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FocusWriter and how I came to despise WriteRoom

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of fullscreen editors. It wasn’t until I tried FocusWriter that I realized why.

That’s not a slight against FocusWriter – FocusWriter is a rarity among these sorts of editors in that it is not only fullscreen, it is full-featured. Straight out of the box, FocusWriter gives you a non-eye-bleedy color scheme – black on light gray – a spellchecker, rich text capabilities, and an easy interface to switch between documents. It is, hands-down, the best editor of its type I’ve seen and probably ever will see. I may even use it once in a while, which is the highest compliment I can give to a member of its species.

So why do I dislike other fullscreen editors so? It turns out FocusWriter answered my question for me, simply by being so damn good. Let me explain the navigation experience: generally, FW gives you nothing on the screen besides your text, earning it that “distraction-free” label. Move your mouse to the top, however, and you will find – honest-to-su – a menu and a customizable toolbar.

But that’s not all. Wander over to the right and you’ll see a scrollbar. Wow. You might think I’m being sarcastic with that wow, and I wish I were, but I’m not. I’ve experienced way too many fullscreen editors missing this simple navigation tool, forcing me to page up or down the whole length of my document to get anywhere. I think we can all agree this is, to use the software-engineering term, stupid.

Finally, a short trip to the bottom gives you stats (words, paragraphs, characters, and pages), a clock, how close you are to achieving your defined goal for the day (wordcount or time), plus tabs to switch between the documents you currently have open. And there you have it, folks – a distraction-free text editor you can actually use.

Using FocusWriter made me realize just how disgustingly unusable most other editors of its kind really are. And for this, I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of WriteRoom, one of the most popular editors of this sort for OS X. For just twenty-five dollars (say it with me: twenty! five! dollars!) you can purchase the most uncomfortable writing experience of your life. Every single useful option is buried under so many unnavigable menus that the extremely limited amount of customization allowed (color, font, plus a load of small tweaks) is hardly worth the effort. There are no toolbars, only one kind of statistic, and certainly no clock or other means of keeping track of time. Switching between documents is anything but intuitive, and a pain to do even once you’ve learned how to do so. It is a stiff, unyielding program, although I will admit that it does have a scrollbar.

Why mention an OS X app on a Linux blog? Because everything I’ve said applies to its imitators – and, usually, worse. WriteRoom has set an infuriating trend among fullscreen editors – minimalism to a fault. A word processor should bend to the will of the writer, not force them to just “deal with” what they’re given. I’ve had a more customizable experience writing on a typewriter.

In short, fullscreen editors are awful and take refuge in their own “minimalism” to dodge the fact that they have virtually no features whatsoever. FocusWriter is the exception, a perfect example that minimalistic doesn’t mean featureless. Please, “distraction-free writing software,” get your goddamn act together. Give us something that adds to the writing experience instead of crippling it.

In the meantime, use FocusWriter. It’s free and it works in Linux, Windows, and OS X. Oh, did I mention it’s themeable, too? Here’s a winter theme by FreedomSurfer1984 to get you started, and just so you know, it looks like he’s taking requests.

If you try FocusWriter and decide you like it, subscribe to this guy’s blog – he’s the developer. You can follow him on twitter too, if you prefer. He’s on vacation at the moment, but once he gets back to making an awesome program, I’m sure you’d want to know. I sure do.

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17 Comments on “FocusWriter and how I came to despise WriteRoom”

  1. I think the ADD Helper compiz idea was more usefull but ultimately more annoying as I would only want to use it while I was writing. I like full screen editors as they focus you away from distractions (Was Facebook but I deactivated that)now it is Google Reader as I love reading about my interests.

    • awkisopen says:

      Although I didn’t explicitly say so in the post, I think FocusWriter is a brilliant editor and the very thing that might get me into the habit of writing fullscreen, as much as I’ve previously disliked it. This article isn’t me bashing on fullscreen editing, it’s analyzing why I felt that way (e.g. poorly designed programs) and why it’s changed after using FocusWriter.

      However, I still think ADD Helper is a feasible alternative for writers who want to minimize distractions without shutting them out entirely. As for the “annoying” aspect of it, ADD Helper is activated/deactivated by a single keystroke of your own choice, so I can’t see switching it on or off as an issue.

  2. […] Friday, writing on the weekend. RSS.Tell me what to install next: writingonlinux@gmail.com FocusWriter and how I came to despise WriteRoom […]

  3. Paulo says:

    Hi,

    Im reading you blog about the fullscreen write editor (aka Focuswritter, im a fan too 😛 )

    Well, if anyone wanna more themes to focuswriter, se tha blog:

    http://blog.scrybr.com/category/focuswriter-themes

    Have some good themes. Lets propose to the focuswriter’s autor to put a library/repository in your site to people put your theme to download easily? I think it will popularized more the app.

