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.

Why Hardware When Software Will Do?

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.

Right: Hiding out. Blockwriter in ‘Hide Apps’ mode, obscuring other running processes behind it.

Text Editing without the Editing

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.

Enabling Disabling

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.

Draft Only

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.

  1. I’m eleven pages into “Programming Mac OSX” – by the middle of next year, I should be in a position to tell you whether or not I can write this software. Is that fast enough?

  2. Great idea. I like. I’d even be satisfied with an app that *just* did the screen-dimming/isolation part. It’s kind of like hitting F and then Tab in Photoshop. Full canvas, no palettes, no distractions.

    On an unrelated note, I have this habit of voyeuristically examining the details of screenshots when people send them to me. A few interesting things I noticed from yours:

    1. Why on earth do you still have that “Info” thing in your Dock next to the Trash? Get rid of that sumbitch already. Does it do something useful that I’m not aware of?

    2. A 5 year old version of Photoshop. 🙂

    3. Why no Adium? It’s what all the cool kids use!

  3. Hey, I’m trying to keep things on topic here! But if, you insist, here are some answers.

    1. I usually have my dock hidden on the right edge of my screen, and I just moved it to the bottom to create a reasonably standard facsimile of a normal Mac OS X desktop. I barely ever use the Dock, as I’m a DragThing and Quicksiler user. That doesn’t explain why I haven’t deleted that little info alias, though. I think I just really like that icon.

    2. Photoshop CS, which I own, is slow as a dog on my aging PowerBook. I find that I don’t really even need CS or CS2, except for work files, and I prefer this older version. Yes, I’m a codger.

    3. I use Adium at the office. I use iChat at home. Don’t ask me why.

    Now can we please get back to how awesome Blockwriter is?

  4. I’ve often found it useful to crawl under my desk and pull the cat5 cable out of the wall. No harm done. It makes me, and others, actually get up from our desks and talk to one another face-to-face. It’s old school meets new in a round about kinda way.

  5. What about just calling it “Writer’s block” ? That seems the be where the name came from.

    It’s a cool idea. Though it seems unfortunate that we continue to build new tools to solve the problems of the last group of tools.

  6. Brilliant. To any Mac Developers out there, I for one would happily pay for a copy of this application if you and Khoi were to build it. Beautifully simple interface and distraction controls. Perhaps you could include a rock solid autosave function as well so that you couldn’t even procrastinate with obsessive Command+S’ing. My last blog post took me about 16 weeks, working on and off. It was just really hard to keep moving forward (as you alluded to in your screenshot text). I can also think of a few grad student friends who would really go for this. I mean really.

  7. Adrian: Oh, that’s one thing I forgot to mention, or to clarify, rather. Because every mark is ‘permanent,’ there’s no Save feature. Blockwriter auto-saves, basically. I guess there can/should be a revert feature, which would revert to the last time you opened the document, but I’m not sure if that’s necessary.

  8. Not quite the stripped down text-editor you’re looking for, but Ulysses is a writing app for creative types that offers a full-screen style editor (albeit more of an old-school console look than the Expose/lightbox style you mocked up).

  9. I don’t think it’s enough to simply have a “disable network” button. When I am writing, I’m constantly tempted to reenable my internet connection and consequently waste large amounts of time. Therefore, there should be a kind of internet-crippling timer, that allows you to disable your network for a preset amount of time, and will not let you connect until it has elapsed. Likewise, the blocking of the finder should have a timer feature to literally force you to write for an hour or two hours or however long you want to focus for.

  10. I love the concept behind this. Here are my 2б:

    1. full-screen is better than a dimmed background. It’s more typewriter-like anyway.
    2. Blocking network access is very interesting. But only if it shut-off all network access while running. No option to turn it off, only quit (w/ no save).
    3. Typewriters make people type slower, so there are less stupid typos. While I like the idea of not being able to edit, I think it would be reasonable to allow for spell-checking.

