Unclutter your writing with self-imposed limitations

Two ideas recently converged for me in one device. The first idea is the notion of self-imposed limitations, and the second is the concept of retro-computing. The device is the AlphaSmart Neo. Here’s how it all fits together.

Self-imposed limitations

writeroom-color-screens.jpgI’m not the first to note the challenge that modern computing presents to human concentration. Writing is a hard thing to do, and when you have to do it, easy things like email, feeds, and Facebook can tempt and paralyze you.

The name of the game is focus and a cottage industry of apps has sprouted around eliminating distractions. The poster-child for these is WriteRoom, which hides everything on your screen except a monochrome text-editor. Slate has called these programs “zenware,” while the New York Times took a more Western tack and called them “biblical.”

These programs work because they allow users to self-impose limitations in order to concentrate and get more done in less time. Internet-related distractions are not the only target. In large part these tools are a revolt against the tyranny of Word. That was the focus of the New York Times piece, which was inspired by the Steven Poole essay “Goodbye, cruel Word.” In it he explains how the Microsoft flagship long ago gave up the pretense that it was a tool for the art of writing. A good tool disappears in the act of creation. Word might once have been such a thing, but that’s certainly no longer the case. Poole, an author of two books and countless articles, writes:

Many people agree that revision 5.1a, specifically, was the best version of Word that Microsoft has ever shipped, combining utility and minimalist elegance with reliability. Sadly for me, although it wasn’t strictly necessary, after a few years and a colour Performa I “upgraded” to Word 98, and somehow the magic was gone. Yes, I turned off all the crappy lurid toolbars and tried to make the compositional space as simple as possible, but by this time Word was stuffed with all kinds of “features” that let you print a pie-chart on the back of a million envelopes or publish your cookery graphs to your “world wide web home-page”, and it already felt to me that Word was only grudgingly letting me write nothing but, you know, words. Trigger Happy got out of Word 98 and onto the streets, but not without routine crashes and the occasional catastrophic loss of a few finely honed paragraphs.

He goes on to say that he’s converted to WriteRoom and Scrivener, but not before giving us a tour of the tools that he’s loved the most. Apart from Word 5.1a, they include a Brother LW-20 electric typewriter with a 6-line LCD screen, and an ultraportable Psion 5. What he likes so much about WriteRoom and the rest, he says, is how much they imitate the single-minded purposefulness of those old tools.


That brings me to the second theme in this story. One way to achieve zen word processing is to hide the fact that your modern computer is a modern computer. (Out there, no doubt, is someone who paid $1,800 for a MacBook Air only to then run WriteRoom on it.) It’s an attempt to travel back to a time before virtual tailfins. Another way to zen, however, is to simply use the tools from that era—the era in which word processing had been perfected.

Writer Paul Ford has said that his weapon against distractions was installing WordPerfect for DOS on his computer—the original that WriteRoom emulates. As a result of switching to the mouse-less, crash-less WordPerfect he says, “My average daily word count has doubled, and my stock of fresh ideas seems to be replenishing.”

Another promoter of retro-computing is Andy Ihnatko who inspired me to look not just to old software, but to old hardware as well. He sings the praises of his NEC MobilePro 790, a Windows CE device he picked up for $10 at the MIT flea market. It doesn’t have the MacBook Air’s 1.6 GHz or good looks, but it matches its weight, comfortable keyboard, and more than serviceable screen. But when distraction-free writing is the goal, the latter matters more than the former.

The AlphaSmart Neo

I think I did Andy one better, though, or at least more retro. I discovered the AlphaSmart Neo, in part thanks to Paul Ford’s writings because the Neo is his companion to WordPerfect. What is the Neo? It’s a full keyboard with six-line LCD attached. That’s it. No distractions. It’s a thing of beauty.


