Maybe call it Luddwrite

Designer Khoi Vinh posted an idea for a sort of word non-processor application, which he called BlockWriter. Though it doesn't exist yet, he secured the domain name already… a nice touch. The motivation, as he describes it, is this:

I noticed a few years ago that some serious writers, at least in the early drafting stages of their work, were turning to manual typewriters as a method of sidestepping distractions… There’s no email to check on a typewriter, no beeps and pop-up reminders from other applications, and no access whatsoever to the Internet and its tantalizing abundance of productivity-killing diversions. What’s more, a manual typewriter is a powerful antidote to authorial dawdling, that propensity to continually re-edit a sentence or a paragraph – thereby imparting the feeling of working without really working – instead of continuing to write new sentences or paragraphs instead. Unlike word processors or even the simplest text editors, manual typewriters don’t allow you to easily re-edit, insert and revise a sentence once it’s been committed to paper. This makes for an entirely different writing experience: the ideas come first, and the act of finessing them, of word-smithing, comes after all the ideas have been set to paper.
The application would have essentially two purposes (which could be served by separate apps). First, it would block out other distractions, perhaps going as far as to block the network. Second, it would pretty much act like a typewriter: the cursor moves forward only. You could use backspace to cross out previous words like this but otherwise you just keep typing and get the ideas out.

I can usually tune out distractions for long enough to come up with a few paragraphs at a time, assuming I'm actually interested in what they say. But I suffer much more from this latter problem: endlessly tweaking the words and the sentences. Writing in the small. Usually it's more productive to get everything down, and then go back and tweak. The only way my dissertation got written was with me in a coffee shop with pen and paper (and, incidentally, no internet).

One of my favorite toys as a kid – before we had a home computer – was a basic IBM typewriter. It was electric, but didn't do much more with the power than make the hammers move. I'd use it to write stories and plays, type up recipes, etc. Yes, I'm that much of a nerd. It has been so many years, that I never really thought about how a typewriter forces you to work.

Word processors (even their 1980s incarnations) encouraged endless tweaking of the words, and their WYSIWYG successors similarly encouraged tweaking of the format. It's great that the software we have now lets us go back to insert, delete, and rearrange our text without retyping everything or sacrificing whole forests. But perhaps that flexibility has costs as well…?

Anyway, it will be interesting to see if anything comes of the idea. A hacker with more Emacs skills than I have could probably whip up a blockwriter-mode in under an hour. The first step would be to delete all keys bound to anything other than self-insert-command. :)

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