If Microsoft Word and LibreOffice and OpenOffice are about features, tables, data and publishing, the world of Zen-style writing software is all about you and getting your ideas into words as easily as possible. Whether you call it Zenware, Zen-inspired, minimalist, distraction-free, or just simple, some of these programs have changed little since the genre was promoted around 2007-8; but others have adopted many writers’ suggestions and added features while staying true to their beginnings. If you are unsure what Zenware is all about, see Part 1 of this series.
The WriteRoom Universe for Austere Writing
WriteRoom, a Mac program, has inspired a range of similar programs for Windows and Linux and on the Cloud. All of them eschew features in exchange for simplicity. If this is your first pilgrimage into Zenware, you should try at least one of these:
WriteRoom for Macs ($9.99)and iOS (iPads and iPhones, $4.99) is one of the original Zenware writing apps and has both a following and many imitators. It features a full screen and a blank text editor for “Distraction free writing.” WriteRoom can save in Dropbox (a cloud storage and exchange program) to sync between the iOS and Mac versions (or with your PC). It iconically features a black screen with bright green or white text. You can also get WriteRoom for OSX Themes contributed by users.
DarkRoom is, essentially WriteRoom for the PC, with an even more austere writing environment, featuring only the old-fashioned black screen with bright green text, just like the original MS-DOS word processors of yore. Otherwise, there are few options. F11 toggles between a full screen menu-free environment and a small screen with a menu. It hasn’t been updated since 2006, but it seems to work fine in Windows 7. (Haven’t tried it in Windows 8. Readers?)
Writer by Big Huge Labs, is another spinoff of WriteRoom / Darkroom for the cloud, which works in your browser. There is a new Google Chrome version, too. You can save files online. If you do save files online, the service recognizes you by a cookie, but you should also create a sign-in name in case your cookies crumble. You can also use your Google ID.
In the options menu, you can choose from three fonts, but not font size. You can change the background and font colors, but you need to use HTML color codes. You may use HTTPS for better security.
You can choose between manual or electric typing sounds, but they didn’t sync with my typing, so I found it more annoying than entertaining.
JDarkroom is another WriteRoom clone, but written in Java, so you can use it in Windows, Macs, or Linux if you have Java installed. It appears to have been regularly updated and have newer features, so it may be the most up-to-date of all versions of this series. You can change text and background colors, use auto-save, and bloggers can create Markdown to turn their text into HTML.
PyRoom is another WriteRoom/DarkRoom clone which requires Python and is available for various versions of Linux. It doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2009.
RubyRoom is another open source Linux version of WriteRoom, using ruby-gnome2. It doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2008.
The OmmWriter Options are Coming
Created first for Mac users, OmmWriter Dana (Dana is Sanskrit for “giving”) comes in two forms. OmmWriter Dana 1 is freeware for the Mac, where Dana 2 is a paid version. The free version includes three backgrounds, three soundtracks and three keystroke sounds. The paid version includes eight backgrounds, seven audio tracks, and seven keystroke sounds.
There is an iPad version, but the programmers are currently finishing some fixes relating to the iPad keyboard.
There is also a PC version in the testing stage. All versions appear to cost $4.99 (except for Dana 1, which is free), but don’t hold me to that.
OmmWriter provides a blank screen for writing and the user can choose from five fonts, several pastel-image “chromatherapy” backgrounds, optional typing sounds, and a spelling checker. It can save files as text or as a PDF. The user can also call upon a variety of background ambient music or sounds. As the author types on the video demo on his site, “With OmmWriter Dana, you are still alone with your thoughts… Thankfully.”
The agency also has a website for writers, called The Ommwriters, which offers some inspiration for creative writers, and some advertising for their services.
One wonders why anybody would need seven keystroke sounds, but some online reviewers love them, and Apple iPad users are probably blissfully unaware that their on-screen keyboard uses tapping sounds most of the time.
KoalaWriter is a confessed OmmWriter clone, for Macs and Linux, with some particularly beautiful looking background images. A free open source project, it doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2011.