    Thanks for your post.

  4. […] to use, but it also includes instant stats, timers, and adjustable daily writing goals. Here is a great review if you’re not sure whether it’s the right tool for you. […]

  5. MrKaylian says:

    Yep, I fully agree; FocusWriter is the most amazingly featured full-screen writing application available. Excellent design from the author, and a truly distraction free experience.

    It lets you set lots of things so your writing environment is really cool, then you forget about it and get on with writing. As an ex-programmer, I’m using it to actually WRITE and am weaning myself off downloading new OS’s and Application Development tools!

  6. The scrybr theme site seems to have gone away. Are there any other sites?

  7. Damir says:

    Link to FocusWriter is broken (should be lowercased). I glanced over FocusWriter and can’t imagine why anyone woukd use it when we have SublimeText with its F11 and Shift+F11 distraction-free modes…

    • awkisopen says:

      This blog is long since dead, but I couldn’t not reply to this. Because SublimeText is designed for programming, and more importantly, costs fifty-nine dollars – that’s even more than Scrivener!

      • Damir says:

        You paid thousands for the computer you are using – but $59 is too much for the application you will use for hours each day? This application is a window to your machine in these hours, nothing else is there (in distraction-free state of mind).
        Well (aside from some top-notch open-source projects), polishing an application to look and feel great does take significant effort and time. I live from selling my own applications and perhaps that’s why I think people who work hard to deliver great applications deserve to be paid. I know, on Linux this still often isn’t the case – but I am sure many great applications will get ported to Linux so we can all choose if we want to pay for them. And developers will need to produce enough quality to justify product price to the audience used to not paying for the software.
        So in the end, it’s a win-win situation for all of us. Users get more choice, developers get larger audience.
        I get asked to port my applications to Linux all the time (http://www.fullconvert.com, http://www.spectralcore.com) – but there are no database components for Linux, nor highly-polished UI components for Linux. Until a mindset change comes in large-enough population, it won’t happen – nor will Linux replace Windows as a primary platform.
        So my customers need to mess with Wine on Linux. Pity.

      • awkisopen says:

        I think you missed the point of this blog, which is finding free writing software. Though even if that were not the case, recommending a $59 text editor specifically tailored for programming to writers is just absurd, especially when there is software tailored to writers for less money than that (i.e. Scrivener).

        If you were recommending it for programming purposes, of course, it would be an entirely different story.

      • rolandhughes says:

        Spoken like a non-writer. Actually worse. A non-writer that doesn’t know anything about writing. I have been down this road soooooo many times during my IT career. Probably the first time I heard this was back in the Commodore days. Despite the fact there were actual word processors which allowed for actual document layout, VisiCalc (or was it VisaCalc) users demanded people buy this add-in which allowed them to do basic text editing, but no real document layout functions.

        Some years later I visited a client site which HAD ALREADY CHOSEN A CORPORATE STANDARD WORD PROCESSOR with a cluster of Lotus 1-2-3 users demanding the IT department buy them this add-on/plug-in for their beloved spreadsheet claiming it made it a great word processor. In truth it made it a text editor which couldn’t do half of the formatting of the corporate standard and couldn’t save in the corporate standard document format. Still, they clamored for it, oblivious to the reality.

        There are still a few grizzled old writers, not many, but a few, who use a basic text editor and manually key in LaTeX formatting tokens while they write. Then they go through piles of paper trying to get all of the formatting correct.

        I actually have UltraEdit. On Ubuntu it is next to useless. There isn’t even an option to tell it to use spaces instead of tabs or to change the tab size. On Windows it has all of those features. It is still worthless for text documents. Oddly enough it has been quite outpaced by many of the free editors available on that platform. On any given OS I have somewhere between a dozen and two dozen editors installed for various tasks. Sometimes the only task I have for the text editor is to “look different” than my primary editor so I can keep track of which editor I’m actually editing in and which one I’m pasting snippets from.

        This much I can tell you based on more than a decade of published writing. There is no text editor which can be used efficiently by an actual writer laying out a complete book for printing. There is no word processor which should ever be used for program editing.

        At best, a text editor can be used to rough out a blog post, but, you will still end up spending time with the blog site editor getting your post and links formatted correctly. Some text editors, such as Tea (http://tea-editor.sourceforge.net/) which can be quite useful when creating concordance files (http://www.logikalsolutions.com/wordpress/?p=215). Tea is quite unique in that it was created by a Russian journalist, not a programmer. Indeed, he knew nothing about programming when he started. He simply wanted an editor which worked like his mind did preparing articles. Despite all its greatness and cross platform capabilities, Tea is not useful when trying to write books.

