Distraction-Free Writing Tools
The modern world is full of distractions. Not simply from everyday life (work, family, TV, household chores, finance, and day-to-day management of our own existence) but also from this wondrous invention we call the internet. All the information in the world is at our fingertips—as are silly cat pictures, videos of people falling over, memes, photographs of what our friends had for dinner, and countless other inane wastes of time—and it is far too easy to just get lost in it all.
As writing is more than just thinking of ideas, but is actually writing as well, these distractions can often make it difficult, or even impossible. Whilst normal life must go on and not be neglected, the rabbit-hole that is the internet often needs to be set aside in order to facilitate greater concentration.
The problems comes—for me, at least—with the way I write: I type much faster than I can write by hand. That’s not to say writing by hand is a poor choice—it is an excellent one for those who can do it—but as far as my own habits are concerned, I need to be able to write quickly, and my handwriting just doesn’t keep up. As such, I usually write on a laptop or desktop computer. The issue I have is that whenever I sit down at either, I always have stuff I need to do: update a website, do some marketing, edit some writing for someone else, create a poster for an event, and so on. Computers are for work, both when I am at my day job (where obviously I cannot spend time writing) and at home, as I have many projects on the go at once. How then am I to concentrate on writing when there is so much else to do?
In an effort to improve my focus, I have tested out a series of distraction-free writing tools, as even if I turn the internet off I still have too many programs and things to do on a computer. This list is not exhaustive, just the things I have tried, and what worked for me will not necessarily be suitable for you. These are my opinions and findings, based on my own needs as a writer, ordered from least effective to most.
I’ve had an iPad for a few years now, and one of the benefits of it—much like my iPhone—is that it can be put onto Airplane mode. This disconnects it from all network connections and, as mine is a wifi-only model, that means no internet.
On my iPad I have Microsoft Word and can access the same documents as my computer and laptop, as long as I am online. Therein exists an immediate problem: I have to go online first to get the document, then back online after making changes to sync it so it updates elsewhere. Assuming I am disciplined enough to do this without checking social media or opening a game of Angry Birds or whatever, I am then faced with an even worse problem: I cannot type on an iPad. The virtual keyboard doesn’t keep up with me at all, and I mostly miss the keys because I am used to typing half by touch, half by sight. I end up with bits of words, letters out-of-order, and most of my sentences missing.
I know you can get external keyboards for iPads, and that may be an option for some, but not for me. My iPad is a browsing device that lives on the coffee table, not a tool for work. Whilst it is a brilliant piece of technology, it is not the right thing for me to write on at all.
Notepad and Pen
I have a spiral-bound notepad that I bring with me to record rough notes on when interviewing people or researching things for articles and non-fiction, but it’s full of scribbles and doodles and various bits and bobs. It’s great for journalism, but terrible for proper writing as everything in it feels temporary and of its moment. To address this I bought myself a couple of cheap fake-leather-bound stitched paper notebooks from a supermarket. They look and feel very posh, yet only cost a few pounds each, and coupled with a decent pen—I chose gel, though a fountain pen would work just as well—give a sense of importance and permanence to what is being written. I have assigned each notepad a role: one for prose, one for poetry. I find that I am using them with similar intentions, though differently.
My prose notepad is slowly filling with research notes for the novel I am working on. Little bits of key information, sketches of ideas, character details, that sort of thing. I normally keep this stuff split between my Evernote account, a text file on my laptop, the Notes app on my phone, and my head. Putting it all into one place is very helpful, and although I am not writing in the notepad, I am using it as groundwork for writing. As such, however, it is not a successful writing tool.
On the other hand, my poetry notebook is faring much better. Again, I collect notes and ideas in it—usually words or phrases that I like, musings on a common theme—and write them on the left-hand pages. On the right-hand pages I turn these scraps into poems, working on them and moving words around, drawing arrows and crossing things out. The flexibility of writing by hand is, in my opinion, optimal for crafting poetry, and I find it more productive than using a laptop or computer. As I write so much slower than I think, I find that I can either try and keep up with my brain—in which case my handwriting becomes completely illegible, even to me—or I can concentrate on the word I am writing. With prose, this is a problem, but for poetry it is an advantage. I must choose each word carefully, and as I write it I have to decide if it belongs there, or if it is the right word at all. Attention to detail becomes paramount, which I find is very much a positive. When I have finished, I have a complete (if rather messy) first draft of a poem, written by hand on nice paper in a fancy notebook.
The downside of notepads is the ease at which they can be closed and put down, though this means they also can be picked up and opened very easily as well. I keep mine with a gel pen at all times, so that if I need to scribble something in them, I can do. They tend to live in my house, so I’m still reliant on the Notes app on my phone for ideas that strike when I am not at home, but as soon as I am back I write those thoughts down in ink. I use them much more than I thought I would, and so upon reflection they were a good and sensible—and cheap—investment.