WriteMonkey is a Windows-only writing program. You can install it on your PC (in any directory) or on a memory stick / USB thumb drive. The author obviously has grown the program to add features requested by writers, making it much more customizable than the programs listed above. A few of the features are:
- Markdown Extra, Textile and WikiCreole markup formatting (to create HTML)
- A highly customizable info bar
- A timer for timed or deadline writing
- Trigger strings which you can define to create automatic abbreviation expansion (what others may call a glossary function)
- Full control over screen colors
- Much more. See the website for oodles of testimonials, too.
If you use Windows 7 or earlier, you may need to install Microsoft’s .NET Framework software, which is much more involved than installing WriteMonkey, itself. Windows 8 already has .NET installed.
There are no menus. Hitting F10 gets you access to the WriteMonkey preferences box, while F1 gets you a popup page with a long list of keyboard shortcuts — so many that it makes you wonder if menus might have been easier. Once you remember the shortcuts, though, it should be much faster to use.
A notable feature for writers is rapid access to web reference resources, which is handy if you need an online dictionary, thesaurus or other types of online research. The program is so filled with writing features, it’s surprising that there is no spelling checker.
The only problem is that the rich set of features makes the program deviate from the Zen ideal. You can easily distract yourself by trying all the features and handy tools. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent text processor for writers.
Q10 is a menu-less, full-screen editor that hides everything else on your computer while you write. Pressing F1 gets you a list of features and shortcuts. Perversely, you press Control-P to get to preferences, where almost every other program uses that as a Print command.
You can install Q10 with or without a spelling checker. It’s a very small, compact program. Q10 is an easier install than WriteMonkey since it doesn’t require Microsoft’s .Net support. It includes:
- Typing sounds
- Auto-correct tools, which can be used to expand abbreviations
- Full color customization of text, background, and info bar
- Spell checking on demand.
- Spacing and indentation control
- A timer alarm, and
- It can be installed on a portable USB thumb drive
FocusWriter is another Zenware product that has grown into a fuller featured application for writers, but still with an emphasis on distraction free writing.
FocusWriter is available for Macs, PCs and Linux. It can save text files, RTF files (Rich Text Format – lingua franca for word processors), and ODT format for LibreOffice and similar programs.
Instead of having to remember an F-key, you access menus and other features by moving your mouse to point at the sides of the window. Move the mouse again and you return to full-screen editing.
You can set timers, alarms, and daily goals (either minutes or words) for your writing. Unlike most other Zenware writing programs, you can open more than one document and switch between them with tabs – a good feature for writers, especially if you need to refer to notes.
Spell checking can be interactive, on demand, or turned off. Other options include auto-save, live statistics, typewriter sounds, and Find and Replace.
Some unique writing features include a scene list option, a symbols dialogue, editable keyboard shortcuts and menu bar, and much more. It also has many language options.
There is also a fully portable version for USB sticks.
Beenokle’s ZenWriter must not be confused with Jalada’s Zen Writer, listed below.
ZenWriter is a very clean, beautifully designed full-screen Windows editor for writers, which lets you concentrate just on writing. There is an unobtrusive menu that lives on the right side of the screen that disappears when you start typing and reappears when you move the mouse. A commercial release, the software costs $9.99, but you can try it out free for 15 days.
Some of ZenWriter’s options:
- Typing sounds: clicks or water drops.
- Background music: five performances of ambient music.
- Day (light) and Night (dark) versions of all themes.
- Five featured fonts plus the ability to add a font already installed on your computer; all with variable sizes.
- 11 gorgeous themes for muted background images while you type, with the ability to add your own existing photography or artwork.
- The left margin can be set for a wide or narrow writing area to match your monitor size and your preference.
- You can turn autobackup on and off.
You need to go to the website to see a modest list of shortcuts, which really should be incorporated into the program.
