Constraints are more reliable than discipline. Rather than count on exemplary self-control, I try to structure my environment to make unproductive activities inconvenient to do. As part of my experiment with more filtered approaches to writing, a couple of days ago, I snagged an AlphaSmart 3000 word processor on the cheap from eBay. The 3000 (or the AS3K, as it’s commonly called) is a keyboard that’s not much larger than a regular PC keyboard, but with a 4-line monospaced LCD display. It has no internet access, no memory card slot, no media player, no . . . well, you get the idea. What it does have is what I’m told is a great keyboard and a 700-hour battery life. If it works out, I’ll consider dropping $219 for the current iteration, the Neo, which appears to have a somewhat better display and keyboard.
While my AS3K’s on the way, I wanted to try creating a more focused environment on my laptop, so I downloaded the text editor that’s suddenly become all the rage, Q10. After less than 48 hours of use, I can see why it has so much appeal. It turns your computer into a virtual typewriter, Courier font and all, right down to the sound of keystrokes and carriage returns.
When I first saw screenshots of the Q10, I was underwhelmed. The amber characters over a black background, seemed rather self-consciously retro. There’s a fine line between minimalism and asceticism. But online testimonials were gushing. Even though I’m old enough to have plenty of experience with the monochrome monitors of yore, it wasn’t until I ran Q10 for the first time that the advantages of dark-room editors were reinforced: above all, a black background is easier to view over long sessions than a white background. It cuts my eyestrain in half.
The first few times I ran Q10, I disabled the sound, dismissing the typewriter sound effects as a novelty. Their value is more than cosmetic. When you’re in a public space, like a coffee shop, the clicking of the keys (while wearing headphones, of course) is a much better distraction filter than playing music. I remember Charles Bukowski joyously reflecting on how much he loved the sound of the clicking typewriter during the act of writing. Hearing more constant clicks seems to send a message to my brain that I’m on a roll.
Hitting Ctrl-T (Q10 has no menu) brings up one of my favorite features: the timer. You can set up an alarm-terminated session, and when the alarm goes off, the notifier show you how many words you’ve written during that time. It’s great to have a writing tool that quanitifies your output during your writing sessions. You can pace yourself more accurately, or you can use it to implement the “dash” lifehack: work for 10 minutes, break/goof off for 2 minutes, and repeat the cycle (the lengths are arbitrary — experiment).
Since there are no menus, and there are no extensive tutorials yet in Q10′s short lifetime (the first version released in July of last year), the quickest way to get acquainted with the app is to dive in and use it. The F1 key brings up the help card, displaying all of the key commands. Many of them will already be familiar: Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V for Copy and Paste, for instance.
Starting a line of text with a double period, “..”, makes that line an embedded note. You can use these notes for section headings in your document, and call up the full list of notes with Ctrl-H; the click on the appropriate line in the list to go to that section.
You can set a global target, like a word quota, and Q10 will display the completed percentage. You can also assign up to four partial counts. The counters can be assigned customized labels: days of the week, chapters, hour of the writing session, etc. The units of the counts are also customizable: in addition to words, you can choose pages, lines or paragraphs.
Text editing isn’t for everyone. For my purposes, MS Word is too much overhead — it’s more of a desktop publishing application than what I would call a word processor. I’m anxious to see how the Q10 experience (especially once I’ve gained more experience with it) compares with the AlphaSmart.