Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Writing Technology: Green Screens

Technique Tuesday

Let me begin by confessing that I'm still trying to work out what topics are appropriate for this theme. So, in the interim, I'm going to dive right into some technology. (Yes, it's the blogging equivalent of the magician waving a handkerchief to distract you while the assistant wheels the elephant onto the stage.)

I started playing with computers when green screen, character-mode displays were state-of-the art (I preferred amber over green, but that's another story). The original Macintosh (yes, that's what they were before they became hip enough to afford a three-letter name), splashed onto the scene with a full-time graphical user interface (GUI).

A few years later, folks from the English department at the University of Delaware published a study in which they argued that the quality of freshman papers written on a Macintosh was lower than those written on PC-class computers with character-mode displays. Oh, the papers produced on Macs looked better with well-laid-out text and proportional fonts, but (so the authors of the study claimed) the content of those papers was less well-thought-out than the papers composed without the graphical blandishments.* They suggested that this was because the students tended to believe that their papers were good (and more importantly finished) because they looked good.

The study and its claims were controversial. But I think there was a kernel of truth in the observation that there's value in a writing system that gets out of the way between you and your words; that removes even the little distractions life formatting.

Of course, now that we all use graphical interfaces the point may seem moot or at best hopelessly retro. Perhaps, but there are several applications for various platforms that give you a full screen with nothing there but your words.

I used a package called Write Monkey** on my Windows systems to finish drafting my current manuscript after I fell under the oppression of gainful employment and had substantially less time to write.

Having an editor in which I could focus entirely on my words helped me use my limited writing time well. You can achieve a similar effect with the Full Screen mode in your standard word processor. Perhaps it was the retro angle, but I enjoyed the way, Matrix-like, that the black background faded away and the words seemed to float free.

Of course, life is ever as simple as it should be and Write Monkey has its drawbacks, most of which come back to the fact that it is a text editor, not a word processor. This means that you get plain double quotes instead of the nice opening and closing quotes that Word supplies as you type. Also, Write Monkey doesn't convert a pair of dashes into an em-dash (again, like Word). I turned this liability into a feature: after writing about a chapter with Write Monkey, I import the text into Word and use the fact that quotes and em-dashes need to be corrected as an excuse to edit the new material.

For those of you who prefer Macs, I understand that Writeroom provides similar functionality. There's also JDarkRoom, which is written in Java and should run on your platform of choice.

What tools have you found that help you concentrate on your writing?

* Graphical Blandishments - that's how the animators for the Charlie Brown specials were credited.

** I have no connection with Write Monkey and received no consideration for this mention.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. I might be missing something here, but I have no problem writing and editing my books in Word. There is nothing to distract me on the page. I read your blog twice, but can't figure out how this program can help me. Could you elaborate?

  2. Fran, the first thing to say is that if you're satisfied with Word, then WriteMonkey and other packages like it might not do much for you.

    Second, with Word's full screen mode you have something close to WriteMonkey. So again, it may not be worth the extra trouble.

    In addition to the green screen (which helps me get into a Matrix-like mind space), the fact that WriteMonkey is nothing more than a text editor means that I can't worry too much about formatting. A text editor is the computer equivalent of scratch paper (whose virtues I extol in a post about note taking. Oh, and it has a handy word-count.

    Perhaps the most important feature, for me, is that WriteMonkey runs well on a netbook.

    Again, WriteMonkey is simply something I've found useful along with a netbook and personal rituals like going to a quite room in the house as a way to focus on my writing. Your mileage may vary.

  3. Hi,
    Just to let you know that Writemonkey allows you to define your own replacements: you can use it to tell Writmeonkey to replace (while you type your text) a sequence of two dashes with an em-dash.


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