Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: WriteRoom

Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: WriteRoom

I was originally intending to write a post about my experience during this year’s National Novel Writing Month. But I have the tendency to over-write everything I do — my novel for NaNoWriMo included — and the essay has already gotten out-of-control and will require more than just hashing out the kinks late on Monday night while The Horror of Party Beach plays on the TV. The previous sentence is an example of over-writing.

So while I get that essay restrained and re-done, I instead offer the first installment in a multi-part series about the hi-tech lo-tech devices that have emerged to help writers make themselves more productive in a society that finds more and more gizmos to distract them when they should just be plunking down words onto a page. You writers all know of what I speak: how can you effectively turn out three thousand words of your new novel on a word processor that offers you twenty different awesome ways to format your footnotes? And which lets your web brower peak out around the sides, tempting you to check out the newest posting on The Onion? You might fix the window to block out all that, but wow, look at all the ways you can manipulate the screen!

Face it… writers will create distractions out of anything. So finding a way to get those pesky annoyances down to a minimum is worth checking out. (As long as it isn’t distracting you…)

You could go truly lo-tech and get a typewriter. Or you could write your manuscript by hand into a composition book.

But technology exists that can duplicate a simpler era of writing without requiring you to hunt through eBay for Underwoods or sacrifice your writing hand to crimping from gripping a pen-shaft. I’ve found a few options over the last year and experimented with them in my quest for productivity, and I’m passing on what I’ve learned.

In the spirit of each of these posts, I will write the entire entry using the technology highlighted.

First up:


This is a “full-screen writing environment”—at least, that’s what the official website terms it. I call it a blank screen with text. No menus. No macros. No tables, footnotes, buttons, options, etc. You have a word-processor that is nothing more than a blinking cursor on a screen that envelops the entire computer display so you have nothing else to think about but the text.

WriteRoom isn’t entirely featureless, of course. You can set the display options. At the moment, I’m writing on a white screen using black Garamond 14 point. The default is green text on black, which is a perfect Apple ][+ imitation and a great nostalgia trip. Want a Commodore 64? Then switch to yellow text on blue screen. Pick your font, decide on spacing, and then you’re done. Write without anything else in your field of vision except that junk that is still cluttering your real-world desktop.

The program has a few other functions, such as a basic spell-checker and hyphenation. It doesn’t edit as well as a higher-functioning word processor because there aren’t as many options for navigating the text, but it works ideally for first-drafts. All documents are saved in Rich Text Format, making it easy to open up your text later in a program like Microsoft Word for editing it.

At first I felt a bit hesitant about using WriteRoom, since I had used Microsoft Word since I the first day I owned a Macintosh and was accustomed to it. But with a free thirty-day trial, I thought I’d try out the new program. At first I didn’t feel that I really needed WriteRoom, and I disliked the lack of an auto-correct that would capitalize the first letters of sentences and keep me from typing “teh” too often. However, I started more and more to enjoy the “WriteRoom” trance that I slipped into whenever I wrote lengthy pieces, something I had never experienced with such intensity in Microsoft Word. There is an all-enveloping quality to using WriteRoom that is quite beautiful, and within only ten days of the trial period I had decided to drop the thirty dollars to buy the full program. I now use it for all my first drafts written on my desktop. And I hardly miss the auto-correct function (which backfires on me as much as it helps out anyway).

The only time-wasting caveat I can give: be cautious about constantly switching around the color and text combinations. If the green and black default looks good to you, stick with it and don’t fiddle around any more than is necessary. If you want a more standard word processing experience, change to black text on white and use the most comfortable of the default fonts (probably Times New Roman).

WriteRoom is currently only available for the Mac OS. (Sorry PC users. I’m sure someone is hatching up a PC equivalent right now.)

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As an aspiring Fantasy writer, and someone who is semi ADD, this is something that peeked my interest. The free writing aspect, of typing on the metro bus ride home, is intriguing.

I have found a PC version called, DarkRoom. I is at this link:

James Enge

I have to admit I was skeptical, but a half hour of messing around with WriteRoom convinced me: this “full screen” thing is an awfully handy tool. It’s amazing how many decent words I got down on the “page” just because I wasn’t checking email or the weather or the news or the dozen other things I do when my mind begins to drift.

Bill Ward

Interesting1 I recently went in for a piece of kit on the same principles of non-distraction, the alphasmart neo. It’s a great little tool, but honestly the screen is just too small for anything other than a start-to-finish rough draft and I don’t find myself using it often. I’ll check out that dark room though, sounds promising.

Bill Ward

I’m looking forward to your take on it, Ryan.

David Munger

I’ve been trying out Scrivener, for the Mac. It’s a tool meant to organize notes and research as well as write drafts, and has some neat features including “index cards” with notes on them, which you can easily re-group. Once you get your draft done you can export it to a word processor format. It also has a full-screen mode, which even includes a slider for how opaquely (or not) you wish to hide the rest of the stuff under it on your screen.

Judith Berman

I’m checking out Scrivener too. It’s interesting how it changes how I work. One of the features is that it allows you to turn any size block of text into a a separate file (your whole novel is actually the file) that you can move around in relation to other such files by changing the order of your index cards on the virtual corkboard. You can start with the index cards and turn them into (attach them to) text. You can move them up and down in your passage-scene-section-chapter hierarchy. Each unit at eachlevel of the hierarchy can have its own corkboard and index cards.

I’m not sure I’m explaining this clearly, but it is worth taking a look! Lots more features, too.

[…] that I don’t need the artificial stimulant once I start to write; I “trance” quite well using last week’s topic WriteRoom and next week’s topic the Alphasmart NEO. Even a composition notebook has a similar effect. But […]

[…] more practical nature. Apparently based on a Mac application called Write Room (Ryan Harvey’s blog entry about it on Black Gate lead me to Dark Room, he also blogged about Write or Die here), Dark Room is […]

[…] sheet of typing paper. I’m as devoted this year as I was last year to the Alphasmart NEO and WriteRoom (which has a PC equivalent called DarkRoom), but I had reservations about the third lo-tech helper […]

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