    I’d totally be in for that.

  11. Love it, especially the no-back-typing bit. It’s so hard to keep from going back over things and rewriting as you write, but I always get more, better writing done when I just forge ahead. And when I come back later, I don’t really end up changing that much.

    I’d settle for a proper full-screen mode in TextMate though.

  12. That’s a great idea. I second the full screen comment, as I also think that would be better.

    Doesn’t seem too hard to create either, maybe it could be a plugin for a program like TextMate?

    Also, it seems like you’ve been posting more often lately, Khoi. That’s great, thanks! 🙂

  13. Fullscreen in TextMate is “on the list” for 2.0, if I remember correctly. And yes, I’ll be using it like you wouldn’t believe.

  14. I love this idea – so simple and hey, it might even make me think about what I am writing before I put finger to keyboard!

  15. Putting distance—clicks, effort, or time (Al’s idea is a good one)—between would-be writers and their browsers and messenger apps is all well and good, but it may not be enough. I almost have to unplug and have someone hide my computer before I’m able to write. There’s also something to be said for being away from a computer. Just as reading on-screen is different from off-, there’s a change in mindset when writing with ink on paper that can’t be carried over to the computer (though mimicked easily). Typewriters not only lack a spell-checker, aren’t just across the room; they provide a certain kind of asceticism that no app can reproduce.

    That said, I’d like to try something like Blockwriter.

  16. I think this is a great idea, though I’m not sure I’d ever use it. I’m one of those people who never really got into writing until I started doing it on computers. I’m a terrible typist, for one. And I really get a lot out of being able to move text around the page — start the conclusion early, maybe, then come back to the body. It actually helps me to be able to jump around a lot.

    Still, I do get distracted. On thinking about it, though, it occurs to me that most of my distractions come from people needing tech support (I’m a lab admin) and construction noise (I live in New York). So if you could create an app that would keep people from coming to my office and knocking on my door, and that would block out all sound outside a 10 foot radius of my computer, I would definitely buy it.

    Seriously though, my personal habits aside, I think this is a cool idea and that people would buy it.


  17. Good Idea, I do something that exists in every system and that is user-profiles.

    When I wanna’ design I can get myself into the account that has access to design software and some coding editors. I ain’t no writer so in a way I could not tell you you could have an account that has access only to the editing tools.

    It works really well with me. But again, cool idea indeed.

  18. Khoi, this is a good idea and will serve many well. I don’t want to criticize the app because clearly it serves a need amongst your readers, but your post surfaces an issue on which I want to comment.

    Obviously working practices are a personal thing, but it amazes me that people cripple their working tools when for me, a good work environment and some self-discipline seem to be all that’s necessary to get work done well and efficiently. I don’t trivialize the sheer volume of distractions available to an information worker these days, nor do I think them unreal in any way. But really…you don’t want email notifications to distract? Turn off notifications or don’t launch your email program (I did the former years ago and feel I got a large part of my life back). Turn off IM. Turn off the cell phone ringer. Go work at a library.

    When I write or draft, which I usually do in Textedit or OmniOutliner, simply because I find Word an absolutely horrendous enviroment for writing, I constantly use the web for various task-related things. Apple including the dictionary and thesaurus in Tiger has improved things significantly in this regard, and a web connection is by no means mandatory for me to write.

    Anyway, all I’m saying is that one doesn’t need to code a Cocoa app to “block out the system”, so to speak. More power to you for doing so; at the very least, it’s a good learning opportunity.

  19. “To make things a bit more clever, you can control the darkness of the dimming”

    Take this road to madness…
    Aren’t we trying to get away from all these switches?

    And could somebody also write a program to strenghten the users’ willpower? We need a mental gym, right now.

  20. Absolutely brilliant. This can be applied to design and composition. I learn over and over again from my employer and others to position and place, then refine and design. I can’t count how many times myself and others I’ve observed start obsessing over something before there is an actual draft.

