Filters for Distraction-free Writing

Is the pen mightier than the computer?

Distraction-free reading is not a fully solved problem–which is why the last article was so long. Distraction-free writing is a solved problem, which is why this article is short.

As mentioned previously (here), FilterJoe aims to be a starting point for anyone wanting to enhance their ability to effectively focus, process information, and get work done. Some content will be original, while other content (like this post) will summarize and reference the great work others have already done.

The Key

For many people, the key to being able to write something lengthy or complex is to eliminate distractions, just as with reading. For some people, using pen and paper in a room without a computer or telephone may be the best answer. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

For those who can type faster than they write, or just plain prefer word processors over paper, read on.

Get Rid of the Interface with Full Screen Mode

Full screen mode is the answer to many computer distraction issues, and so it is with writing on a computer. Most major word processors have a full screen mode which gets rid of all toolbars and menus. Use it. Avoid formatting, spelling correction, researching fine points, etc. until the first draft is done. Just keep your word processor in full screen mode and keep writing.

To elaborate, here’s a simple checklist:

  1. Research until ready to write a first draft
  2. Invoke full screen mode of your word processor
  3. Write, and then . . .
    • Don’t style your text: stay in full screen mode
    • Do not research: stay in full screen mode
    • Write zzz to mark places that need further research
  4. When done first draft, revise (replace each zzz)

Word Processors that Support Full Screen Mode

Following is a link to a post with many different products that support full screen mode:

Full Screen Text Editors from techmalaya

Note that Microsoft Word is on the list – choose “full screen” from the view menu to blank out everything except the text area.

I personally use Google Docs’ word processor (with fixed-width page view selected from the view menu), so I can access the document from home, work, or elsewhere. Control-Shift-F, F11, and I’m ready to write.

Get Rid of External Distractions

Getting rid of external distractions can be the hardest part to implement, as it may involve habit change for some – such as not answering the phone.  Here are two articles with a number of good suggestions:

Lifehack Tips and Tricks for Distraction-Free Writing

Writetodone on How to Write Without Distraction

The Lure of Research

A common reason for writers to take so long to write (myself included) is the need for research when writing. The research is necessary, but even a simple look-up can lead to endless surfing once you’re on the web. Here’s a way to keep working, while noting the need for research:

One more thing to look up before getting back to writing . . .
One more thing to look up before getting back to writing . . .

Do enough research to get a decent amount of background. Then write your first draft. Do not look up anything while doing this draft. If you’re unsure of a fact, mark “tk” or “zzz” or some other nonsense letters where you need to do further research or revision to a certain part of your text. After the draft is finished, you can look up every instance of “zzz” and research or revise as necessary.

That’s It

I didn’t mention how to block out every possible source of distraction. I didn’t tell you about a piece of software that automatically writes for you. But for those who haven’t yet worked out their own system for staying focused while writing, perhaps some ideas in this post and in the above-mentioned articles will help reduce distraction.

If you have any further thoughts, questions, or links to other great articles, please leave a comment – that will help make this post an even better starting point for people just learning to write without distraction.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

3 thoughts on “Filters for Distraction-free Writing”

  1. A lot of writers on the web leave research behind and just blow it out their arse, as Eliza Doolittle would say. (Eliza’s blog is a gas, you should check it out.)
    Just kidding. (Note to those under fifty: search George Bernard Shaw for the scoop on Eliza)
    Research implies links. LInks have to be identified stylistically in the typography of the page, Do you think that slows up reading. There was an article just a week or so ago on Copyblogger that claims they do. I think they do, too.
    A filter that hides links would be a good idea, don’t you think?
    (I’ll await an answer on this one, Mr. Filter)

  2. I don’t have an authoritative answer for you, but I can tell you my own thoughts and trade offs, as this was one of the issues I faced just after launching FilterJoe. Links DO need to be identified somehow, both to reference your research and to provide an easy way to get there. The question is how to do it so it doesn’t distract from reading too much.

    My first attempt to do this in FilterJoe was to ditch the underline and just make a subtle color difference (dark green instead of black). Unfortunately, due to variation in screen contrast/color and peoples’ eyesight, many people were unable to see my links at all. So I added underlines back in.

    I wish CSS had a way to do faint underlines for hypertext – but as far as I know it doesn’t. The only way to accomplish faint underlines is to choose a low contrast color for both the underline and AND the hyperlinked words – which unfortunately is also distracting.

    I have seen a couple of experimental themes that do away with all links unless you hover the mouse over the section containing the links. To see an example, check out the Boumatic theme, here (click on demo):

    I didn’t do something like this because I thought it was so unusual as to be a distraction in itself – though I like the idea in concept.

    The best I have to offer at this point is to choose an overall color scheme for the web site such that link colors are relatively low contrast with the text. That way, they’re not too noticeable, though you can find them if you want. lifehacker is perhaps the best example I’ve seen with link color contrast (yet still findable).

  3. Just like I said in the “distraction-free reading” post comments, I find Nocturne to be helpful on the Mac in combination with writing apps in full screen mode.

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