WriteRoom Brings Distraction-free Writing to Mac OS X

I write for a living. While I don’t suffer writers block too often, I do have one major problem that affects my productivity and reduces my output – distraction.

I love my MacBook Pro. I’m just a few clicks away from 16,000 songs, and all day long various applications ping, click and bing, alerting me to new Facebook photos, emails from friends and comments on my blogs. Entertaining though all this is, it’s not exactly conducive to sitting down and getting my articles written.

Enter WriteRoom, a Mac application designed to take away all these distractions and allow me to concentrate on what actually matters – getting my work done.

WriteRoom is basically a text editor intended to run in full screen mode. Nothing is shown apart from the text. If I move my cursor a word count pops up in the bottom-left of the screen – it’s all I want, and all I need.

WriteRoom for Mac
WriteRoom for Mac

There is actually more power hidden away than that. It is possible to configure the program to display rich text instead of simply words, but that, to me, is against what I am trying to achieve.

I’ve quickly settled into a completely new writing workflow, with WriteRoom at the center of it. I open the program, switch to full screen and type. As there is no active spelling and grammar checking, I’m not distracted by errors that disturb my flow. Rather than editing as I go, I copy and paste the whole lot into Word at the end, and do one big proofreading and formatting exercise.

Given that I always did this at the end anyway, I am saving a lot of time. I realize now that I was going back and correcting errors on the fly because Word’s red and green error lines were breaking my concentration. As a result, my articles are now getting written much quicker.

WriteRoom is highly customizable. Your editing window can have any background and text color you like. I have simply gone for green on a black background, which is both easy on my eyes, and lets me pretend I’m using a vintage Amstrad PCW word-processer – which feels oddly compelling on state of the art Mac!

WriteRoom is fully compliant with OS X Lion’s resume / save features – useful to some I’m sure, but not relevant to me as I always move text into Word for further editing. This is one way in which I could suggest a small improvement – a shortcut button to fire the text directly into Word or Pages would further speed up my workflow.

Those who do wish to save directly from the program can do so in text format only – or export straight to PDF.

Another handy feature is the option of logging work sessions to a spreadsheet – useful to track how long articles are taking.

The simple things are the most important – the things that actually affect how I work. Switching to full screen mode requires a shortcut of CTRL+SHIFT+F. To get back to the OS X desktop, you have to repeat this combination – pressing “Esc” does nothing. Now this may seem like a small thing, but when I have used Word’s full screen mode, the temptation to quickly press “Esc” when Mail “bings” the arrival of a new message is too much to resist.

This and the totally distraction free typing window are what make this app essential – it genuinely makes me better at my work – and exactly what the best apps should do. For me, it’s worth every penny of its $10 price tag.

Tips and Tools for Better, Faster Writing

I’ve been writing here at Techerator for over a year, but only recently have I decided to take steps to improve my writing and time efficiency. You probably know the drill: sit down at your desk, check out Twitter, open your word editor, Tweet something, check out Facebook, decide on a title, Facebook about how hard it is to write, go reward yourself with a cup of coffee, I wonder what’s on CNN…

We can do better than this. Without the massive amount of distractions inherent to the Internet our writing has more substance and fewer errors. Writing can be such a joy, but it’s so easy to get off track — how can we sweep away the distractions and get the best version of our content on the page quickly? Here are a few tips and tools that have cut my typical write time in half, and I like to think these tricks have made my writing better as well.

1. Do your research before you start writing

This seems like a no-brainer, but I think a lot of people (myself included) ignore this very basic concept. Until recently, I had a tab in my browser dedicated to my WordPress post editor and I would rapidly switch back and forth typing a sentence or two at a time as I figured out what I planned to say.

Grab a notebook (you know, that old paper version of the internet) and jot down your ideas as you’re reading. Collect all of the images you plan to use, and formulate an outline on paper. After 15-20 minutes of dedicated reading and establishing your position on a topic, you’ll be amazed how prepared you feel to write. When we have a solid stance on something, our natural instinct is to share that feeling.