I have an Imperial ‘The Good Companion’ Model T typewriter from the early 1950s, with round keys that make a click-hammer sound, and I love it. The noise it makes may annoy some, but I think it is part of the charm. When I sit at it I feel like a writer. Each keystroke is a hammer-blow, making that letter a permanent marking on the universe. It is a force of nature and very much feels like one; that is the only way I can describe it.
The main issue with this typewriter is that I cannot type as fast as I would like to, as the mechanism jams when typing at speed. In addition, to ensure each key makes a mark you need to press it much harder than you would a computer keyboard. The physical force required to type at all is considerable when compared to, say, a laptop, so typing at speed is not going to be achievable.
Although this could be seen as a negative, I find it to be the exact opposite: I need to be sure of each and every word I am typing. As such, I use the typewriter for redrafting poetry, so I can be sure each word is correct. One mistake and the entire piece needs to be retyped, so I am constantly questioning and evaluating every word, every letter, to be absolute in my belief that each is right.
The combination of notepad and typewriter when working through drafts of poetry is, in my opinion, incredibly beneficial. Once I have typed out the poem, it is the best I will be able to make it. That is when I workshop it with other poets, and then revise and edit it with a pen on the typed version. I can then type up the final draft on the typewriter and it is complete.
In terms of distractions, the typewriter is very good at drawing you in. The sound of the keys, the physical exertion—in comparison to a computer—of typing and moving to a new line is hypnotic and I find I almost have tunnel-vision when using it. I would definitely recommend trying one out, as there is something almost magical about using them, once you have the hang of the mechanics.
I love the detached nature of my typewriter, in that it doesn’t need the rest of the world to be working, though it is very heavy and hardly portable (even though it claims to be). What I really need for writing long-form prose, however, is something akin to a computer keyboard that will keep up with me, yet is in no way connected to a computer. So I found one.
I bought an Alphasmart Neo, which is basically a keyboard with a large calculator screen attached. The keys are full-size, and the keyboard itself has the feel of a laptop. It keeps up with me when I type and I don’t have to store loads of notepads or stacks of paper from a typewriter. It is halfway between a typewriter and a laptop: a word processor, or a paperless typewriter.
It didn’t take much getting used to, either. Typing is typing; the only thing that is different is the screen. I was most worried about missing a larger screen, yet as soon as I got going with it I realised that on a computer I really only look at the line I am typing and maybe one or two above anyway, so it was practically the same. The font size is also adjustable so that the display shows either two, three, four, five, or six lines of text. I opted for five lines in the end, as the text appears about size 12 on a computer screen at 100% zoom.
It takes two to three seconds to turn on and open the last-accessed file, and it is immediately ready to type once it has done. It can store eight files simultaneously—which is handy for working on multiple projects or chapters—and saves automatically. I can turn it on, write a paragraph or two, and turn it off knowing it has saved my work, all before the kettle boils. It is light and transportable, so can be wherever I am, and the only thing it does is lets you type. There are no games, no other apps apart from a calculator, no formatting options like bold or italic or font types or paragraph spacing to distract you. It is purely for decanting a first draft from your mind to the page, and it works.
I wish I had bought one of these sooner, to be honest. Because I know I can just pick it up and type anything from a sentence to a chapter without any other distractions, I am writing a lot more in the gaps in my day. I don’t have to go and find the power cable for my laptop, or move a cat off the desk in my study. If I want to write at my desk I can, but I can also write on the sofa, in the kitchen, in the garden, anywhere. It runs off three AA batteries, which won’t need replacing for around five years. This thing is incredible.
Another interesting feature is the way it transfers text. I thought it would save a text file and I would have to go through and manually replace all the apostrophes and dashes and whatnot with proper ones, but that’s not the case. You connect it to a computer, open Word, and then press Send and it types out everything you have typed into it, into the Word file, by itself, at high speed. That means Word will fix all the apostrophes and dashes like it normally would when you type. Word will alter spelling mistakes or missing capital letters. It means that you get a full Word file of your first draft, ready for you to go through and edit. You do have to write in chapters or sections and input each one when complete, though, as the memory won’t hold a full novel. Once you have finished and transferred one, you just clear the file on the Alphasmart Neo and start on the next chapter. Either way, you can write, transfer, edit, and keep the momentum up.
As a tool for capturing a first draft at high speed and without distractions, this is my personal favourite. The downsides I can see are that the keyboard angle isn’t adjustable (though it can be propped up with a book or something similar) and the screen is not backlit, meaning you cannot write in the dark. The limit of the screen size means that editing or reworking sections you have written is difficult—increasingly so with larger font sizes—but that can be left until the text is input onto a computer. That’s it, those are the only negatives. If you want something to write on that keeps up with your typing and costs less than £30, you could do a lot worse than one of these.
Of course, instead of trying out tech and gadgets you could just be disciplined and write using a computer. If you can do that, you have my admiration and utmost respect. However, if—like me—you struggle with staying focused when sitting at a computer as you have so much else to do, then I hope this has been useful.
Buy on Amazon
© 2018 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.