The Circular History of Distraction-Free Writing

Back in the days, when computers did not have graphical user interfaces outside the high temple of XEROX Parc, if you needed to write anything other than raw data, you were better off using a typewriter. The first programmers, not expected to put a paragraph together—you had technical writers for that—devised interfaces for writing prose that were a sure recipe for writer’s block. It was only during the 1980s that editing text on a computer became accesible to mere mortals.

The first usable text editor reimagined the computer’s console as a blank piece of paper that might as well have rolled into a typewriter. One of those programs, developed for UNIX, was called VI, short for Visual editor (just imagine what a “non visual” editor looked like). Writing on a computer seemed very close to writing on a typewriter, with the advantage that you could endlessly fiddle with your text, changing words, paragraphs and sentences at your heart’s content. For all of that, you had to learn a few not very intuitive, but still useful commands. Seen from today, it seems a crude beginning, but it was arguably the best digital environment for writing.

The spartan Vim

The spartan Vim

VI didn’t make it into the personal computer back then,[1] but, perhaps taking inspiration in its stark simplicity, a number of word processing programs appeared in the market. One of them, WordStar, originally released in 1978, soon became the king of the hill. Half of its screen was devoted to show you its arcane commands (there was a setting to hide them), but it added something typewriters lacked: the ability to change your text, and formatting options. For the latter, you embedded formatting commands in your text. So, for instance, if you needed a word to be printed in Boldface, you pushed Crtl-P-B and the symbol ^B would appear on screen. To end Boldface you repeated the command. It was the beginning of semantic editing, and, despite its awkwardness, it let you focus on what mattered the most: writing.

WordStar in full glory

WordStar in full glory

It was a brief affair. Soon the famous—or infamous—graphical user interface (GUI) took over, so pervasively that every computer-related task had to be done by pushing icons on a screen (otherwise called, mouse around). It was a great development for the vast majority of applications but not for doing things with words on a screen. Unfortunately, semantic editing and text-based user interfaces were pushed to the digital junkyard, alongside other pioneer programs such as Visicalc—the first spreadsheet. It seemed that there was no way but the “screen chock-full of icons” way.

Soon word processors began sporting graphical user interfaces, and, it didn’t take long before they were able to show you on screen a fairly close representation to what you would get if you were to print your document. With the “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) came more icons which, purportedly, put all the program’s options at your fingertips (er, at your mouse’s click). This misguided idea was not necessarily bad. But the clutter made it difficult to focus on your writing. On top of that, the “who has more features” war pushed new versions out of the door at a fast pace, leaving some word processors out of business,[2] and fostering an unhealthy rapid change in file formats that beget the monster of the digital world: incompatibly.

So, at least for writers, the state of the word processing world was: cluttered screens and incompatible formats. It was obvious that something had to give. During the first years after 2000, the good folks of Soul Men, a German outfit with highly opinionated but extremely creative programmers, decided to go back to basics. Taking inspiration on the old computer console of the 1960s and 1970s, and the semantic editing created in the 1980s, they put together Ulysses, the first semantic writing environment for OS X. Fittingly, it sported a full screen mode, and used a universal file format: TEXT (which meant that a document created in Ulysses could be opened in any—yes, any—other application). It was an instant success, and the only reason why it did not become a de-facto standard, was that their stubborn developers stuck to a vision of Ulysses that left you wondering if there were any long-haul writers among them.

It was the dawn of a new era. By looking back to the past, they had moved forward, ridding the digital writing environment of two evils at once: clutter and incompatibility. Following their steps, Keith Blunt (not Kevin), a British writer frustrated with word processors, began developing Scrivener, a complete writer’s environment. Scrivener also sported a full screen option—the now famous “console mode”—but, unlike Ulysses, it adopted Rich Text Format (RTF) which allows to change fonts, line spacing and so forth. This compromise, which has turned out to be a happy balance for many, has made Scrivener the most successful writer’s environment available today, and there are versions for OS X, Windows, Linux and iOS (oops, soon iOS).