At two pounds, I take it everywhere. I love my MacBook, but it kills my back, and for no good reason since most of the time I just want to write. Instant-on, and automatic save of every keystroke make it even more appealing. Some other retro advantages:

  • At an all-day conference my three-hour battery on my Mac isn’t much help and I have to be on the hunt for limited power outlets. (The NEC MobilePro wouldn’t fare much better.) The Neo’s frugal processor and simple screen, on the other hand, gets me 700 hours from 3 AA batteries. That’s about a year’s worth of normal use.
  • The keyboard is amazing. It’s a real, honest-to-goodness keyboard with satisfying travel and quiet clickitiness. It really feels better than my Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, which is the same design as the Air’s. It also beats out the MobilePro’s slightly cramped keyboard.
  • AlphaSmart was started by two former Apple engineers and it has overtones of the eMate 300. Like the eMate, the AlphaSmart was designed for the education market, and it shows in the build quality. If it’s tough enough for kindergardeners, it’s tough enough for me.

Most important, though, is that it keeps me focused. If I go to a coffee shop to get some work done, the only thing I can do with my Neo is write. There are no distractions. There isn’t even bold or italics (something I get around with Markdown). When writing is the only thing you can do, you get it done, and it remains an enjoyable activity because it’s not the thing that’s keeping you from Twitter.

At some point in our technological past we perfected word processing. Every feature since then seems to have subtracted from the experience. Do yourself a favor and look into some single-purpose, “underpowered,” and self-limiting tech.

45 Comments for “Unclutter your writing with self-imposed limitations”

  1. posted by Aaron Hayward on

    When I write, I like to use the console on my Linux box, rather than X. No window or other app clutter, I get to use the full screen in a DOS-like mode, and no mouse is needed. The editor of choice is vim, but there are also Wordperfect like word processing programs that are ncurses based.

    Also, in console mode, dosbox can be used to run older DOS-based word processors.

  2. posted by Mike Dunham on

    You do know M$ Word has a full-screen option, right? It makes all the toolbars, titlebars, everything disappear, except for your writing surface and a single button that says “close full screen”.

    I do agree Word has become more bloatware as the years go by, but you can just not use all the extra crap. I fail to see the need to buy a whole new machine just because you can’t concentrate – that doesn’t seem to address the real problem.

  3. posted by PJ Doland on

    700 hours of power from 3 AA batteries makes the AlphaSmart Neo a very compelling proposition. If you used one of these instead of an overpowered gaming PC, it could pay for itself in electricity savings alone.

  4. posted by topmate on

    But hang on, isn’t the AlphaSmart Neo, well, a unitasker?

  5. posted by dave graham on

    ah, if only writeRoom (or Scrivener, for that matter) were available on the PC.

    Anyone suggest a windows alternative?

  6. posted by PJ Doland on

    @dave graham – DarkRoom is a WriteRoom clone for Windows.

  7. posted by Jerry Brito on

    Mike: Yes, Word has a full-screen option, but (on the Mac at least) it still leaves the menubar, dock, and desktop visible. Also, the temptation is still there to hit cmd-tab and switch over to my feeds and that’s not a problem on the Neo. I also think I’m in a better position to determine what best addresses my concentration problem and the Neo is it—hopefully others will find the notion of considering retro tech useful.

    topmate: Ah! You got me! Yeah, technically the Neo is a unitasker. But, unlike most unitaskers featured on Unclutterer (like an electric garlic roaster) that get used once and then take take up space and gather dust, I use the Neo every day. It’s kinda like saying that a TV or a telephone is a unitasker.

  8. posted by Sarah on

    I love this idea – but how do you get files/documents off of there?

  9. posted by Sab on

    I LOVE the Neo: I bought it instead of a laptop last year before I started a National Novel Writing Month challenge — my 12 year old took the challenge as well and still often takes the Neo up to bed so he can write instead of read before bed. I throw it in my bag for soccer practice, baseball games, waiting to pick up the boys’ after practice — and it’s wonderful on a plane — on, off, saved automatically (that feature along is worth the cost of the machine!).