2. Use BreakTaker

You need to take breaks while you’re working. It’s easy to get sucked into your project and forget to stretch, sit up straight, or even breath properly — this costs you productivity, and more of it than you’d expect. Techerator’s own Evan Wondrasek created a useful tool called BreakTaker that will remind you to take a break at user-defined intervals and offer suggestions for your 60-second breather. Set it up and use it. Evan is working on a feature that will kick you in the groin if you ignore your BreakTaker.

3. Eliminate the distractions and write… JUST WRITE

This is the meat of my argument, and trust me, eliminating your distractions will make writing so fast that you’ll be back to your Xbox in surprising time.

Here’s what you do: Gather your materials; you should have everything you need to complete your article. Disable your wi-fi and close your browser. Now, open your text editor… but screw your old text editor. If you’re running on a Mac, WriteRoom is the tool for you, and if you’re on Windows, Dark Room is almost the exact same thing.

WriteRoom and Dark Room are minimalistic editors that occupy your entire screen and allow you to fully engage your material. You can change the colors to fit your preferences, but seriously, green on black is so awesome I don’t know why you’d want to change it. Try these editors with the lights off — writing in a dark room is a technique some of the most successful bloggers use (like @arrington). Combine with headphones; now you’re big-time. With nothing else to draw your attention, you will absolutely blaze through your article.

4. Proof read with a partner

I know, this seems over the top —  but believe me, it is completely possible and makes a world of difference. If you’re a writer, you probably have writer friends, or at least writers that contribute to the same blog or newspaper. Coordinate with a writing partner to exchange articles at a specific time to quickly proof, edit, and offer notes for each other. It takes 10-15 minutes at most, and the perspective offered by a reader will improve your word choices, your story flow, and on rare occasion they’ll recommend that you scrap it… because sometimes we convince ourselves that total garbage is worth publishing. Get a buddy and your writing will be better and your editing much quicker. Your managing editor will thank you.

These tricks have helped me reduce my write time and improve the quality of my content, and if you’re diligent, they’ll work for you, too. Good luck out there, and if you have tips that work for you, please share them in the comments.

NaNoWriMo – Write a Novel In a Month

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is an annual event whereby people with too much time on their hands and not enough brain cells in their heads embark on a mission to write a novel in a month. I know, it sounds mad, but it’s actually surprisingly doable with a little commitment and consistency.

There is only really one rule: write 50,000 words of a novel between November 1 and November 31. The novel can be any genre, in any language, and can be complete or just part of a larger work to be completed at a later date. Participants are even allowed (and positively encouraged) to plan their novel and make extensive notes in the build-up to the start date.

NaNoWriMo has been with us since 1999 when just 21 people took part. By 2010 that had risen to 200,000, and I have personally taken part every year since 2005. Unfortunately I have yet to reach the goal of 50,000 words, but perhaps this year will be different.

Depending on when you’re reading this it may not be too late to take part in this year’s NaNoWriMo. And there are certain tips which should help you in your quest to reach the magic 50k…

NaNoWriMo Tips and Tools

– Have your novel outlined before the month begins. You can have each chapter plotted and all characters named as long as you don’t actually start writing the story proper. This is essential unless you adopt a stream of consciousness style of writing and see what emerges onto the screen. YWriter is a free tool that helps you track and organize your novel as it progresses.

– Try and exceed the 1667-word daily minimum on days when you have spare time and the creativity is flowing. This will give you room to take your foot off the pedal when something unexpected comes up mid-month. FocusWriter is a free tool that helps you keep track of your word count.

– Use all the help you can get from people you know and strangers you don’t know. The NaNoWriMo forums are filled with alumni from past years who will be more than happy to assist and advise.

– Don’t get distracted. It’s far too easy to find something else online to do that will only end up eating away at the minutes you should be spending writing. Write or Die is a free tool which forces you to keep writing. If you don’t then your previous paragraphs will start disappearing in front of your eyes.

