I have been thinking a lot recently about my writing work, and how little writing I actually get done. Actually, that’s kind of part of the problem. I spend a lot of time thinking about writing — but not so much time writing. Which is, of course, one of the great failings of writers, or more accurately, of writer-wannabees.
Today I bought this very interesting software called iA Writer, which is designed to facilitate writing. What it is actually designed to do is to facilitate focus during the process of writing. It does this by giving you a very, very simple interface, and a very stripped down set of options for writing. Almost none, actually. It has a simple, one-window, no-toolbar, no-preferences interface, and this one window does basically nothing but show your words as you type. But more than that, especially if you use the thing the only way that makes sense to me (and it’s one of the only options): if you hit the option not just for a fullscreen view but for what they call “focus mode,” the software highlights the single sentence you are working on, while the rest of your text recedes into a paler, kind of grayed-out looking font.
It looks like this:
That’s it. There are no bells and whistles, and even the “bell and whistle-silencing” software competetors don’t do things as well. Because while “full screen” is a great leap forward into the backwardness of the days when we’d have to sit with a pen and a legal pad and just write, even that doesn’t quite capture how well it works to dim everything but the current sentence. (Even with a pen and legal pad, or a “full screen mode,” there is always the problem of the lines above. Lines that you can too-easily see and be distracted by, lines that can keep you thinking about them, lines which draw your eye away from the current sentence you are supposed to be working on. The string of text you should be writing right now.)
I think I understand something about why iA Writer works as well as it does. In addition to writing, as a clinical psychologist I do a lot of psychological evaluations, and in particular, what we in the biz call “neuropsychological” evaluations. Neuropsychology is the study of how our brains affect our ability to function, to get things done, to keep track of things, and so on.
One of the key things I have to measure when I do assessments is how well a person is able to control their mental activities in pursuit of whatever they are trying to accomplish. The technical term for that ability, is “executive functioning.”
“Executive functioning” includes things like the ability to make a basic (or more complex) plan, whether it’s planning a menu or your route to work, a sketch of a novel or a term paper, or a plan for a new corporation. This includes the ability to identify your goals, to think about the steps to reaching those goals, and the proper sequence for accomplishing those steps. This even includes your ability to use time itself as a tool: to remember that the pasta takes eight minutes to cook but the sauce should simmer for an hour, so you start which one first? Executive functioning also refers to the ability to remember and keep track of what you are doing while you carry out that plan (whether that means remembering where you are on the interstate or whether you put the salt into the pasta water yet.) Finally, it refers to your ability to control your own attention span, your motor behavior (whether that’s fingers on a keyboard — computer or piano — or tracking where your eyes move while driving — scanning for pedestrians behind cars? or looking at your radio dial or the text message on your cell phone?)
Putting this all together (which is the whole point), a person whose executive functioning skills are working fairly well can decide what they want to do, figure out how to do it, make themselves actually start doing the things they’ve decided on, and then persist, monitor their actions and processes and emotions, evaluate their progress, remember where they are and what they’ve done, and recognize when they are finished. This all requires, above all, a great deal of ability to focus, and to focus in a very particular way: not focusing just on the big dreams, not being derailed by a million buzzing distractions, but staying focused on the precise action you should be doing right at this particular moment. Whether it’s researching a book and so reading an article, one paragraph at a time, or watching the instruments as you land the 747, or thinking about the way this particular sentence is coming together under your pen or on your screen, executive functioning is really about doing this…single…thing…you’re…doing…right…now.
Which brings us back to the really cool way iA Writer works. What it really provides is a kind of prosthetic for a writer’s executive functioning. Just like a cane or a walker when you need them to keep a knee from popping out (or Ritalin for ADD, maybe?), iA Writer helps strengthen (or compensate for weaknesses in) a writer’s ability to stay focused on the most important part of writing: a particular sentence. One sentence at a time.
This is huge. I frankly have been surprised how huge. I mean, this is the first piece of writing I’ve done with this thing, and it feels like I’ve just popped some kind of performance-enhancing pharmaceutical and am ready for my all night session of writing that term paper or dissertation.
Combined with another favorite tool, a self-timing app for my Mac called Pomodoro, I have found what may be a very nice writing environment. (And I also can just use MacSpeech Dictate, when typing is less helpful than just talking. I wonder if MacSpeech will also work with iA Writer? Hmm…)
Time will tell if this really works as well as my first pass suggests it may. But if so, iA Writer may be a real boon to getting moving a bit better and faster in one’s work as a writer.