  21. Great idea. Nice going grabbing the domain, too!

    Regarding a “Revert” feature… well, isn’t that the same as “Undo”? Just have a robust, unlimited undo list that is maintained session to session. Done!

    Regarding Narayan’s comment about just having self-discipline, well, as an easily distracted person that’s easier said by you than done by me. In fact, I have an idea like Khoi’s just for people like me… Where Blockwriter is a conventional weapon designed for people like Khoi who are distractable but have some degree of self control, mine is nuclear and is designed for people like me who can be distracted by even the slightest RSS breeze or passing fancy.

  22. This is great idea. The more time I spend doing work on the web the more difficult I find actually focusing on the work that needs to be done. Firefox or Safari is always right there for me to open another tab and get sucked into yet another blog post or other web diversion.

    Oh and I’m with Mike D., what’s with the “Info” thing?

  23. I use two tools to achieve the distraction-free state you describe (which I think of as “Amish Computing”): the Alphasmart Neo which is expensive for what it does, but rugged and perfect for drafting text. It gets me away from the computer and fits nicely in my bag; I never carry a laptop since I got it. It took me a year to really understand the Neo in its simplicity (6 lines of text, holds 50 pages, has a spellchecker, and runs for 700 hours on double-A batteries). But now I start everything on it; for instance, I’m writing a number of commentaries for the radio and they’re all there, and I sit in bed and peck away, or sit at the kitchen table and type furiously, whenever the mood strikes me. It’s great.

    For editing I put text into WordPerfect 6.2 for DOS, circa 1995, which truly is an extraordinary word processor. I find that, in its simplicity, it has anticipated all of my needs as a writer. It runs seamlessly on an emulated GPLed DOS machine (DOSBox) in full-screen mode, on a PC or Mac, and prints to PostScript which means that it is quite easy to get nicely-printable PDF output from it. When it takes over my screen I completely forget that email and the web exist. I also appreciate modality in writing; there is something very useful about writing in a homely white-on-blue text for a few hours then looking at a nicely laid-out PDF of the same document; that switch helps you see what must be changed.

    WordPerfect for DOS also has nicely kerned PostScript output that is far more attractive than standard text output (only PDFTeX and InDesign look as good to me on the page) and I can use its RTF output to send copy to editors who want to edit digitally (MS Word is unfortunately pretty standard everywhere in the industry). Plus I can get stuff from Word into WordPerfect using a $15 OEM copy of WordPerfect Office 12.

    After about a year with each of these tools (and Emacs for general-churn web text editing) I find myself to be more productive and happier, and have stopped looking for a better solution, which, given that this was an obsession, is a great relief.

    I just wrote all of that in this frigging little text box.

  24. Yeah. Maybe photography needs one of these too. There’s a lot to be said for slowing down, ending up with 36 carefully considered images instead of 600 that take all the time you “saved” to edit down to the one or two you really need! I’d call it “Photoshop CSlow”. Or maybe “Digital Ansel Adams”!

  25. Paul: the AlphaSmart reminds me a bit of the Newton eMate, a machine I still find myself lusting for, nine years after it first shipped.

    Is it easy to get information off of the AlphaSmart and onto a Mac? How are you doing it, via USB?

    And your WordPerfect on DOS set-up is totally hardcore.

  26. I find myself vacillating between this sort of (design) thinking, and the POV Narayan puts forth — of course like everything it’s a compromise.

    You might say techniques like these are more acute, or explicit, attempts to facilitate ‘creative flow’, more subtly, Goal/User-oriented Design philosophies are trying to achieve the same end, from the core of the interface…

    Re personal productivity; does iChat really need to be open @ work? Should I really be checking all of my feeds/ in-box, etc. etc.? I shouldn’t, but I still do too much! 🙁

    That’s why OmniWeb Workspaces are so great, I have one for ‘work’, and others for play, I can quickly switch then jump back to ‘work stuff’, knowing the fun stuff is safe until later.