        Here is a challenge for you. It is quite a simple challenge. Visit this site: http://infiniteexposure.net/ Click on the download link and download the free promotional version of the book in PDF format. Replicate it with ALL formatting, fonts, running page headers, etc. with your text editor plug in. Authors have to do this every day.

    • rolandhughes says:

      Speaking as a multi-published author and an IT Geek of more than 20 years, I will help you acquire an imagination.

      Sublime is a half hearted attempt at a programming editor. I would actually place it behind jEdit, and I’m not a big fan of jEdit. There are many IDEs and programming editors out there which do a much better job.

      Have I used FocusWriter to write any of my books? No. I’ve used OpenOffice, Symphony, and lately LibreOffice. I don’t write in archaic “manuscript” form, I lay the book out completely as I write.

      That said, I do use FocusWriter quite frequently for blog posts and other documents. Many of us are old enough to remember WordPerfect under DOS, so this is a lot like a trip down memory lane. More so really. During DOS days, you didn’t get instant email notifications or other such things. You sat and you wrote. You had to exit the program to do anything else. There was no surfing the Web to look something up or other distractions. Sometimes I even close down the email client so I won’t get a notification.

      I use FocusWriter for when I need a plain interface which lets me block everything out. On those rare occasions when I’m being paid by the word to write, the live count is nice.
      http://www.infiniteexposure.net
      http://www.theminimumyouneedtoknow.com

      • Damir says:

        Actually, I am also a 20+ years geek, who started programming on Amiga wading through thick hardware reference manual. No Internet, and the alternative was IBM XT, a crappy, crappy box. Having worked in myriad of languages and editor since, I highly appreciate Sublime Text. Being generally uninterested in debates of editors, Sublime is such a breath of fresh air that I will make an effort to explain.
        I started programming on Amiga and the best editor out there (for assembler at least) was AsmOne. I used it to create a 700k+ lines of pure assembler code (all right, precalculated data was included there). It was fast, easy on eyes, simple to use, and did exactly what it needed to do.
        Then throughout the years I went on to continue working on PC. And yes, WordPerfect for DOS is engraved in my memory as an example of ugly and non-intuitive editor. Of course, formatting text in DOS is no easy task, so perhaps I shouldn’t blame them.
        In short, there are text editors, by definitions much less than IDEs. The problem with IDEs is they are typically very very slow and have so many features that they get in a way more then they help.
        Your jEdit, for example, is a java-based editor. I didn’t use it, but I am pretty sure it suffers from the same problem as java IDEs I did look at – it’s probably slow and not really intuitive. Java is a cross-platform language, so user interface of Java applications tends to be a minimum common denominator between OS-es, in other words – crap.
        The absolutely best text editor I found so far is UltraEdit. It’s only for PC, but have beautiful macros I tend to use a lot. It’s fast. And it’s ugly.
        Now – Sublime Text is the one even faster than UltraEdit (except for large file find/replace, an area they will improve I hope). It’s in a version 2.0, released days ago. So generally it’s a young application. Written in C++, it’s very fast. But importantly – it has intelligent features, instead of simply adding tons of them (perhaps I should mention it supports all TextMate bundles, important for all the long-time users of TextMate waiting for years for TextMate to evolve). But the features it does have – are stellar. Its fuzzy search is brilliant and enables me to find a file I need in no time. Check it out. Its plugins are super-easy to install, so I get to have syntax highlight and more. Options are easy to modify (a JSON text file). I could talk and talk about it, something I never did for any other editor, ever.
        Yes, I am looking from perspective of a programmer, not a writer. But if I were a writer, I would write my books in Sublime Text – because it’s super fast, has beautiful themes so I get to easily choose look and feel I like – and has great distraction-free mode (two of them in fact). Many people adore its minimap where you scroll visual representation of document.
        It costs $59, but allows me to install on all my machines. So I have it installed on my Windows desktop, Ubuntu Linux desktop, Windows laptop, and Linux laptop – and it gets used on all of them.

  8. […] assumed that I disliked them because thought these simply weren’t for me but, after reading someone else’s blog post, it dawned on me that, no, WriteRoom just sucks and some people are better at living with it than […]

  9. […] (which I've used for years, but which has now become unacceptably unstable), I stumbled upon this attack on WriteRoom and the Zenware movement (which I've written about at greater […]


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