By Justin Agrell
My interest was piqued when I heard the word “DOS.” I was told that George R. R. Martin had used an old DOS program to write his entire “A Song of Ice and Fire” (commonly referred to as the Game of Thrones) series. I had to verify the information and, sure enough, he used Wordstar 4.0 running on some ancient computer with DOS to create his masterpiece. Apparently he prefers no help with his writing. No distracting spelling or grammar checks, no pop-ups or messages for licensing or updates.
This lead me to the discovery of no-distraction writing tools. Apparently Martin is not the only author who just wants to be left alone while writing. Authors of all kinds use, and have crafted, tools for creative writing that protect their concentration from being broken. So far, I have tried the honest-to-goodness Wordstar 4 on DOS, Wordgrinder on Linux, and Vim and Focuswriter available on all major platforms.
It actually surprised me that Wordstar was free and readily available. I installed DosBox first (a free DOS emulator). Then I searched the net and with no trouble at all I had found and downloaded the now-famous editor. The setup was a bit tricky, having to mount multiple drives and such, but the effort was well worth it. The program is simple, learning all the available options was quick, and I really enjoyed the retro DOS environment. It was easy to understand how one could get a lot of work done using Wordstar. If you’re interested, I’d recommend you go whole-hog. Find an old laptop with a good twenty years or so behind it with a decent keyboard, install FreeDOS, and enjoy your new(ish) word processor. No temptation to go online or check your email — you simply can’t. Extra hipster points are rewarded for the retro operating system and computer.
Wordgrinder was the next editor recommended to me. Wordgrinder is actually quite a new program and is still under development. It is Linux-only, so hopefully that doesn’t scare you off. Believe me when I say that getting a Linux system going and Wordgrinder installed is vastly easier to do than anything with DOS or digging around for an ancient laptop. Once you get Linux running and get to try Wordgrinder, you’ll see why it’s worth the effort. There is truly very little to learn in this program, and it does one thing better than probably any of the others I’ve tried. It simply gets out of the way and lets you write. With Wordgrinder, you’re one good mechanical keyboard away from typing bliss. (I ended up using the program to write this article, in fact.) [Editor’s Note: The text in this article was pretty easy to edit, format, post, and lay out — very minor cajoling aside.] It, as well, is completely free.
Focuswriter (and similarly Ommwriter) is more zen-like. These editors concentrate on giving you a less sterile environment and instead op for enticing fonts, backgrounds, and even sound effects. The idea is to stimulate creative writing by surrounding you only with other beautiful things. While I personally prefer the more straight-forward way of interacting with my work, it’s easy to see how this way of working would be perfect for others. You can’t help but appreciate a little portable zen to help in your creative efforts.
The powerhouse of the group is Vim (Emacs is similar if you prefer key combinations over switching modes … try both). If you’ve ever wanted an editor that has way more power than it probably should have, then Vim is your jam. I’ve been using Vim for a few years now for coding, and I now consider it my next tool of choice for creative writing. Vim uses modes to switch between tasks like highlighting, inputting, and entering commands. Just by using the keyboard, you can cut and paste blocks of text, delete entire lines, open other documents in the window to copy/paste, and enter handy commands such as find and replace. It took a little bit of flexing to get my Vim modified to work well with normal text — it’s primarily used for coding — but I’m quite satisfied with the result.
I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new world of word processing. If you write anything at all, you owe it to yourself to visit the world of plain text editing and distraction-free writing. I feel more productive now than ever and will continue to sing the high praises of these apps to any writer I meet.
Justin Agrell has been a certified IT technician since 2005. He loves Linux, adventure motorcycling, and computer gaming. To get in touch, just email him at Justin@U4E.US.