    As for your suggestions, as a usage example the DivX Player offers user controlled background shading, you can try Backdrop or FocusLayer — I use FL all the time, but there’s a small annoying window order bug when sheets appear, and I think it’s basically been orphaned. 🙁

    Full screen mode can be very handy (Photoshop anyone!) and I keep bugging devs for it, but in the mean time try MegaZoomer to get it for free in almost all apps.

    IMHO if you’re looking for a good writing tool, you should check out Nisus Writer Express — the latest beta version has finally added the full screen mode users have been requesting, and the app itself generally gets out of your way.

    Sure TextMate is ‘cooler’, and more customisable, but Styles, auto-complete and correct and Perl/AppleScripting in NWX can achieve similar results (broadly speaking.)

  27. I’ll second the Ulysses recommendation – its fullscreen mode doesn’t do all the stuff you want, but a plain white screen with nothing but the text you’re typing on it makes it strangely easy to forget that your computer can do anything else.

    Maybe photography needs one of these too

    For sure – I can’t be doing with digital cameras, and haven’t even used an SLR in years: disposable, toy, Polaroid and Lomo type cameras let me take much better photographs than I did before by getting out of the way (and introducing lots of chance elements).

  28. Two different things going on here. First is the word processor vs. typewriter thing, and second is the distraction thing. I’ve never used a typewriter so I can’t comment on whether emasculating your word processor makes for better productivity. But with regard to the computer and internet as a distraction:

    To get work done:

    1. Set minuteur to 90 minutes or whatever a reasonable task isolation block is for you.

    2. Quit the email program and IM software
    3. Quit the news aggregator
    4. Turn off the phone

    5. Get to work.

    6. Your mind and body will still wander to other tasks and activities. when this happens, do not get angry or punish yourself, simply jot down what the other task is (if it’s important that it get done) and return to the task at hand, recognizing that you can take care of the distractor at the end of the task isolation block. Quicksilver Append is a great way to do this.

    7. At the end of the task isolation block, set minuteur to 30 minutes or whatever an appropriate distraction block is for you. Open internet programs, refer to your distraction list, and revel in your distractions until the start of your next TIB.

    8. You can always go overtime on your task isolation blocks, but never on your distraction blocks.

    What this does, in addition to forcing you to get work done on your most important projects, is that it forces you to prioritize your less important projects, and the ones that don’t matter drop to the bottom, which is how it should be.

    The self-awareness and some of the techniques listed here are courtesy of 43 folders.

    Oh, and for those of you who are bothered by office chatter or construction, but can’t focus with music, there’s Noise.

  29. I’m really intrigued by Tatu’s suggestion of a mental-discipline gym. I’ve done (and needed to do) many of the things listed, and bought, sheesh, a bunch of full-screen apps in hopes that they’d be a magic bullet. None of them were, unsurprisingly.

    But what I’d like is something to help me recognize how frequently I jump online “for just a minute” and how long those jumps last. And I’d like to be able to look back at the end of the day and congratulate myself at my discipline when I do only check my email thrice. Something that sits quietly and keeps track at every time certain apps are activated and how long they’re kept on top. Then all I need is summaries and reports to help me build my own discipline.

    Maybe there’s something like this already?

    Until then, I have to resort to using my wife as a web dominatrix. She disables my admin privledges on my own machine, and turns off all network access, and I get down to business. Later, if I’m a good boy and I beg, she turns it back on. But only for ten minutes or so, and then she makes me wait for tomorrow…

  30. I use CopyWrite when I need to buckle down and write without distraction; I throw it in fullscreen mode, change the font to Courier New, and get to work.

    I found it when I needed to write an instruction guide to a CMS we were using at work and I couldn’t concentrate enough to get the whole thing together.

    But I love this idea more for blogs, lyrics, etc… anything that requires a little more visceral commitment from the get-go.

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