Thursday, December 16, 2021

Distraction-free devices

In The New Yorker, Julian Lucas wonders whether “distraction-free devices” can change the way we write. I’m not sure. But I do think that they allow a writer to think about writing — and not tabs, fonts, margins, and app settings.

In 2005 I hit on my first version of what Paul Ford once called “Amish computing.” I used the Windows app Notepad2 (still available) and a spellcheck script. When I switched to a Mac in 2007, I began using TextWrangler (since superseded by BBEdit) and WriteRoom. I still stand by what I wrote in 2006: Writing is not word processing. And in 2011: I consider a word-processing window a hostile workplace. I consider Blogger’s Compose view and HTML view hostile workplaces as well, but they’re tolerable if I’m writing a short post.

I now do almost all my writing in iA Writer. For anything that’s to be printed (that is, a “document”), I still use Apple’s Pages app to “process” — ugly word — my words. For writing of any length, I still start with pen or pencil and paper.

[Two mistakes in the New Yorker piece: Ralph Ellison didn’t begin his second novel (published as Juneteenth and Three Days Before the Shooting . . .) on a computer. And Frank O’Hara didn’t write the poems of Lunch Poems on a sample Olivetti, not as what Lucas calls “a cute stunt,” nor as anything else. O’Hara’s claim to have written on a store-display typewriter is just a bit of urban pastoralism, part of the “blurp” the poet wrote for the book’s back cover. (You can see the blurp here, in a letter to City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.) If you do take the blurp as factual, well, it also describes the poet on his lunch hour withdrawing to “a darkened ware- or fire-house to limn his computed misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth.” LOL. Come on, fact checkers.]

comments: 4

Peter Clothier said...

I stumbled into a "word-processing" class in 1986--and went out at once and bought my first computer, a Kaypro. Weighed a ton and did a lot less than a smart phone these days. I never learned to type, and always felt locked in by that word-by-word, line-by-line process. What I loved about word-processing was that it was more like writing by hand on a yellow pad--I could make mistakes and correct them, and scratch out whole sentences, and change and edit as I went along. I do agree with you about the drawbacks of technology, but I have also benefited from it enormously in the course of writing several books... Cheers, PC

Michael Leddy said...

I’m thinking about the drawbacks only of word processing. I’m a huge fan of simple writing apps — iA Writer and others. That’s technology I love. (Also paper, pen, pencil.)

Matthew Schmeer said...

I was a longtime user of Notational Velocity on the Mac, but I've since switched to mostly using Linux (currently PopOS) & Windows 10 at home. On those platforms, I do most of my electronic noodling & drafting in Zettlr ( On Android & FireOS I use Joplin ( Both apps save files as plaintext (.txt) or markdown (.md) so there is no worry about future compatibility. I save to a cloud back-up service to sync across devices.

Michael Leddy said...

Joplin and Zettlr look great. Whatever the apps, having everything available via a cloud service is a huge advantage.

I used Notational Velocity for a long time but dropped it for Simplenote, which I was already using (for iOS) to sync with NV. I use Simplenote for odds and ends, iA Writer for writing.