For Writers, Technology Matters, but So Do Peace and Quiet

I really enjoyed reading Jim Porter’s text, “Why Technology Matters to Writing: A Cyberwriter’s Tale.” His recounting of how his writing changed due to the technological advances he experienced between 1960 and 1995 was really helpful in keeping my (tired) motor running while working on my final project.


My brain is currently looking something like this; hence, my motor’s running out of gas…

My project explores the following questions: “Do new media and technologies have an effect on our students’ writing?” Dennis Baron’s book, A Better Pencil, features heavily in my project, so I especially appreciated the fact that Porter maintains a conversation with Baron in “Why Techology Matters.” Specifically, Porter quibbles with Baron (whose argument is that today’s new writing technologies are no more groundbreaking than older technologies, such as the pencil and typewriter): According to Porter, these newer technologies aren’t just “another pencil,” but rather quite revolutionary. Why? They’re changing the way human beings relate to one another in unprecedented ways; for instance, today’s new media connects people who are further apart, and with a serious quickness. No typewriter or pencil can pull that off!

Reading Derek Van Ittersum’s and Kory Lawson Ching’s “Composing Text/Shaping Process: How Digital Environments Mediate Writing Activity” made me reconsider how technologically advanced I really am (okay, that and the fact that I have yet to obtain a smart phone, even though my moderately tech-averse Baby Boomer mom finally broke down and got one!). After all, for well over a decade, academics have been moving away from paying attention to traditional word processing programs, such as Microsoft Word. Instead, Google Docs (which I do use) and Open Office are what’s “on fleek,” as the young, tech-savvy whippersnappers would say. However, what I found especially interesting was Van Ittersum’s and Ching’s discussion of distraction-free writing tools, which I never heard of until taking this class:

Many of these tools eschew what is sometimes called the “feature bloat” of mainstream word processing applications, and favor instead more streamlined experiences and environments (Van Ittersum & Ching).

In addition, the simplicity of these tools is encouraging us to focus more intently on the tasks at hand. This makes sense to me; after all, one of the major changes new media have brought into our lives is this: serious, constant distraction.

Focus, Kitty

Granted, distractions have always existed, even during the Typewriter Era. However, today’s new technologies are a lot like a needy, barking dog: awesome, but constantly and aggressively drawing our attention away from our tasks. Generally, our society is geared towards using new technologies for multitasking instead of focusing, but multitasking is a big-time enemy to writing, which requires quiet contemplation and focus. For this reason, I’m going to consider integrating this tool into my own composition classroom. Perhaps this tool can help my students learn yet another way to work effectively with new technologies.



6 comments on “For Writers, Technology Matters, but So Do Peace and Quiet

  1. I like the idea of having distraction-free composing tools. When I write on Microsoft Word, I find myself procrastinating the actual writing part of my process by fiddling with the font, size, format, maybe color, inserting images…etc. I noticed that when I used a minimalist composing tool for the reflection project that eliminated these options, I really had nothing else better to do than just write.

    However, a part of me wonders if these distraction-free tools are actually distraction-free. It seems like these articles are attributing “distraction” with jumping the gun on the editing or formatting stage before the drafting stage is complete. A distraction is having unnecessary options like design, page layout, text style…etc. that could inhibit the process of getting words on the damn page.

    But I would argue that most of these minimalist composing tools contain other explicit distractions – sound, images, objectives…etc. For example, OmmWriter is supposed to create a relaxing distraction-free space to write, but I can see how the music or background art can throw someone off. Write or Die, another tool deemed “distraction-free,” is full of distractions. Holy crap, alarms, moving images, game-like qualities, levels, consequences, pulsating colors…that shit is intense. Yeah, you aren’t distracted by grammar, formatting, and other low-order concerns, but you also might have a hard time concentrating if there are things crawling on your screen because you can’t type fast enough.

    I’m wondering if other researchers have different definitions of “distraction-free” in regards to composing tools. Is it just a term that reflects the distraction associated with tool-bar actions – layout, design, and things – or can the term also represent sensory distractions?

