Distraction-Free Writing Environments

Like most mature word processing software, Microsoft Word (below) contains a dizzying array of tools and features, many of which are accessible through the various “ribbons” that now dominate the default user interface.

Screenshot of Microsoft Word

Screenshot of Microsoft Word

But recent years have seen the emergence of a different approach to writing software, often referred to as “distraction-free writing tools” or “distraction-free writing environments.” These software applications eschew the kind of “feature bloat” seen in traditional word processors in favor of minimizing features and stripping down the interface to its bare essentials. According to a 2010 reader poll on the blog Lifehacker.com, some of the more popular distraction-free writing environments included FocusWriter, WriteMonkey, OmmWriter, Q10, and WriteRoom. Though there are differences among these applications, all seek to minimize potential distractions by going full screen and limiting the interface to a cursor and the words being produced. No menu bars, no buttons or ribbons, and some even disable system notifications.

The emergence of these tools matters in two ways. First, it represents a possible development in what Prior and Shipka (2003) refer to as “environment-selecting and -structuring practices,” or ESSP’s, which they define as the “intentional deployment of external aids and actors to shape, stabilize, and direct consciousness in service of the task at hand” (p. 44). In the experiences of their interviewees, such practices involved not only the moment of inscription itself, but also myriad other activities that allowed for the gestation of ideas. They point, for instance, to one interviewee’s gardening activity “as material, affective, and motivational context-building, creating the conditions that would best serve her tasks of concentrated thought and writing” (p. 48). Where Prior and Shipka largely focus on the selection and structuring of physical environments, though, we suggest that distraction-free writing environments also represent an attempt to tune consciousness at the level of software interface.

And that brings us to the other way that distraction-free writing environments matter: like all interfaces, these software applications are thoroughly ideological and rhetorical. Several scholars (Arola, 2010; Selfe & Selfe, 1994; Wysocki & Jaskin, 2004) have made this point over the years, but here is how Paul LeBlanc (1990) put it:

software programs are not neutral. Any CAC [computer-assisted composition] program operates with an implicit ideology, one that values or devalues certain writing behaviors and ultimately demands adherence to a given view of the writing process (p. 8).

It may be too deterministic to claim that software “ultimately demands adherence to a given view of the writing process,” but writing applications do embed and communicate certain meanings and values through their interfaces. For example, Selfe & Selfe (1994) point out that the “desktop” metaphor of modern operating systems “present[s] reality as framed in the perspective of modern capitalism” (p. 486). Likewise, a piece of software that frames writing primarily as an activity to be protected against “distractions” is making fundamental assumptions about the writing process–and about writers. As Wysocki & Jasken put it, “The design of software is … also the design of users (p. 35).

In this section, we examine distraction-free writing environments in order to better understand both how they “select” and “structure” the conditions for writing activity, and how these environments themselves are rhetorical constructions. In other words, these writing programs argue for particular visions of processes, meanings, and values of writing. Some of this analysis can be accomplished by looking closely at the software itself, but it will also be important to attend to how these tools are framed and understood by their users. In order to discover these meanings and values, we also draw upon promotional material for these software applications, user reviews, and discussions of them in the context of productivity-oriented blogs and websites, such as Lifehacker.com and Lifehack.org. What we hope will emerge is a picture of distraction-free writing environments as situated in larger cultural and historical discourses of efficiency and productivity.