ZenWriter is one of the more expensive options in this genre. I downloaded the software to test for this article, but it is so nicely done that, when the trial is over, I might just find myself buying it. This is one of those rare Windows programs that have Macintosh users asking for their own version.
Still, adding some nice writerly options for spell-checking, web reference tools (to easily access a thesaurus or check something on Wikipedia, as in WriteMonkey), or the ability to open more than one file at a time and save the doc in another location would be nice additions. Nevertheless, with the possible exception of OmmWriter (which I’ve only been able to view through screenshots), this is the most beautiful looking of the reviewed tools.
Web-based Minimalistic Writing Tools
Yarny is a web-based writing app that goes a bit further than the normal Zenware app by including snippets (blocks of text that can be rearranged), tags, a mini-database for people, places and things, as well as a full screen writing area. See the features page for more info. In addition to the free app, there is a Premium version, which includes iPhone access and other features for $4 per month or $36/year. A quick glance at the product looks quite promising. This may be the best web Zen option for complex or long writing projects.
750 Words is a simple, light-weight cloud app just for writing, based on the author’s desire to write three pages, or 750 words, each morning. You can login using Google, Facebook or Yahoo! You get points for meeting your writing goals and a monthly report, too.
Quabel is a free, online, full-screen editor from Germany. The creators are apparently creating Mac and Windows 8 versions and an online Pro subscription version, but they promise a free version will always be available. I’d keep an eye out for this one.
CarpyNotes is another, online editor which claims some innovative features, currently in beta testing.
DarkCopy is a web-based writer and is as minimalistic as can be, with hardly any user choices. It uses a black screen with green text, which I found too dim for my eyes, with no option to change font sizes.
Just a Few More Zenware Options
Jalada’s Zen Writer (not to be confused with Beenokle’s ZenWriter, above) is a commercial, Zenware program for both Windows and Macs and, at $19.99, is the most expensive option on this list. It offers full-screen distraction-free writing and editing, with many of the features of most RTF text editors, including spell checking. It works in Windows 7 and 8 and Mac OSX Mountain Lion, as well as earlier systems.
Catlooking Writer is a simple open source text editor for Windows and Linux, with just a few features, including auto save every 30 seconds, and day and night writing modes.
TextRoom for Windows, Linux and Macs, is another free, full-screen, rich-text editor which also includes tools for playing music and, uniquely, a simple mind mapping tool. It exports to Google Docs and to ODF format (for LibreOffice and OpenOffice and related tools). A quick test suggested the program may still have some bugs.
ImmersEd is one more free, full screen Windows text editor with support for some markup editing, sounds, music and more. Advertised for Windows XP through 7. (No word on Windows 8.)
Zenware-like Advanced Writing Applications for Macintosh Writers
Jer’s Novel Writer combines a full-screen, distraction-free writing environment with advanced features for long writing projects, like novels. It includes outlining, margin notes, a database, and more. The database can be used for character reference and plotting, or for references and citations.
The author charges $30 or you haggle the price down if you must, but see the haggle guidelines on the website. It doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2011.
CopyRight is a project-based text-processor for research, which includes a full-screen mode to concentrate on the text. $25, but you can try for free for 5 projects. Free for students.
Scrivener is definitely not a Zenware writing tool, but is a popular writing, idea management and creativity tool that has recently been released for Windows, too.
It should be noted that iPad users have access to a wide variety of well-featured writing software, note takers, and text editors that begin to approach the Zenware ethos, even a few with optional full-screen editing.
Frankly, the Frugal Parson is a bit exhausted trying to evaluate all the software options for this category, but it was fun and he looks forward to using these tools for his next sermons, articles, and creative tasks. Soon, we’ll discuss some of the many simpler writing tools that approach the austerity of Zenware, and also some other, non-writing Zenware applications.
What are your favorite creative writing tools? Tell us in the comments.
Title photo, “Speedy Typing With Keyboard” is used courtesy of adamr and freedigitalphotos.net.
“Businesswoman doing yoga” courtesy of Ambro and freedigitalphotos.net