Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Writing Made Simple: Word processing that helps you focus

Computers are a distraction. Or at least, they can be. I have already been blogging about some of the ways in which you can make them less distracting - even helpful to maintaining focus. I have just found another one, and this one has reminded more than ever of what it used to be like to sit down with little more than a blank piece of paper and a pen.

When I first started using a computer, the problem I found was that it was just too interesting. Rather than working, I would always be tempted to explore Hypercard just a little more, to experiment with small scripts, or switch to the rather nice little chess game which came with the machine.

Today computers come with a positive library of distractions which make my old Mac Classic seem about as interesting as Channel 4s round-the-clock broadcast of the Short v. Kasparov chess championship, and I have been sucked into their world of multimedia and gadgetry which is often quite beautiful but has made me forget the problems I had with computers in the first place.

For instance, when I first started to use Microsoft Word, the main problem I had with it was the clutter. It had options for a million design changes, including flashing lights that would dance pointlessly around the text. Why did I need it? All this junk meant was that the program took longer to load and to save, and crashed more frequently! For me, Word compared unfavourably with the lean and mean Macwrite Pro, a word processing program which gave you the power to write stuff - and do pretty much bugger all else.

With each successful generation of computers though, I have become more and more obsessed with sucking all the juice I can from new software features. My course resources and lecture notes, which started out as basic text with the occasional daring venture into bullet-points, became colourful and visual documents full of pictures, illustrations and complex table formatting. Photos were finely tuned with Photoshop, and with the advent of the internet my lecture notes graduated to the online VLE where they became peppered with embedded videos and flash animations.

Finally I noticed something. It followed a conversation with a colleague, during which we simultaneously came to the realisation that we both found it difficult to start preparing our teaching until we had fixed on the visual style we wanted to use for it. I was spending more time on formatting than I was on the writing. Indeed the design was often taking priority over the content.

Now, I do need to explain before I go any further that I am not suggesting this is an entirely bad thing. Whether we like it or not, we now live in a multimedia educational culture, where differentiation has demonstrated to us how attention to visual and interactive elements in pedagogy makes for accessible and more effective learning. Indeed, I would argue that more attention needs to be given to effective design in educational resources. It does become a problem though, when you start a terms teaching without enough material because you have spent the summer trying to work out which video codecs are supported by Moodle.

Design is important. Interactivity and multimedia are important. But somewhere along the line I forgot that writing is the central activity in both processing and explaining ideas, and that it needs undivided attention.

Which is where I get to the point. Recently I have discovered the joys of small, free programs which are designed to provide a clean and clutter-free environment for writing. The fill your computer screen with a blank page. Your computer world becomes nothing more than you, your page, and the words with which you fill it. There is no visible menu, offering a pick’n’mix of options. There are no toolbars. There is definitely not an animated paperclip in the corner suggesting every five minutes that you might be trying to write a letter.

Some do, admittedly, allow you the luxury of things like italics, bold and underlining - but on the whole this is word processing Macwrite Pro style, and the result is like taking off a heavy backpack you had almost forgotten you were carrying. They enable the writing to be the focus, and it really is surprising just how much more productive you can be when you are focused on a single task.

I have tried out several of these programs, and because they are all trying to do something ultimately very simple, they all appear to be pretty much as good as each other.

Darkroom is perhaps the most basic of all, without even the benefit of text formatting (i.e. no italics or bold here). It is free. It is easy. It is Windows only.

Q10 offers a few more features, and these are nice although I didn’t really like the statistical word counts which appear at the bottom of the screen. Again, Q10 is Windows only, although it is available in a portable version which can run from a memory stick - and that can be very useful.

WriteMonkey is lovely. Easy and straightforward, there are a surprising number of customisations possible through a hidden menu - but the interface is as simple as it gets. Being only available for Windows is the only problem here.

Creawriter is rather nifty. Like Q10 it offers some nice features and customisations, but this time it is only available on Macintosh systems.

Focus Writer is the one I have settled on. It boasts straightforward customisations, and there are pre-made themes which can be imported. Best of all, it is multi-platform, which means I can use it both at work (on a Windows machine) and at home (on a Linux machine).

There are other programs which will set you back a modest amount of cash. Some of these provide more advanced features like auto-formatting, although all still within a working environment designed to be clutter-free. The free versions are so good though, I am not sure why you would need to part with any hard-earned readies. After all, if you wanted more advanced formatting options, then use a program designed for formatting. These programs are all about the writing.