Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Tools of the trade

April 2014

Writing is a personal, creative business. Writers tend to have their own ideas about which tools work for them and which don't. And what works for one person often doesn't work for others.

I'm a typist. The invention of the word-processor was a turning point in my writing career, and fortunately the home computing revolution took off while I was still at school. If I'd had to persevere with fountain pen and paper then my working life would have looked rather different. Medical professionals may have a reputation for appalling handwriting but mine could have embarrassed a drunk spider half-drowned in blue ink, and I was slow too.

By contrast, a good keyboard removes the barrier between my mind and the written expression of my thoughts. With a typing speed not far shy of 100wpm, I can think my words onto the page almost effortlessly.

But good keyboards are surprisingly hard to find. I'm writing this article on a laptop that's almost seven years old. There's nothing special about it - 15-inch screen, 2GB RAM, 40GB hard drive, 2GHz processor - but it's a clone of an old Fujitsu design and the keyboard is perfect. Soft and light but with good tactile feedback, full-sized keys and a decent offset from the wrist-rest. It's ideal for me.

Well, some of the time. Being a laptop it can do all sorts of other things besides allowing me to write. In particular it has an internet connection, which is the bane of every serious writer's productivity. But often I do need access to the internet, because I have to check my email and respond to clients, or research the background of something I'm writing about. I also need to make backups of the work I do, using the encryption tools I've installed on this computer. So it's not a pure writing machine.

Is there such a thing as a pure writing machine? Yes. It's a small market but they do exist, often tailored to the requirements of the educational sector and particularly for children with special needs.

Apple's old eMate - a beautifully quirky, translucent green plastic laptop with monochrome LCD screen and day-long battery life - was popular with writers for a time, but connectivity is a nightmare these days. Ageing journalists might rave about the TRS-80, though that was actually a full x86 portable computer that just happened to run on batteries and so was handy for writing while in the field. I've used all sorts of weird and wonderful writing devices in my time, including the Psion 3a, 3mx and 5mx PDAs which were great for knocking out a few hundred words while on the move.

Alphasmart, which later became Renaissance Learning, has been a supplier of writing machines for years. Many novelists rave about the qualities of the Alphasmart Neo or Neo 2, machines that are effectively portable keyboards with a small sunlight-visible LCD screen and enough memory to hold a small novel. Type your words wherever you happen to be, then return to your home computer, plug in the USB cable and watch your words typing their way into the document of your choice. It's an elegant and strangely relaxing process, enhanced by the knowledge that the Neo machines will run for up to 700 hours (that's not a typo) on three AA batteries and are robust enough to survive school environments. So it's a shame RenLearn discontinued them last year.

Alphasmart also used to make the Dana, a more expensive machine with a larger screen, running the Palm operating system. The Dana's screen isn't as high-contrast as the one in the Neo / Neo 2 due to the extra layer of touch-screen material on top. And the battery life is much shorter, at a mere 25 hours or so. I have both machines: on balance I prefer the Dana for editing as I like to see more of what I've written than is possible on the Neo's smaller screen. But for first drafts with no distraction, the Neo wins hands-down.

My children love the Neo, and it's encouraging them to write far more than they otherwise would. If I have a few thousand words to write, I'll lock myself away somewhere with either machine and get typing. No distractions, no internet access, nothing to do but write.

I have other options too, including an old Nokia N810 Internet tablet and folding USB keyboard. The latter I've customised heavily by dismantling it and fitting the keys and membranes from an old Palm folding keyboard, which is one of the best keyboards I've ever used. It's an odd and rather nerdy combination, but being able to hit over 80wpm on a foldable, pocketable piece of typing kit can be useful, especially if I want to churn out a thousand words while on a train.

If such esoteric equipment is impractical for you, there are software solutions that can mimic the distraction-free environment provided by some of the equipment I've described. If you're running Windows, the free Q10 writing tool is a nice full-screen text editor that can be configured to suit your tastes. PyRoom is a script-based equivalent that should run on any platform with a Python interpreter installed. JDarkRoom does a similar job under Java. My personal favourite is FocusWriter, a Qt-based word-processor that I use under Linux. It can handle a variety of rich-text file formats and you can set 'themes' to suit your writing preferences: green text on a black background suits me best.

The biggest enemies of good writing are distraction and procrastination. With the right tools you can at least reduce the impact of the former. Sadly, only will-power can help you with the latter.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and needs to be able to write whenever and wherever the mood takes him.

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