Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: Write or Die

Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: Write or Die

Continuing on with my reviews of high-technology ways to get back to low-technology days of writing, I turn to an application that I don’t use often myself, but which comes with high recommendations from people who need a swift kick in the shins to get them typing:


Write or Die

Write or Die is an online application that, according to its creator Jeff Printy, a.k.a. Dr. Wicked, puts the “Prod” in “Productivity.”

In other words, it makes you write via threats and psychological torture. The tangible threat of immediate punishment is more effective a tool toward productivity than less tangible and more distant rewards, at least for some people.

Dr. Wicked’s own description of the origin of the program, from an interview at National Novel Writing Month:

I made Write or Die because it occurred to me that the reason people stop writing is lack of motivation. An apt metaphor for motivation is the donkey and the carrot. The donkey moves forward because there is a carrot dangling a few feet in front of him on the end of a pole and he wants to eat the carrot. When that metaphor is applied to a writer toiling in obscurity, we must imagine the pole being about three miles long and the path before our proverbial donkey is laden with land mines. When the reward for your work seems impossibly distant it is no longer useful as a reward and it’s time to break out the riding crop.

Write or Die is simple to work. You set a word count goal and/or a time limit on the main page. Press “Write,” and a blank window opens in which to type. There’s no formatting, there isn’t even a ‘tab’ function. Just start typing. And don’t stop. Because punishment begins if you let a set time elapse. You can change the grace period from three settings, depending on how much fear you require.

When you stop typing, the background of the text window starts to shift toward red, and when it hits bloody crimson, one of three inducers activate to motivate you back to writing:

  1. Gentle Mode. A dialogue box pops up, telling you to get back to work. You must hit “okay” to resume.
  2. Normal Mode. An annoying sound starts to blare: car horn, bad pop music, etc.
  3. Kamikaze Mode. Your work starts to erase itself a word at a time beginning from the point where you stopped.

The only way to prevent these activities is to start typing again. The third option is especially frightening for anyone, and it’s the only of the threats that carries a genuine writing consequences. (A ghosted option promises an “Electrical Shock” function, but that may take a few upgrades until Dr. Wicked has the mechanics and legality issues worked out.)

The real threat is psychological: you don’t want to ignite a response, so you keep typing, hoping you can prevent the action regardless of what it is. I don’t fear the Jackson Five’s “ABC” on its own, but I do fear a failure that causes it to start playing. Having my work erased is quite horrifying, but if I can prevent it easily by typing, I will.

When you reach either of your goals, whether word count or time, a trumpet fanfare sounds. You can keep writing if you wish to, or end the program with the “Done” button. A prompt will ask you if you want to transfer your writing to your computer’s clipboard so it is ready to paste into a document. Either way, you move to a screen that contains what you wrote (sans paragraph breaks) and a badge declaring how much you wrote in how much time so you can paste it into a blog or website using a handy URL.

As I stated earlier, I don’t use Write or Die much myself, except for experimental “sprints” and for writing a blog entry like this—which I did entirely on Write or Die before the editing process. (I edited on SimpleText, a beautiful basic application that would deserve an article on its own regarding productivity, but if you own a computer you already have either it or the PC equivalent Notepad.) I discovered through using Write or Die 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 I’ve come across so many testimonials from other writers who have found their projects “rescued” through Write or Die that I had to look into it. National Novel Writing Month has numerous threads in the forums where people praise Write or Die to the heights of Olympus for allowing them to get anything done. My face-to-face encounters with other writers in the mad month of November told me similar stories of salvation through punishment. Clearly, it has aided many people to crank up their productivity with “prods.” I work better if I allow myself to slow down in places, so Write or Die hasn’t turned into a tradition with me—except for fun races to see how many words of stream-of-consciousness weirdness I can crank out in ten minutes. It’s fun to take a coffee break at work where I set myself a ten-minute goal and just go bonkers slapping down the oddness that runs through my mind most of the day to see what sort of ideas it generates. For writing a short story or a novel, I think I’ll stick with WriteRoom and the NEO.

Two other issues I have with Write or Die that keep me from using it regularly:

  1. No “tab” functionality. To get distinguishable paragraph breaks, you have to do a double-space between them. This looks fine visually, and it’s the standard for online writing, but it means you have to re-format your work directly afterwards to fit it into most document styles. I would rather not have to touch the work so immediately after I’m done. And any paragraph breaks vanish in the text that appears on the finishing screen, so I wouldn’t advice copying and pasting from this at all.
  2. Risky save feature. Dr. Wicked admits saving your work can be a problem with some systems, and I’ve lost a few pieces when a sudden text box popped up to query me if I wanted to save. (Glad I was only experimenting with utter nonsense at the time.) You can get this through accidentally hitting a function key on your keyboard, or numerous combo of Command+ or Control+. I get bumped from the main window, and find my text isn’t in the clipboard. Also, an Internet browser failure could wipe out all the work. This makes me too nervous about writing on Write or Die, a mood that isn’t a productivity aid. If you use Write or Die, please follow Dr. Wicked’s advice to copy ‘n’ paste before exiting. You could do this while writing, but taking this break will start the punishment process. And that was the whole point in the first place.

Here’s my suggestion for a possible future punishment, once Dr. Wicked gets the electro-shocks implemented: “In the Penal Colony” mode, a la Franz Kafka. You write in the program, or the program writes on you—with knives and razors!

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[…] blog entry about it on Black Gate lead me to Dark Room, he also blogged about Write or Die here), Dark Room is basically a full-screen, green text on black, text editor with very simple […]

[…] I blogged at the time that Write-or-Die wasn’t the sort of writing help that I needed: a web application that provides punishment if the writer did not continue to pound away at the keys in a steady beat. Many people love it, and claim they would never meet any of their daily deadlines without the program’s specter of terror, like the Scarecrow from Batman Begins hovering over them with his fear toxin, forcing them to dash forward. But I never found it that useful a tool—and I had a fear of losing my writing that was stronger than Write-or-Die’s punishments of annoying sounds and un-typing my last few words. […]

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