Word processing is not exactly a hot topic in the field of computers and writing. After an initial flurry of activity in the 1980s (see Hawisher, 1986, 1988 for reviews of the literature), scholarly interest in computer software designed to facilitate the production of written text fell off considerably. By the late 1990s, Bernard Susser observed that research into word processing had effectively disappeared, as the “computers and writing (C&W) field moved its focus of attention from word processing to computer-mediated communication (CMC), hypertext, and other innovative forms of writing technology” (1998, p. 348). Citing research by Myron Tuman, Trent Batson, and Gail Hawisher, Susser noted that word processing had become transparent–users had become familiar with the technology and were now using it as their default writing technology.

By the early 2000s, not only were many writers word processing, they were nearly all using the same application: Microsoft Word. Although Word has been a prominent feature in a number of studies (e.g., McGee and Erickson, 2002; Buck, 2008), by 2007, Patricia Sullivan argued that Word’s dominance was partly to blame for the disappearance of word processing research. As she explained, word processing research was no longer done because:

(a) there is little word processing competition so Microsoft can make whatever changes to MSWord it cares to make, (b) word processing has merged with page layout in an uncomfortable way, (c) the question of what software to teach has moved to web languages or multimedia packages, and (d) we are more aware that we need contextual, social, and rhetorically based research of writing technology learning and use than most usability delivers. (2009, p. 13)

We agree with Sullivan that future research into writing technologies needs to look beyond the early methods of usability testing of word processing. However, since 2007, when she assessed the state of word processing, there has been a great deal of innovation in this area that justifies renewed scholarly interest. Microsoft Word has seen real competitors in Google Docs/Drive and in OpenOffice/LibreOffice, free competitors that mimic many of its features and interface designs. Furthermore, new writing applications have been developed that offer different features and use different interface designs. They have achieved, if not widespread success, then a loyal and enthusiastic following.

Many of these tools eschew what is sometimes called the “feature bloat” of mainstream word processing applications, and favor instead more streamlined experiences and environments. One example of these alternative tools is “distraction-free” writing applications, a relatively new class of software that provides minimal features and stripped down interfaces. As opposed to full-featured word processors, these “distraction-free” applications often do not allow users to format text, manage page margins, or work with many other features common to WYSIWYG programs.1 This minimalist design ethic has since found its way into many other software programs on Mac, Windows, and mobile device platforms.

These programs have formed the exigence for many writers to describe their own digital and analog distraction-free writing environments and practices and debate the merits of other environments and practices. Although scholarly interest in word processing has waned among writing scholars, it has undergone a resurgence among actual writers, especially those working in digital environments. Developers and users of these emerging tools, such as WriteRoom or Byword, provide accounts of their writing practices, descriptions of their tools and workflows, and tutorials detailing how to use the same tools and follow the same practices. In other words, they write about writing, and they do it in blog posts and comments, forum threads, software reviews, live chats, and other nooks and crannies of the Web.

Such reflective (and sometime critical) accounts of using new software applications for writing deserve our scholarly attention, not simply because they exist, but also because, in examining writers’ enthusiastic and often highly detailed accounts of using them, we are reminded of the important role technology plays in writing processes. Discussions of “process” research in Writing Studies have been contentious (c.f. Ede, 2004; Kastman Breuch, 2002), but overall this work tended to focus on cognitive activity or social activity, with less attention paid to the material tools that mediate writing practices. As Christina Haas (1996) has argued,

most theoretical accounts of writing treat technology in a cursory way, or ignore it altogether. In so doing, theories of writing implicitly claim that writing is writing is writing, regardless of the technologies used. (p. xii)

Process and postprocess theories follow the pattern Haas identified. In their study of the social bookmarking service, Delicious, Collin Gifford Brooke and Thomas Rickert (2012) argued that the

postprocess perspective remains entirely social and interpretive. … Put as directly as possible, in the current postprocess paradigm, there is no room to theorize, much less begin the questioning that would intimate that the world and its objects are essential to the ability to think, speak, write, make, and act. (p. 168)

A notable exception to these tendencies to overlook the materiality of writing technologies is the research of Paul Prior and Jody Shipka. Their interviews with writers reveal a host of material objects that serve to shape writing activity. A particularly interesting example involves a writer who used two keyboards: one in the usual position at the hands and the other on the ground so that her toes could press the spacebar and backspace key, thereby “reliev[ing] stress on her hands and wrists” (2003, p. 196). Their research highlights the ways writers make and use artifacts and environments that “regulate thought and affect” and “channel attention and action” (p. 228). Their work has been heavily influenced by cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT), and resonates strongly with others working with these theories to draw our attention to the mediational means of writing activity (Witte, 2005; Russell 1995, 1997; Spinuzzi 2003a, 2003b).

Where Prior and Shipka largely focus on the selection and structuring of physical environments, though, we want to suggest that software interfaces can also represent attempts to tune consciousness in writing activity. In this webtext, we take up the case of so-called “distraction-free” writing software. We will examine the materiality of these applications as well as the discourse surrounding them to trace the ways writers select and structure these technologies to shape their writing activity.

  1. This acronym refers to applications whose interfaces display an approximation of the content’s finished appearance. Here, writers compose on a screen that mimics what the printed page will look like. In other words, What You See Is What You Get