The full screen mode, with its Zen qualities, was more than a mere cosmetic change—it allowed you to focus on your text, rather than fiddle with formatting options or stare at dozens of boring icons. But RTF could be painful sometimes, as it tends to lose some formatting when it goes from one application to the next, a case of mild-incompatibility syndrome. And, though Scrivener is great, what if you need to write something short, like this text, for instance? The answer is semantic editing and plain text.

Inspired by the word processors of the 1980s (he was too young to have seen the computer screens of the 1970s), by markup languages such as LaTeX, and, of course, by Ulysses, John Gruber developed Markdown, a set of rules that allowed you to insert semantic editing—this is a heading, this is boldface, and so on—in an otherwise plain text file. His solution was eerily similar to WordStar, but it had two advantages: your could use any application to create markdown documents, and you could translate a markdown document into any other format (seriously, any other). The prairie caught fire, so to speak, and developers began rolling out their markdown editors.

The options were legion, and almost each one of them as Zen-like and effective as the next. It was not a simple happenstance that some of us stumbled upon VIM (VI Improved), surprised at the fact that the old VI had become a faster, stronger and more extensible text editor, without losing its simplicity, and, to some degree, its elegance. Thanks to semantic editing you could write in VIM, and then, when you were ready to print, resort to Gruber’s Markdown translator. In addition to gaining compatibility, documents became really small compared to their mammoth counterparts in, say, MS Word. But more importantly, they went back to a super-compatible file format that has been alive and well for the past fifty years: TEXT.

But Markdown didn’t offer a few formatting options—such as footnotes—essential to some types of writing. To solve this, Fletcher Penney released Multimarkdown, an extension to the original Markdown, that incorporated a richer set of features and a leaner and faster translator. Soon, a number of distraction free applications began to show up. They all were based on the “full screen with text format” idea, incorporating the semantic editing offered by Multimarkdown. Of course, Ulysses too could be used with Multimarkdown after a few small changes in the configuration. It was like going back to the late 1970s.

Meanwhile, based on the titanic work of Bram Moolenaar at vim.org, Björn Winckler ported VIM to the Mac, creating MacVim, which, as you might expect, sports full-screen mode, and, of course, supports semantic editing. Perhaps VIM is not for everybody. Its learning curve is steep, and, at first, it is a bit frustrating—like learning a language with a grammar structure very different from yours—but if you make the effort it surely pays off. There are plenty of resources to help you along the way, from Coming Home to Vim by Steve Losh, to the opinionated but well meaning podcasts by Derek Wyatt, including the incredibly warm videos at Vimcasts.

VIM can be tailored better than an Italian suit

VIM can be tailored better than an Italian suit

If you don’t care for MacVim, there are other options out there. Fletcher Penney himself has released MultiMarkdown Composer. There is also WriteRoom, an environment not unlike the old computer consoles, down to the green fonts if your install True Type VT200 font in your computer. These are only two of the many distraction-free environments blooming in this digital spring.

No matter which program you chose, the idea, at the end, is to go back to writing, avoiding the endless hours of fiddling with the right font, or the right formatting—things that you should do only when you are done—because before any of that, you need a blank screen and good old text. The distraction-free environment invented in the 1980s, with its full screen and semantic editing, has been rediscovered to our advantage in this new brave digital world.


  1. It was part of XENIX, a version of UNIX ported to the PCs, but XENIX, alas, did not capture the imagination of users back then.  ↩

  2. One of the casualties was AmiPro, perhaps one of the most elegant word processors in the early 1990s.  ↩

One thought on “The Circular History of Distraction-Free Writing

  1. c.s santisteban

    Estupendo blog (elegante, limpio, clásico, funcional) y la más didáctica de las explicaciones, hasta la fecha, para un ignorante como yo en materia de tecnología digital.
    Muchísimas gracias, Jose.

    Reply

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