Do "distraction-free" writing gadgets work?

Originally published at: Do "distraction-free" writing gadgets work? | Boing Boing




Not that ANYONE asked, but: #samesies

Not that anyone, at all, asked me to follow up on THAT, but:

I tried a number of distraction-free writing tools and all I ever found was that it felt like being in detention. Something joyous, playful, serious, dramatic, and connected to the world suddenly became a punishment. To this day I do what I’ve always done: write, revise, and edit in MS Word (or as I like to call it : M-Sword #connery), then proofread on paper.

I also echo the author’s sentiments on the AlphaSmart: I love my Neo2 - but not as a “distraction-free” writing device, but more as a very simple single-purpose note-taking tool. I would heartily endorse it for anyone for that purpose! It’s tough, fun and cool in a retro-tech sort of way, and the battery lasts forever. The only downside for me is the slow keystroke-by-keystroke text dump that cannot be interrupted without screwing up your whole document.

Not, again, that anyone asked.


Not that they did, but seconded, all the way down to the painfully slow transfer.

The native software to grab whole files was a delight. I feel like a better effort would be writing a simple USB grabber from the Neo when it’s plugged in. Far better than rolling your own Notepad.

Alphasmart + Markdown is about all I need.

1 Like

You should probably be writing stuff, not getting distracted by BBS posts. :wink:


This one wins.

I worry less about distractions and concentrate on making writing enjoyable. I have around 5 places in my house suitable for writing so I can wander, new environment etc. I pair a Qwerkywriter manual keyboard with either my phone or Onyx Boox for compact, portable writing, or with my huge portrait rotated monitor if I need to see lots of text. I use OneDrive so my writing syncs across all devices. My set up is the best. I win.

I’ve tried several of these devices/apps. I feel like the best combination of ergonomics, usability, and freedom from distraction might actually just be a really old computer, one too old to browse the web with any alacrity. An old Thinkpad running gedit or gvim, or an original iMac running BBEdit, would be much more robust writing platforms than an Alphasmart…


I’ve never tried a distraction-free writing tool, but I’ve played with similar ideas (writing in notebooks, using old computers that can’t connect to the internet, etc).

What I’ve found is that if you want to be distracted, you will be. Even if the device isn’t what distracts you, live would. For the longest time I couldn’t even leave my curtains open while I was working.

These days, I just make myself comfortable while I’m writing and eventually it happens. If I really need to get work done, I’ll go to a co-working space (not during covid, though) and work. For some reason, being in a room full of strangers pushes me into this very productive space.


Absolutely. This is why I go to a coffee shop or a library if I really need to write something, even though I have two offices at my disposal


Fans of original gangster editors, look away now: It’s Tilde, a text editor that doesn’t work like it’s 1976

Writing happens in the head. As does distraction, within limits (noisy, busy, uncomfortable environments are, of course, actual distractors). And I suppose I should add “fingers,” since for me at least the keyboard is the input device of choice and the text editor is the drafting and editing environment. (Long ago, first drafts were all longhand and editing involved scissors and a stapler. The Selectric was reserved for final submissions.)

Writing gadgets and gimmicks strike me as just that–not unlike most of the how-to-write advice books that try to organize or universalize what is a deeply individual process.

I taught college-level writing courses for a couple decades, and what I came away with was a bunch of advice about different ways of organizing work processes, one or more of which might work for a given student. But I never came up with a surefire way of generating the “ideas” and the sentences that embody them. And after nearly sixty years of practice, I still don’t know exactly where the sentences come from, any more than I know where the music comes from when I pick up my guitar. I can identify the techniques deployed, name the stylistic models and conventions deployed, and analyze the output–but the secret, as Robert Frost says, sits in the middle and knows.

On the other hand, another bit of Frostian wisdom: “What worked for them might work for you.”


“Distraction Free” writing apps always seem to me like a marketing angle by a developer that doesn’t have the bandwidth to make a full featured app, so instead they decide to call the bugs a feature, and not just a feature, the killer feature.


Very early in my career I realized that this is exactly what writing classes are, advice that works for the instructor. At a certain point, I kinda stopped going to class and focused more on actually getting words on the page.

I’m 20ish years into my career and I’m just as uncertain as you are where the sentences actually come from (although I’m very glad they consistently show up the way they do).

To my (aging) mind, the teacher of a skill ought to be in the business of offering a range of tools and techniques, with the clear recommendation that the student use the ones that work. And the codicil that some of them work for a lot of practitioners, so the student should not be hasty in discarding them altogether.

That’s pretty much the way I learned to play guitar–not very systematically, but thanks to instruction at the hands of a lot of different systematic teachers and practitioners. (The bandstand and jam sessions are also classrooms.) While conservatory training will reliably produce competent players for those who stick with the program, there are plenty of competent players who managed to find other routes. Take what you need and leave the rest and all that.


What’s interesting is that my approach to learning music was almost the exact opposite of writing. I was very much a conservatory player as a kid and leaned into music instruction again as an adult to help learn another instrument.

With writing, I pulled the important bits out of the instruction I had and figured the rest out myself.

I just plug mine in and transfer the file. (And I just now re-read your post, leaving this here anyway.)

Are you doing that thing where you can print the files and it types it out on the screen of the computer it’s attached to? There’s an app Neo Manager I run on my Mac and allows me to just transfer the files.

I basically just write on the Neo until I fill up one of the 8 file buttons. Then I transfer it over and edit.

I just wish it had a light on it and maybe a bigger screen.

Yeah, Neo Manager. One expects that’s just an OS change away from being unusable. Abandonware, alas.

Given the simplicity of the AS approach, slurping down the stored files is probably not very complicated.

This topic was automatically closed after 5 days. New replies are no longer allowed.