FocusWriter, Wannabes and Practicing Writers

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Dec 09, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I generally write in Bluefish. It has just about everything I need -- a word count, a spell-checker, and shortcuts to produce clean HTML (if that's what the editor requires), and little of the overhead and distractions of a word processor. But I am always on the lookout for other tools, which is why FocusWriter interested me. Unfortunately, while it shows some promise, it turns out to be another writing tool designed more for wannabes than a working writer.

I am actually surprised and disappointed to make that statement. Graeme Gott, FocusWriter's developer describes it as a "fullscreen, distraction-free word processor," which sounds like something that should suit me. And, whether full-screened or windowed, with its auto-hide menu and icon and status bars, FocusWriter does provide a minimalist environment in which to work. The problem is that FocusWriter also provides other features that Gott imagines that Writers need that are actually other forms of distractions.

Take, for example, the progress indicators. If you are writing for publication, an approximate word count is useful. Assignments are usually given out in approximate word-lengths, which helps editors plan layout. However, the key word here is "approximate." In selling over 950 articles, I have yet to meet an editor who wants more than a count rounded off to the nearest multiple of 50 or 100. Only amateurs care enough to get the exact count.

Under such approximations, exactly how words are counted, which FocusWriter allows you to set in its preferences, is largely irrelevant. Personally, I have not the least idea how Bluefish calculates words -- whether, for instance, it counts HTML tags or spaces or counts words as five or six spaces. All I know is that no editor has complained about my word counts, and what I get is more than good enough for me.

The same goes for pages. I almost never have a request for page count, and editors themselves seem uninterested in accuracy nearer than to within half a page, because the number of ads and the amount of copy deleted or added makes up any difference.

As for the number of characters, which FocusWriter also gives, forget it. Nobody is interested. The same is true of the percentage of daily goal. Daily goals are a concern of wannabes, who want to knock off and agonize over their strivings in their blogs as soon as possible. I -- and every other selling writer that I know -- is more concerned with finished pieces. The closest we come to worrying about daily goals is ticking off the points we wanted to cover, either mentally or perhaps on a sticky note where we scrawled them.

FocusWriter does have one feature that might be useful: A timer with an alarm. I can imagine myself using the timer to remind myself when I need to stop writing and do something else -- like go to bed, or to work on a non-fiction project for which I am getting paid an hourly rate. But it is easy enough to set a reminder via a simple script and crontab job, and at any rate I suspect that the point of FocusWriter is not so practical, but rather, like the percentage of daily goal, a way for wannabes to know when they can stop tormenting themselves.

The Formatting Dilemma

Another problem with FocusWriter and applications is how they handle formatting. If their main goal really is distraction-free writing, then they need support only plain text or at the most the insertion of HTML or XML tags, which is what Bluefish does. In other words, they can become the desktop equivalent of Vi or Emacs (or at least set off down that road, since both these classic editors can be extremely versatile with the right extensions).

However, perhaps aware that some manuscripts need to be formatted, FocusWriter also includes the option for formatting. Probably in order to avoid supporting Microsoft's .doc format, which unfortunately remains the standard in many publisher's offices, FocusWrite opts for supporting .RTF format instead, and printing to PDF.

When you toggle .RTF at the bottom of FocusWriter's Format menu, the menu enables some basic formatting for different typeface weights, as well as line alignment and tabs. The logic seems to be to allow basic manuscript formatting -- yet, for some reason, line spacing is left out.

So, for that matter, are styles. Instead, FocusWriter requires manual formatting if any is to be done at all, as though it were simply an electronic version of a typewriter (and, in fact, FocusWriter's built-in -- and annoying -- sound effects of manual keys and a carriage return suggests that is exactly how the developer thinks of it)

But those who have bothered to learn to use templates and styles will know that this choice actually makes FocusWriter more inefficient than a word processor, not less. One of the purposes of a well-designed template is to allow formatting to be added automatically, without the writer making decisions. By contrast, manual formatting means that the writer is more distracted than they would be in a word processor. In other words, FocusWriter's implementation of formatting is actually working against its goal of enabling distraction-free writing.

Nothing on a Text Editor

I am not just singling out FocusWriter as a target, only to use it as an example.of some typical confused good intentions. In my experience, when someone tries to write software for writers -- whether a dedicated editor like FocusWriter or a more elaborate planner like StorYBook or Writer's World Maker, they usually seem to refer to what wannabe writers would like, instead of what might actually help a beginning or established writer.

