A software typewriter? Not for me, thanks

by Giles Turnbull

Khoi Vinh's idea for a software typewriter is intruiguing, but I can't see myself wanting to use such an app for writing.

As someone who learned the basics of journalism on a typewriter bought from a market stall for £10, the idea of emulating one in software does not appeal to me. Working on my typewriter was slow and frustrating.

Just because a typewriter doesn't allow you to go back and edit, and lacks commands like cut, copy and paste, that doesn't make it a more productive writing environment. I can't see myself wanting to go through any text I'd written this way, because it would be crammed full of struck-out errors which I'd then have to manually remove before doing anything else with the text.

The other aspect of Khoi's Blockwriter idea is that it blocks out all other distractions while using the computer, but again I find this bemusing. I'm inclined to agree with the comment by Narayan, who says:

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.

Right. If you want to avoid distractions on your computer, the best way to do it is to be disciplined and switch them off. Personally, I'm a fan of the zoom feature built into the OS, which you can switch on at any time, from within any app, just by hitting Option+Command+8. With it you can create a near-as-dammit fullscreen editing experience, effectively "hiding" all those distracting browsers and email clients. But as Narayan said, the best way to deal with them is simply to Quit them, and use a little willpower to get your work completed before starting them up again.


Confused reader
2006-05-15 08:25:22
"the zoom feature built into the OS, which you can switch on at any time...by hitting Option+Command+8"

Really? Doesn't work here. Please explain.


2006-05-15 08:37:51
@ Confused reader: Have a look in the Universal Access panel in System Preferences. The zoom feature is confusing at first, because hitting that key combo switches it on ... but you have to hit another key combo (Command+Option+=) to actually start zooming.
2006-05-15 11:20:47
I was initially very enthusiatic about Khoi's Blockwriter; I appreciate how difficult it can be to focus on a single task while using a computer. After thinking about it quite a bit, however, it began to seem a bit ridiculous trying to emulate a typewriter and it's pre-computing environment with software.

Instead of trying to ignore your computer and it's advanced text-editing capabilities to achieve focus, why not just buy a typewriter and turn off your computer for a bit? That seems the most authentic and least distracting method of writing to me.

Chris Howard
2006-05-15 15:11:33
Give me a typewriter over a computer any day! I'd even prefer a pen and paper except OCRing handwriting, especially mine, is impossible. (I OCR all my typing)

I totally agree with the principles of Khoi Vinh's software typewriter.

Telling people to "just be self-disciplined" is laughable. Especially for creative people who have a plethora of ideas circulating in their head at any one time.

A computer is a box full of distractions.

All that said, some writing is better suited to longhand or the typewriter, and some to computer. Short pieces and articles I write, I always do on computer. But long works like novels I'd highly recommend a writer tries a typewriter and just write (i.e. don't edit). There's something cathartic about using a typewriter.

Computers have affected our ability to write. They have made us lazy because we can edit as we go. Try using a typewriter - you'll be shocked how many "lazy mistakes" you make. Editing as you go also impacts productivity. I am trying to retrain myself to write first and edit second. When I do do it that way, I find myself significantly more productive. But it takes self-discipline to make that change, and self-discipline is not something I can just turn on and off at will.

Equally Confused
2006-05-16 05:30:47
There was a great book, a lightweight introduction to typography and desktop publishing, "The Mac is not a Typewriter," published a number of years back. It was supposed to teach us to give up all of those bad typewriter habits and learn how to format documents properly. I bought a used mechaniical typewriter for less than the cost of an inkjet cartridge a couple of years ago. I really will never understand how this idea has a niche.
2006-05-17 10:37:11
There's something pretty darn close to a software typewriter lurking in OSX. Try this:

[open Terminal]
% ed
start typing
keep typing
When you're done,
put a period at the
beginning of a line
like this:
w firstdraft.txt

Ta-dahhhh! Load "firstdraft.txt" into a more accommodating environment (like vim :-) and start your second draft.

If you really want to pare things down to a minumum, log out and then type >console at the login prompt. This turns your entire screen into one big text window. Then run ed just like I describe above.

You can type man ed in a Terminal to get more information, but that's kind of defeating the purpose, right?

2006-05-19 08:09:17
Oh, and even simpler (i.e. more typewriter-like):

% cat >firstdraft.txt
Start typing
and keep going
until your done.
Then press

2006-12-13 09:43:51
> Telling people to "just be self-disciplined" is laughable.
> Especially for creative people who have a plethora
> of ideas circulating in their head at any one time.

Then write the ideas down, and move on. I keep a notebook where I write down the ideas that are circulating in my head, and guess what? They stop circulating until I'm ready for them to circulate again. Then I can write without them distracting me further.

I tried the "take over the screen" approach to writing. But, I found I needed to occasionally send an email, or look up something in google, or even check a definition of a word (or get a synonym). Take over the screen doesn't work for me.

But I discovered something interesting -- when I want to write, I don't give in to the thousands of distractions my computer offers. And I want to write. I enjoy it. I'll probably never be good enough at it to publish something, but I still enjoy it.

Sometimes I wonder if a lot of the problems people have with writing is, as the man once said, they want to be authors, not writers. They want to have-written, not write.

Even so, my favorite writing tool is TextMate with a black background and green lettering.