Clearer Writing with ZenWriter

Distraction free writing applications provide a minimal, basic writing environment focused on getting everything out of the way so you can focus on your words. They provide an alternative to more traditional program such as Microsoft Office. Instead of trying to provide everything a writer could possibly need, these applications provide few features and little or no formatting options.

They provide an environment where nothing gets between you and your writing. A well known free minimal writing application for Windows is ZenWriter. How does it do the job? Let’s find out!

So Why These Applications?

Writing is hard. Taking your ideas, organizing them, and then combining them into a clear and concise written work requires focus and concentration. When working on a computer, focus and concentration can be hard to come buy. Social media software constantly intrudes with the latest tweet or post. Email presents a constant stream of interruption as each message arrives in your Inbox.

When you should be focusing on your writing, you’ll instead switch programs to read the newest post to Facebook or the email which just came in. This is where distraction free writing apps come into the picture.

Installing ZenWriter

For a minimal writing program, ZenWriter is a hefty download weighing in at almost 60 MB, but much of this comes from the included music and video files. Once downloaded, simply run the installer.

In keeping with the minimal nature of the program, the installer offers only two options. First select where you want to install the program and then if you want a desktop icon created. Once you’ve chosen those option, the program installs quickly. After the installation completes you are given the option to start the program.

Distraction Free Writing

Blank ZenWriter Window

Blank ZenWriter Window

When you first start ZenWriter you’ll see a writing environment quite unlike what you’re probably used to. The program takes up the full screen and hides all other applications and programs you’re running. This is obviously not Word as you’ll also hear music playing and the background of your writing window will show a faded photo of a beach.

ZenWriter hides the other programs on your computer to remove the distractions and temptations that could get between you and your writing. The idea is nothing more than out of sight and out of mind. Your other programs are still there and you can always tab to another program or minimize ZenWriter as you would with any other Windows application. ZenWriter doesn’t force you to ignore other items on your computer, it simply makes it easier to do so.

By default, when you type each keystroke provides a sound similar to a electric typewriter. For those without the nostalgia of typing out long documents on one, or like me have rather negative memories of editing before word processing, you can change the sound effect to water drops or turn the typing sound off under the Typing Sounds menu.

Custom Desert Background on ZenWriter

Using a Custom Background with ZenWriter

Most of the options in ZenWriter are customizable. The appearance of the application can also be adjusted to use either a light color theme called Day Mode or a dark color theme referred to as night mode. You can also adjust the text size and the font used to display text.

The program comes with several music selections and you can also choose to turn the music off completely in case you prefer to write without music or use your own music player. Several additional background images are also provided along with an option to select your own custom image as the background. Whichever image you choose as a background is faded so as to not harm the visibility of the text you are working on. You can also choose to use no background image giving a solid color of either white (day mode) or black (night mode).

The minimalist approach also continues with text formatting. Only a few basic text formatting options such as bold and italics are allowed and those require keyboard combinations that I didn’t see mentioned in the program. The author of the software has noted on the program’s Facebook page that even these will be removed from the next version leaving ZenWriter capable of just producing plain text. ZenWriter wants you to focus on your words and getting them out.

Settings

Settings Window

The ZenWriter Settings Window

In keeping with the minimalist theme, ZenWriter offers only a few settings in the application. You can choose whether or not you check for updates when the program starts. You can also have the program prompt you before exiting. By default ZenWriter shows the number of words in your document at the bottom. You can also choose to display the number of lines, characters, or pages in your document. You can also choose to display the current time.

You can also choose if you want to open the last document that you accessed when the program starts and adjust the volume of the music. You can also choose the location ZenWriter places your documents which by default is a ZenWriter folder created in your Documents folder.

Weaknesses

ZenWriter does a good job of presenting a good minimal writing application, but isn’t perfect. In my testing, changing the font face or size usually worked fine. A few times it did not change the font until the application was exited and restarted.

The spell check option also appears buggy. Several times it marked a common word such as ‘the’ as misspelled. It also often highlighted words near the word it actually flagged as misspelled and not the word itself. There is also no way to update the dictionary from within the program so if you use words that are technical or otherwise not in the dictionary, you will see them flagged for every document you check.

While the program allows you to use a custom background, you cannot select custom music from within the program. As the program’s internal music is delivered as MP3 files, it would be nice to be able to select one or more custom MP3 files as background music. You can add custom music by copying your MP3 file to the music directory the program creates, but it would be nice to have the feature built in. There is also no option to select several music files for the program to cycle through.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot of merit to the distraction free approach. Removing things that can distract you from work keeps them out of sight and often out of mind. The right background can be an inspirational choice for many writing tasks. I’ve been using music in the background when I write for years and having that built into the tool is convenient. The lack of formatting options can be a problem for some writing tasks, but if you focus on getting the words out, formatting can usually be added later.

With it’s minimal approach to writing, ZenWriter is not for every writing task. For non-fiction or research based writing, the need to check reference material or notes is more difficult as there is no way to have ZenWriter and another window displayed at the same time. For those who need complex layouts from the start ZenWriter will also not be an option.

If your focus is on creating text and you find writing a challenge given the temptations of the Internet, the gentle nudges toward focusing on just your writing can be very beneficial. If you often find that your attempts at writing fall victim to the latest Tweet, then give ZenWriter a try.


Summary

A minimalist writing application designed to eliminate distractions and provide an environment to help you focus on your writing.

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