  10. posted by Daniel Ho on

    MS Wordpad is the perfect antedote. If you’re an extreme minimalist, there’s Notepad, but there’s a character limit that’s too easy to reach.
    No need to reinvent the wheel.

  11. posted by FekketCantenel on

    For those like me who actually enjoy using Word (in my case, Word 2003) but need a less blinding option than black-text-on-white, I wrote two simple macros called DarkRoom and LightRoom:


    The first turns the background black and the text green, and then goes into normal and fullscreen mode. The second brings things back to normal.

    There are a few kinks to work out, but for the most part, they’re amazing.

  12. posted by carla on

    chiming in with neo love as well.

    the BEST gift Ive given my writing—ever.


  13. posted by Mike on

    I’m going to look for one. It should cut down on the amount of time I waste yelling bad words at the latest version of Word.

  14. posted by Roy Jacobsen on

    Another WriteRoom alternative for Windows users is Q10 (http://baara.com/q10/). Full-screen, gives you word counts while you work, autosaves at intervals you specify, and more. No vested interest; just a happy user.

  15. posted by Michele on

    Wow, this reminds me of the word processor I used when I was an undergrad in the early 1990s. It was a CRT with an attached butterfly-wheel typewriter and fold-down keyboard, manufactured by Brother. The CRT displayed something like a dozen lines. The software was a primitive word-processing program similar to pre-WYSIWYG WordPerfect.

    This device reminds me of that word processor, only without the integral typewriter. Whee!

    But more relevantly — I think I’d find this item very useful. I would absolutely prefer to use this rather than my laptop computer in some circumstances. I’m thinking situations where I’m sick of carrying the computer, or where I’m attending a lecture that is, shall we say, not very compelling, and I’d be tempted to surf the Internet during class time. I could keep myself on task better in that second scenario.

  16. posted by tim on

    I used to own a Canon Starwriter 70 and 80, both were great machines.

    My father still uses an old IBM XT with Professional Write to write up reports for his consulting business. I believe he has had the computer since the mid 80’s

    He owns a PC with XP and Wordperfect Office, but it’s used more for the internet.

  17. posted by Aisha on

    Presumably there’s a way to get all this productive writing off the Neo…will someone let us lazy gits know what it is, so we don’t have to search the manufacturer’s website? 🙂

  18. posted by Erik on


    USB cable or infrared connection. details:


  19. posted by Jack Cheng on

    I’m a big fan of MacJournal. It’s better at organizing documents than Writeroom, and not as feature-clad as Scrivener.

  20. posted by Paul on

    I love WordPerfect for DOS. Most of the work that I have had published, I started on WordPerfect. I know my old Toshiba 386 laptop won’t do anything else. I can’t stop to check my email, check on the BBC, find links to blogs like this one, etc.

    Recently, I found myself in the ridiculous position of trying to install WordPerfect for DOS on Windows XP, running on the VMWare emulator, on my new MacBook. I have to say, it’s just not the same.

    The Ulysses word processor, http://www.blue-tec.com also has a nice full screen mode. I bought it. I like the looks of it, and the organizational idea behind it — it saves projects rather than single documents — but I still find myself falling back on DOS. It’s a shame you can’t buy new 386 computers just for that sort of purpose. Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense.

  21. posted by The Closet Entrepreneur on

    Great article, and thanks for reminding me about WriteRoom, it’s about time I put it to use – Dugg, and bookmarked!

  22. posted by Sid Simpson on

    I am an ESE teacher. We use the NEOs with lots of our students as a bridge tool to get them ready for computer use. The only drawback is if you have an issue like reading fluency or a vision impairment, the small display screen puts you at a disadvantage because you don’t see whole paragraphs. Having said that, it has been a blessing for our students who have difficulties with written or paper documents. Not only can they word process and print out very easily, but the automatic file system means they are much more organized for class, etc. because they don;t have the clutter of a notebook full of papers that can be hard to manipulate.

    The other point is that they are significantly cheaper than lap tops, so we can get more of them to help more kids.

