Updated: March 9, 2020
A few weeks ago, I was looking around for some nice Linux software, and I came across the home page of the person who had created the Whisker Menu for Xfce. Since I really like this one - I even included it as my favorite desktop menu in the 2018 best Linux apps compilation, I was intrigued by the other software in the repertoire, and decided to do some random testing. A program called FocusWriter drew my attention.
Well, FocusWriter is meant to be a simple, straightforward, distraction-free advanced text editor, designed to provide those using it with maximum productivity. In other words, you don't waste time managing the software, you don't waste time getting your fleeting attention span diverted, you get stuff done. Well, that's the core idea on paper. As someone who writes books, I found the concept curious and inviting. Perhaps I could be doing something more effectively? Well, let's find out.
Before we actually test FocusWriter, I do need to focus [sic] on the phrase distraction-free. I don't like it. It's part of the modern jargon, the new generation fad where life is supposedly so full of distractions that people can't get things done - an easy excuse for underachieving and procrastination. I also don't really understand how and why are static toolbars in application menus somehow distracting. Why would a person not actually write? Who ever looks at the shiny buttons in a UI and gets lost there? Well apparently, this is a thing - even though it might be a solution to a problem that does not exist. But then, maybe there is some merit here.
I got FocusWriter set up - easy peasy, and then launched it. The program starts in fullscreen mode, no menus, no buttons. You have a skeuomorphic writing pad that resembled an old-school table, very retro, and that's it. Now, if you use your mouse button, you will reveal auto-hidden toolbar menus left, right and top.
Well, what now? Apparently, you write. So I started doing that, and I didn't notice any sudden surge in my productivity. I'm as optimized as humans can be, typically writing 1,500 words/hour prose, with sustained bursts of about 3,000 words/hour. But I do occasionally have a need to use a file menu, and this is where it gets complicated.
The first thing I wanted to do was change the font size, but this doesn't exist as an option. The default font is way too small, by about 50% for my taste, as I like much bigger fonts when I type - even bigger than when I read actually.
Then, I tried to do some basic styling - very limited. You get the minimal text options - bold, italic and such, and six headings, but no other formatting really. No title or subtitle, which kind of sounds important if you're writing a book full of chapters. I also realized that there was no way to add any objects into the text flow as you'd do in a word processor. This means FocusWriter isn't meant for technical books or graphical novels.
The worst part was the constant mouse clicking. I was actually slower than in a regular word processor. For example, in Microsoft Word, if you're using the mouse (no keyboard shortcuts), and you want to apply a text format (assuming one that exists both there and in FocusWriter), then you just need to click once. The options are shown and available in the Ribbon menu, e.g. bold. In Focus writer, you need to swipe the mouse to reveal the menu, then click Format, then select the desired formatting - and if it's heading styling, there's another level of hierarchy. In the best case, this is TWICE as many mouse actions, and perhaps three or four.
Strangely, FocusWriter doesn't have many things, but it does have symbols, which I find weird. I mean, why would you need them if the idea is just to write without wasting time on decorative elements or stylistic changes?
Themes & preferences
To make things a bit more dynamic, FocusWriter lets you change the background theme. Usually, you get a very nice picture of some kind, but you need to manually tweak themes if you want very specific things, like pure white paper background. You can also tweak the behavior of the program a little, but nothing too extensive. You can use typewriter sounds, set goals and timers.
I found the blurred background and the non-insignificant overlap of color and text to be HIGHLY distracting. Rather than focusing just on my text, I was actually seeing imagery that has nothing to do with writing, and this actually harmed my ability to focus. Some of the darker themes were tricky in particular.
FocusWriter supports text, rich text, and some limited ODF compatibility. This probably means that you will eventually need to port your material to other programs at some point. For example, if you want to submit a short story, most publications demand a standard manuscript formatting, with 1-inch margins, double spacing, Courier New font 12, and such. None of these options are available through FocusWriter, so you must make changes in other software.
As I feared, FocusWriter isn't a solution for my needs. In fact, if you aren't distracted randomly, then you won't find much use to it - or other software of similar nature. I also found the over-minimalistic layout to be actually distracting, and my efficiency was down in terms of mouse clicks and how long it took me to finish things. The lack of certain features is quite limiting, even if you do need them only 1% of your total writing time.
On its own, FocusWriter is a okay, aesthetically pleasing writing pad, with some nice extra features. But at its core, it offers an incomplete writing experience, making it suitable only for a small set of tasks that writing a novel or a story typically encompasses. This weakens the case for using FocusWriter, because it will only be an intermediate in your writing journey, and it won't be there at the end, to reinforce your good feeling. I think the opposite approach would work better - a fully fledged editor that has a selective, minimal visual mode. That would be a far more elegant solution. Well, there you go. A rant from a non-millennial or whatever the current trendy word for an old git is. I shall keep an eye on FocusWriter - the Whisker brilliance beckons - but for now, it's only a curious and none-too-successful experiment for me.