Word processing software has come a long way since the introduction of WordStar in 1978. In fact, modern word processors have evolved to add thousands of more features on top of those humble beginnings. Full WYSIWYG editing, advanced document layouts that give a simple word processor enough power to function as desktop publishing software.
A user could be forgiven for wondering if so many features are really necessary when all they really want to do is put words on a computer. Well, some software developers have considered this problem and a few years ago, a new class of word processing apps emerged: the “distraction-free” word processor.
In a sense, such products could also be referred to as full screen text editors, as the key characteristic of the application is running in full-screen mode to block out distractions and writing documents to be saved as plain .txt files, cutting out other extraneous features. Today, I’ll be looking at one such product: WriteMonkey.
WriteMonkey is available as a free download from the official website, though the developer does accept donations.
Unfortunately, it does lack an automated installer, instead providing a tiny (2.4 MB) archive with all the program files included in a single directory that will have to moved to your systems Program Files directory or wherever you wish to keep it. On the flip side, WriteMonkey does have the advantage of being a portable application that can run from a USB drive.
Additionally, Windows XP users will need to make sure their system is running Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5 or higher.
Startup and Interface
It’s about as basic an interface as you can get. When you type, text appears. It really only does that one thing, but that’s one thing done well.
Should you wish, you can add a bit of additional information to the interface. The time is displayed in the bottom right corner of the screen as well as the number of words in the current document.
Furthermore, you can also activate a progress counter by telling WriteMonkey how many words your document is supposed to be. With this information, next to the live word count, you’ll also be able to see what percentage of that target word count you’ve reached.
On a laptop, it can also warn you once your battery is below 30%, useful since WriteMonkey does take up the entire screen.
Now, WriteMonkey could easily stop there as far as features go and succeed at being a functional full-screen text editor. But it doesn’t.
While there isn’t much in the way of a GUI, the mouse cursor is present, allowing you to highlight text and perform most functions you would from there, like cut, copy and paste. Additional functions are also available via hotkeys.
Hitting F12 brings up the “Progress” screen which shows lots of statistics on your document including word, character and paragraph counts as well as the number of unique words to help spot, say, overuse of certain terms. It’ll also calculate the Gunning Fog index of document which estimates the readability of the document.
The progress window also shows the estimated reading time of the document. According to WriteMonkey, this review should take about seven minutes to read.
Like any good word processor, WriteMonkey includes a spell checker which is U.S. English by default, though dictionaries from other languages, as well as non-U.S. English dictionaries, are available from the WriteMonkey website.
There’s is also a “bookmark” feature that allows you to bookmark certain areas of the document and then quickly jump between them which can be quite handy when working on lengthy documents.
Then there’s the repository. The repository is like a separate document within the main document where you can compile research notes, toss in draft ideas or really any other text that might be necessary for the writing task at hand but does not belong in the main document. By pressing Alt-R, you can switch back and forth between viewing the main document and the repository.
There are actually a surprisingly amount of features in WriteMonkey, given the application’s minimalistic nature. There’s a built-in text-expansion feature which allows you to define a short code that WriteMonkey will automatically replace with something longer, like instantly turning “/Address” into a full address, for example.
“Resource lookup” will automatically search a defined web resource (like Wikipedia) for the highlighted word.
Oh and like other apps in the distraction-free word processor space, there are also typewriter sound effects that play while you type. Mercifully, WriteMonkey has them disabled by default. But they are there, for those who wish to relive the glory days of ICQ for some reason.
WriteMonkey handles plain text and nothing else. In fact, the only file format is saves in is .txt.
However, it can provide some formatting through the magic of text markup. Indeed, WriteMonkey can export or print formatted files using Markdown, Textile or WikiCreole syntax for headings, bolding, italics and whatnot. A quick Markdown reference is available within the program by hitting F1.
Using markup, WriteMonkey is capable of exporting either HTML of .DOC files.
Understandably, distraction-free word processors can seem gimmicky to some especially taking into consideration things like typewriter sound effects and some apps that mimic old green-screen terminals by default.
That said, in my experience, I find they can provide a good mental block from all the other distractions contained in my PC by simply hiding them and presenting me with nothing more than text.
In the years I’ve worked as a journalist, I’ve always liked having such an application on hand for hammering out a draft version of an article then fixing it up in a proper word processor later.
In the WriteMonkey’s case, this is a minimalistic application that actually packs a surprising amount of power under the hood, between the notes repositories, look-ups and bookmarks, making it not just a full-screen text editor but a pretty useful writing environment. One that happens to load almost instantly, uses minimal resources and provides a default color scheme that’s pretty easy on the eyes.
I’m only knocking off one point and that’s for the lack of automated installer which can be a barrier to entry for less tech-savvy users.