There is nothing wrong with developing software for writing hobbyists, of course. But the trouble is that such software tends to offer what the hobbyists want, rather than what they actually need, and to encourage them in unproductive habits. You only have to compare such tools to my colleague Dmitri Popov's Writer's Tools extension for OpenOffice.org to see a feature set that writers might actually use.

As for me, I'll be staying with Bluefish. It may be intended mainly for developers, but it provides a better balance between lack of distractions and features than I expect programs like FocusWriter to manage in the next half dozen releases, if then.

Comments

  • FosusWriter too limited to be really usefull

    I too had a look at FocusWriter and sadly found it lacking in what I like from a text editor ... sorry, "writing tool".

    Granted, I am an emacs user (and a tiling window manager user) and so biased in my habits, but I think that these are reasonable criticisms:

    There's no way to easily navigate around a document. No incremental forwards or backwards search; something that I find stunningly useful and that has become instinctive. In FocusWriter you have to mess around with the mouse and a dialogue box to do a very limited style of search, which is very distracting.

    There's no moving by word, line, sentence, paragraph. No way to move straight to the beginning or end of a document. No bookmarking.

    I could go on (really!), but the point is made. Navigating around documents is a pain.

    All of the navigation issues also have a knock-on effect upon copying and pasting text and generally manipulating text.

    FocusWriter's management of open documents is poor. If you have more than a couple or so documents open, a tabbed interface and a mouse starts getting in the way. It becomes a game of click and guess. Yes, I do realise that this is the emacs user in me showing happy.

    Being able to split the screen and see two different parts of the same document or two documents at the same time is invaluable. "Distraction free" seems yet again to simply mean lack of function. The ability to split the screen is not a distraction.

    There is no way to organise documents or notes. Having many other buffers, sorry, *files* open, and using structured notes etc. This is vital for me and FocusWriter does none of this. When put together with the poor search and navigation abilities it means that the software is simply getting in the way of efficient use.

    It's perfectly possible to use proper text editors without distracting menu bars and all the rest, and you still retain the editing power of a proper text editor.

    For instance, I use emacs and a window manager without scroll-bars, menus or icons. I have a black background with white text in a font and size that I like (all this can be changed of course), syntax highlighting if I use markup, spell checking and any old word/character counts that I might need.

    In emacs I also have access to org-mode for organising notes, to-dos, check lists etc. and other modes for other types of file.

    My advice is to choose, learn and stick with a good quality text editor. If you need to get rid of "distractions", then do so. You can turn of all those blinking notifications and icons from the desktop and one mark of a good quality editor (gedit, bluefish, VIM etc) is that it will allow you to "calm down" it's own interface. As I mentioned above, this means that you will still have access to all the power of a real text editor.

    These so-called distraction-free editors are a fashionable distraction in themselves.
  • FocusWriter too limited to be really useful

    I too had a look at FocusWriter and sadly found it lacking in what I like from a text editor ... sorry, "writing tool".

    Granted, I am an emacs user (and a tiling window manager user) and so biased in my habits, but I think that these are reasonable criticisms:

    There's no way to easily navigate around a document. No incremental forwards or backwards search, something that I find stunningly useful. In focuswriter you have to mess around with the mouse and a dialogue box to do a very limited style of search which is very distracting.

    No moving by word, line, sentence, paragraph. No way to move straight to the beginning or end of a document. No bookmarking.

    I could go on (really!), but the point is made. Navigating around documents is a pain.

    All of the navigation issues also have a knock-on effect upon copying and pasting text and generally manipulating text.

    FocusWriter's management of open documents is poor. If you have more than a couple or so documents open, a tabbed interface and a mouse is a complete waste of time. It's a game of click and guess. Yes, that this is the emacs user showing happy

    Being able to split the screen and see two different parts of the same document or two documents at the same time is invaluable. "Distraction free" seems yet again to simply mean lack of function. The ability to split the screen is not a distraction.

    There is no way to organise documents or notes. Having many other buffers, sorry, *files* open, and using structured notes etc. This is vital for me and FocusWriter does none of this. When put together with the poor search and navigation abilities it means that the software is simply getting in the way of efficient use.

    It's perfectly possible to use proper text editors without distracting menu bars and all the rest, and you still retain the editing power of a proper text editor.

