, the surfeit of distractions available on a personal computer these days can make it exceedingly easy to get nothing done. There’s the constant haranguing of emails, the intrusions of instant messaging, and the endless nagging of countless other attention-hungry applications and utilities.
In looking for ways to defuse this, I noticed a few years ago that some serious writers, at least in the early drafting stages of their work, were turning to manual typewriters as a method of sidestepping all of those distractions. It’s a great solution: what better way to thwart a computer than to step away from it completely? There’s no email to check on a typewriter, no beeps and pop-up reminders from other applications, and no access whatsoever to the Internet and its tantalizing abundance of productivity-killing diversions.
What’s more, a manual typewriter is a powerful antidote to authorial dawdling, that propensity to continually re-edit a sentence or a paragraph — thereby imparting the feeling of working without really working — instead of continuing to write new sentences or paragraphs instead. Unlike word processors or even the simplest text editors, manual typewriters don’t allow you to easily re-edit, insert and revise a sentence once it’s been committed to paper. This makes for an entirely different writing experience: the ideas come first, and the act of finessing them, of word-smithing, comes after all the ideas have been set to paper.
At some point, it occurred to me that it really shouldn’t be necessary to purchase another piece of hardware to accomplish the same things that writers look to manual typewriters for: the ability to focus without distractions, and the ability to work in a mode that disallows excessive editing and encourages continued writing.
Neither of those things are beyond the capability of software, so why not just write software that does those things? I almost don’t have to write any more in this blog post and most readers will get the entirety of my concept: build an application that functions almost exactly like a typewriter.
For lack of a more marketable name, I call it Blockwriter. And because I’m no programmer and I’ll never get around to learning enough Cocoa skills to build Blockwriter for myself, I figured I’d just do what I know: throw together some mock-ups of the user interface to get my ideas across.
At its heart, Blockwriter is a crippled text editor. What makes it like a typewriter is that it regards every character you type into it as basically ‘committed’ and permanent. Rather than allowing the flexibility of cost-free deletions and insertions — and the attendant temptation to continually massage text beyond usefulness — this application only allows you to continue typing forward.
To remove a word you’ve already committed, you can use the back button to actually strike-out text — with x’s, dashes or any character you’d like. It’s as simple as it was on a manual typewriter: you’re just ‘physically’ creating a second character impression over an existing one.
This makes for a messy presentation, but I think it’s that messiness that will discourage people from wasting time on refinements and will encourage them to move on to the next idea. Of course, it will always be necessary, at some point, to get a clean output of the text without the strike-outs. For this, Blockwriter allows the option of printing a copy of the writing without the struck-out text, and the export feature will automatically omit the same in the RTF file that results.
As an added bonus, Blockwriter allows you to narrow your focus by turning off distractions, temporarily converting today’s powerful multitasking digital hardware into single-tasking analog devices, essentially. System sound can be easily muted (as can Blockwriter’s native sounds, which of course, emulate the tap-tapping of old school typewriter keys and carriages) without leaving the application. Similarly, network access can be disabled, shutting off email, instant messenger, Web access, etc.
Blockwriter also has a ‘Hide Apps’ feature that dims the background behind the main application window. To make things a bit more clever, you can control the darkness of the dimming, shifting from a dark-gray background to a completely opaque overlay that obscures everything but the window and the menu bar. There’s also an option to disable the clock in the menu bar, for that pure bubble effect.
Of course, Blockwriter is intended only as a drafting tool, as it’s clearly impractical for the vast majority of text editing and word processing. To quickly knock out a rough version of any piece of writing that requires concentration and complexity, from a lengthy blog post to an article or even to a full-blown book manuscript, it’s the perfect tool. It provides a very narrow feature set that keeps you on task, along with one-touch methods of shutting out the rest of the system. And it’s a lot less bulky than a typewriter.
Alas, Blockwriter itself is only a draft. As I said, I haven’t nearly enough programming talent to make it happen. But I had a good time putting together the interface — more and more Web sites are referred to as “software” these days, but designing a desktop application is an entirely different experience, even a faux one like this. So the hour or two I put into Blockwriter was an interesting foray into a different kind of design. What resulted isn’t perfect, clearly, but maybe someone will find some of these ideas interesting enough to build it for real. I can’t imagine it would be particularly hard for anyone who’s comfortable with Cocoa.