– Don’t stop and spell-check or change passages of the story. Just keep plowing through until you reach the end. Editing can commence on December 1. Having said that you should remember to take regular breaks. BreakTaker, from our own Evan Wondrasek, is a free tool that reminds you it’s time to step away from the computer.

– Have fun. There’s no point in writing, whether it be 5,000 words in a year or 50,000 in a month, if you’re not enjoying the experience.

To conclude, good luck to all those intrepid souls taking on the challenge of NaNoWriMo. You’ll need it. And feel free to add me as a writing buddy (DaveP).

Image Credit: Welcometoalville

Automatic Content Generation and Other Shady Web Practices

I'm going to spin this article SO hard it's going to barf all over the internet.

I was recently looking through some job listings at a freelance writing site when I noticed a few odd things. The first was the ridiculous amount of articles some businesses were asking for, along with that was the incredibly low wage offered for the job. The second thing was the use of words like “content generation” and “article spinning.”

I had no idea what all of this meant, but when I started seeing jobs requiring 2,000 articles for $1,500 I thought something shady had to be afoot. At my current pace, it would take me about 40 years to reach that 2,000 article requirement.

Now, I would not say I am a full-time writer by any means. I don’t even know if I would call myself a part-time writer. Casual maybe, but still there is no way anyone can write  that many articles for that little money in any kind of time frame. But, they could generate them.

Content Generators

After a bit of research, I have decided that content generators do basically the same thing as 7th graders doing research papers. Find an article, change some words around, hand it in and call it your own. Don’t get  me wrong, in 7th grade this was perfectly acceptable, but it doesn’t seem so innocent in the professional world.

I must admit that when I first saw a demo video on how these things worked, I was actually a little taken aback. I automatically assumed that these things were used for the sole purpose of “spinning” other peoples articles to create “unique” articles to call your own, either to post on your own web page or to sell to others. But, at the end of the demo video, something caught my ear.

This particular content generator, “The Best Spinner”, has what’s called an article index. Basically what the article index does is allow you to both post your articles, and download other people articles that have done that same, to be respun and republished “as long as you keep the links intact.” At first I didn’t realize why anyone would do this. Why write something and then give it out to thousands of people to reuse? I thought the whole point of having a website was to have unique content that no one else had, so why would you want to essentially dilute your original content?

Deeper Into the Rabbit Hole

That’s when I came across services that offered thousands of page views and things called “back links” and, of course, riches beyond your wildest dreams. That didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me either. So I delved deeper and came across things like “link farms” (basically a bunch of web sites that all link back and forth from each other) and search engine optimization and everything made sense.

Essentially, one way search engines rank sites is by the amount of links on other sites that refer to them (aka back links). So, by using these different tools to distribute content to be reproduced by perhaps hundreds or thousands of other people, as long as they keep the links, they are creating back links to increase their own ranking on search engines. A higher ranking generally equals more traffic which equals more ad revenue. Essentially it’s creating back links by throwing link-laden material all over the net as opposed to earning them by being a reputable source of information that other legitimate web sites link to in order to further peoples knowledge on a subject.

So, I have discovered a shady world filled with unethical practices driven by, what else than, making money without actually doing work. The good thing is that these things are becoming less effective with the advent of more complex search engine ranking algorithms. They now give more weight to back links with relevant content as opposed to just raw numbers. Also, it’s allegedly possible to be penalized in search engine rankings if you have a lot of duplicate work, so things are looking up.

Conclusion

I’ll admit that one reason I write is for some extra cash, but I also enjoy being able to share what I know, and hopefully entertain someone down along the way. It saddens me a little bit to think people do article spinning and content generating. I’m sure some probably make quite a bit of money off it by either stealing someones content and reproducing it as their own, or reproducing a few articles and polluting the internet with reproductions in hopes to easily rise in the ranks.

Have I totally come down on the wrong part of some of these tools and services? Does anyone out there see something that I’ve missed? If so, by all means let me know in the comments.