    For instance, I use emacs and a window manager without scroll-bars, menus or icons. I have a black background with white text in a font and size that I like (all this can be changed of course), syntax highlighting if I use markup, spell checking and any old word/character counts that I might need.

    In emacs I also have access to org-mode for organising notes, to-dos, check lists etc. and other modes for other types of file.

    My advice is to choose, learn and stick with a good quality text editor. If you need to get rid of "distractions", then do so. You can turn of all those blinking notifications and icons from the desktop and one mark of a good quality editor (gedit, bluefish, VIM etc) is that it will allow you to "calm down" it's own interface. As I mentioned above, this means that you will still have access to all the power of a real text editor.

    These so-called distraction-free editors are a fashionable distraction in themselves.

    Being able to split the screen and see two different parts of the same document or two documents at the same time is invaluable. "Distraction free" seems yet again to simply mean lack of function. The ability to split the screen is not a distraction.
  • FocusWriter does what it's name implies

    I read your article with interest, though I would respectfully disagree that tools like FocusWriter is for "wannabe" writers. As an established article writer (and aspiring novelist) as well as the publisher of an online literary magazine -- not to mention a FocusWriter user -- the software does what it is intended to do, allow the user to write without worrying about formatting and all that other stuff.

    I use FW to write my first drafts. I don't have to worry about formatting or anything of that nature. When I write with the software, I do just that. I do need Google Translator, Maps, task managers and the like found in Popov's Writer's Tools. (Not a slight against the program, but talk about tools that distract you when you're supposed to be writing.)
  • Sometimes words count to the unit

    Scientific journals are pretty anal about word count (specially the all important abstract section), and the same is true for grant applications fields.

    So I would say there's a lot of diversity of needs out there, and focuswriter seems rather unobtrusive with its features (they are easy to ignore, if you don't need them). It's hard to complain that focuswriter counts words to the unit, instead of going by the hundreds or thousands, if you don't need that level of precision, you can round it off mentally.

    I would NEVER do any formating with focuswriter, that would be a negation of the entire purpose of the software. But again to each its own, as long as the interface remains uncluttered.

    Now the typewriter sound is absolutely hilarious, but to each its own fetishes.
  • The problem wih distraction-free is distraction

    I am a confirmed procrastinator and I've used many, many tools to either get organized or get the job done. Unfortunately my attempts were met with little success so far. I've also been trying to engage in some sort of creative writing, just for fun. I used to write in PyRoom, then I decided it lacked some features like versioning, spell-checking and making the sound of those good old typewriters. I quickly found myself tinkering with PyRoom's code (its written in Python) then I gave it up and decided to use OpenOffice with a custom UI and a couple of macros to make it start in full-screen mode and get rid of that damned floating toolbar. Eventually, I found myself writing ... computer code rather than human language sentences in proper form.

    Seeking the right tool is just an excuse, you could very well write in a plain text editor like Gedit or even on paper. The real issue is that people like me just can't focus on a single task, no piece of software could ever help us, we're doomed to "not writing". Distraction-free writing tools are just like tools that prevent you from surfing the Web, the kind of tool you set up by yourself ... and circumvent by yourself as well.

    Those who want to write had better address procrastination and/or writer's block instead of getting distracted trying distraction-free software, with all due respect for distraction-free software developers.
  • Really?

    Some publications do indeed request a number of characters instead of words (usually an approximate number, but I know one guy who always delivers his articles to exact specification), perhaps because some languages have far more variation in word length than English. Word count is useless to me, whereas character count is essential.

    Also, I'm pretty sure a percentage of daily goal can be useful for many students with hard deadlines and little routine, who are in greater need of distraction-free writing tools than most.
  • Experts in our own incompetencies

    Anyone who has ever written a research thesis, especially a PhD, will be familiar with those "essential" ancilliary tasks that become so important as the deadline looms - formatting references, checking the bibliographic sources (again), tidying the workspace, tidying the apartment and perfecting the perfect cappuchino.

    In some cases, and especially in computer science, people become absolute experts in their own incompetencies. The professor who is always late is the one person who knows about (and contributes to) time management software. The developer who misses every deadline is the one writing Getting Things Done plugins. The documentation writer who lost everything in a power-outage is designing hierarchical note-managers.

    And the wannabe writer with a software streak is the person developing writers' aids, instead of getting that stuff out of their heart and onto a page.

    I have been there and done that, just "knowing" that one last software tweak will produce the results that finish my project.
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