    What would be a minimalist distraction-free composing tool with absolutely 0 general distractions? Haha, paper and a pen….would the ability or temptation to doodle be a distraction? Oh god, the pen-top clicky thing… perhaps finding a distraction-free environment is impossible, depending on your definition of “distraction.”

  2. Ha ha! So true. OmmWriter sounds terrifying! 😀 The last thing I need while writing is an alarm going off. Maybe pencil + paper is the ultimate distraction-free combination – no clicky pen tops, no alarms, and no crazy music.

  3. Hi Monica,

    Great post as always. I love your visual with the brain. My brain is pretty mushy right now. As for the topic about distraction free writing, I laugh when I saw that Ashley offered the original distraction free technology, paper and a pen. I think paper and a pen work really well because you avoid distractions. In addition, you can draw arrows or doodle to illustrate your idea. Writing with a pen is so intuitive but I acknowledge that I learned to write with a pen and not a keyboard.

    I find writing with a computer to be very distracting. When I type, I always give myself breaks and I end up surfing the Internet to avoid working. It’s also much harder to illustrate in a Word document. I have to go through multiple steps and pull down multiple menus.

  4. I love your comparison of the barking dog and technology. Yes it needs our attention to survive. And like a dog, we are the one who chooses to have it in our lives.

  5. Hey Monica!

    I really appreciated what you had to say, though I worry about dissuading people from multitasking. I would argue that majority of my writing (and I’m guessing most students’ writing) necessitates multitasking, mostly due to looking at readings and research as we write. That’s not to say that programs designed to “focus us” don’t have a place, but personally, I don’t care for writing in a void. Before laptops and the like were as prevalent, I would sit down to write with books and papers scattered around me, get up every fifteen minutes to change the cd I was listening to, and maybe make a quick phone call to see who was free to hang out when I was done “working.” I guess I’m of the opinion that many people have always written with distraction, but maybe it’s just more visible and centralized now because it all happens within a single device.

    On a side note, I could definitely see minimalist composing tools as great for brainstorming drafts or just getting some words out. I also want to draw your attention to a few distraction free apps that I don’t personally use but that sound interesting for those who can’t get off of Facebook. Check these out:

    “Anti-Social” – lets you set a time limit and will block all video websites (Netflix/YouTube) as well as social media sites (Twitter/Reddit/Facebook) for that time. I should mention that to reset the timer you have to reboot the entire computer – it’s not as easy as hitting a button.

    “Self-Control” (Mac) & “Freedom” (PC) – these are also time limit setters, though they block the entirety of the internet. Not great if you are using online databases, but might be helpful to some that just can’t get away from the Firefox symbol. Again, rebooting is your only option of getting back online.

    And my personal favorite, “TrackTime” – this runs in the background of the computer and tells you how much time you are keeping windows open for. For instance, after a writing session you can go back and see that you had Word open for 15 minutes and the internet open for 18 minutes, and then ask yourself if you accomplished as much as you could in your “30 minute writing session”

    Of the four above apps, I really like the last one, because I can even key into how long I spend filtering through PDFs while I’m writing. It doesn’t overtly control you like the other programs do, but I think it can really give you some insight into your own habit and (maybe?) inspire you to change.

    Sorry if this was a bit tangential, but I thought I’d offer this information up.

  6. Hey Monica,

    I love your post and all the comparisons you made with everyday distractions that we all experience on a daily basis to the technological distractions that become more and more apparent. I especially enjoyed your ending note of your post where you show that society is gearing more towards multitasking than actual focus itself. Focus itself is such a vital component to teaching, but I feel like it always takes the backseat for class progression (moving onto the next assignment and lesson).

    I’m not sure if focus is something that can actually be taught but I definitely think that focus is something that should be practiced more, especially in the classroom for both students and teachers. What I love about writing tools, like ZenPen, is that the content of the tool is there and obvious -to get some writing done! To tie back with the classroom, teachers (a lot of the time) have extremely complicated writing prompts and the exact task that they want their students to isn’t as clear as it ought to be. this is veering off topic, but there are so many distractions in teaching writing itself. I think something that teachers should do is be more aware of these distractions and get their students to realize them as well.

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