Writing Tools

Friday July 4, 2008


If it’s been a bit quiet over here for the last few weeks, at least it is for good reason: in a couple of weeks, I move up to Yorkshire, after almost seven years in Birmingham. We’ll be living in Pudsey, half way between Leeds and Bradford, and I’m looking forward to a change of scene; but at the same time, moving always takes more time and energy than you would anticipate. So I’ve been preoccupied with packing things into boxes (books, books, books…), applying for jobs further north (curse those Microsoft Word application forms) and so on. I should be properly installed up north by the end of July, and then I’m off on holiday in August; so it may be a quiet summer here on thinkBuddha. We’ll see…

On top of the whole business of moving house, I’ve been trying to get some writing done. And here, amid the many distractions offered by a life that is currently in transition, I have been relishing the wonderful piece of software that is JDarkRoom. JDarkRoom is inspired by the Mac program WriteRoom (see the link here), and is, in essence, very simple. It is a full-screen text editor that offers a distraction-free writing environment. It is only when you actually use such a thing that you realise how distracting using a standard word-processor actually is, with all of the bells and whistles, not to mention all the other things that may be open at the same time on your desktop.

JDarkRoom, on the other hand, just provides green text on a black background (although you can change the colours if you like), a few keyboard shortcuts and that’s it. Writing in text files allows you to concentrate on the content and structure of what you are writing, rather than on fancy formatting. I am astonished by how effective it is as a writing environment. If you are fed up with the way your mind flits around whilst writing on your PC, JDarkRoom is the tool for you. Hell, it’s almost as good as using a typewriter. And not only is it a pleasure to use, reducing both distraction and eyestrain, and allowing for a calm and concentrated space in which to write (and one should, to paraphrase the great Leonard Cohen, choose the rooms one writes in with care), but it also feels pleasingly retro with that green on black.

If you ever go to an author event or reading, during the questions somebody will almost inevitably ask the writer what they actually write on: ‘Do you use a pen, a typewriter or a computer?’ I don’t know why this question is always asked, but it is. But, just for the record, this is what I use to write at the moment: jDarkRoom coupled with LaTeX to typeset and structure my documents – which makes writing and editing a pleasure and also produces documents of aching beauty (although it is regrettable how many in the humanities insist on MS Word documents for submissions). To these two, you only have to add the wonderful JabRef for managing citations, and Zotero for collecting bibliographic information from the web, and you have something close to writing heaven. These days, I hardly have to open MS Word (or that lumbering great beast Open Office) at all, aside from filling in those pesky job application forms…

# · Lea

“almost as good as using a typewriter” LOL

Can it be set to make those satisfying clacking sounds of the letter striking the page?

# · Will

Sadly not. You have to make those yourself…

# · Dave H

There’s an interesting article in this month’s edition of The Atlantic entitled, “Is Google making us stupid?” www.theatlantic.com/… which I think you’d find relevant to this post. A good reflection on the way in which particular technologies form our thinking. Cheers,


# · Will

Thanks for that link Dave. A very thought-provoking article.
All the best,

# · Lokesh

Thanks for the suggestions – Zotero looks especially interesting. Good luck in Leeds!

# · Mathias

Thank you for your recommendations. I started using Jdarkroom and found it nice. By accident though, I came across something called Scrivener, which basically have all the things you listed in one app, for a fairly low cost ($40).
It’s a bit of a drag that it costs money, but It looks very promising and easy to use…

# · Fiske


The Zotero thing is cool. I downloaded DarkRoom (the .Net version of JDarkRoom) and played with it a bit this morning.

I do get it, but it is also true that every feature of these KISS editors can be recreated in Word with a simple macro or VBA function that would enable users to flip between the full editing window and a minimalist green text on black view with nothing else displayed at the click of a single button. And back again.

Most of the work would be accomplished by setting the page background to black, the text to Courier and green, switching to full screen view (which hides menubar, toolbars, etc.), and pulling in the text margins.

The macro/function could also swing the default save mode to a text file instead of a word document.

Of course, it would still be a Microsoft product, wouldn’t it? :-)


# · Duncan Jauncey

Many thanks for the kind writeup. It just so happens that I’m originally a Yorkshireman so I hope the move went well & that you’re settling in up there!

@Fiske – yes, virtually the same effect can be achieved by configuring other editors, but there’ll always be the temptation to turn features back on. But there’s the right tool for every job, as they say..

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