  23. posted by Andy on

    I guess I’m strange, but I think Word (and Office in general) 2007 is the best ever.

    I certainly couldn’t write anything with that tiny LCD. I generally write out of order so its nice to be able to jump around quickly and see all of my text at a glance.

  24. posted by dan on

    By the title of this post (that I find really good) first I thought it will discuss the clutters of the handwriting. I think this topic also would worth a post: what about the clutters of the notes that you make during writing on a seminar or elswhere? What practices are there to reduce the clutter of your handwriting? I have some – but very basic things – at least, I think others thought about this thing as well already.

  25. posted by Jerry Brito on

    To answer the question about how to get writing off the Neo, it connects to a Mac or PC with a USB cable. You then have two options. You can use software that comes with the device to pull down a file, or (the option I and probably most Neo owners use) you open up a document in any text editor and hit the “Send” button. It just types out everything into a document. Simple.

    I agree with Paul about Ulysses. What I like about it is that the way it formats is with text markers. You can say this is *bold* and /this/ is italic and this is a ##second level header. It’s totally customizable. So, you can plug in all your text and then Ulysses will export everything properly formatted as a Word doc, RTF, PDF, and many other formates. I think I might soon write about how I use Markdown with it.

  26. posted by Berin Kinsman on

    I’ve had an Alphasmart for years, an older model predating the Neo, and I love it. I cannot live without it. It’s indestructible; what sold me on it was the marketing literature that told how people took it on climbs up K2 and on the Iditarod. It’s sturdy. It runs forever on common batteries. The only issue I have is that curious people in coffee shops want to come over and chat me up because they don’t know what it is.

  27. posted by Sue B on

    If you want to return to Word Perfect 5.1 for purity of word processing ( I liked 6.1 and 8 myself, Love live Reveal Codes , death to Word! anyway, as I was saying) go to Help, Index and type in Classic. Depending on your version you accomplish the task different ways. In X3 the setup is as follows:

    To enable in the Classic mode environment

    In WordPerfect, click Tools Settings.
    Click Environment.
    Click the Theme tab.
    Enable the Classic mode (WP 5.1) check box.
    Click on OK and Close.

    In 8 you have to pull out the install disk and set up the Classic Theme. But there you go, no need for another machine and you have the most useful Blue Screen ever. Sue B

  28. posted by llyra on

    One of the few things I like about the Microsoft Office Word 2007 is that when you double-click on the name of the separator you are using (ex. base, maillings, etc…) you get a blank page and the whole toolbar disappears.

  29. posted by Kristi on

    I’m chiming in about the Alphasmart as well (I think my version is earlier than the Neo.) I don’t like to really compose something or edit on it, but I love it for “freewriting,” when I’m just trying to get something flowing, or when I’m taking notes. If I’m going on a long trip and want to keep a diary, little editing, it’s perfect.

    For my Mac, I have a program called Backdrop that puts up a solid background so I can see anything else on the screen except the one program I’m working on. That way I’m not distracted by icons, toolbars, etc.

  30. posted by Elizabeth Fischer on

    I can’t believe how much I want this. I have been accused of being a Luddite so many times and this week I have ordered an Ipod and want this thing! I need it! But I googled for it and can’t find where to buy it, other than on Ebay, which I don’t think I have the patience for right now. Any hints?

    P.S. Topmate–you so funny! I have been noting the hyperabundance of unitaskers in life itself since that funny post a while back.

  31. posted by Elizabeth Fischer on

    Sorry. Superduh. Can order from manufacturer direct.

  32. posted by John on

    We used to use something exactly like the alphasmart about 10 years ago or so when I was in middle school. I think it had a few more “function” buttons but this is not the first product of its kind for sure. I believe the ones we used you plugged into the keyboard outlet and it just spat all the text out with the push of a button.

    The advantage of not using a laptop is if your writing refers to other documents you might want open at the time, or a paper for school where you’re doing research online. And not being able to see whole paragraphs might be odd for me.

  33. posted by Terry Finley on

    Are you saying that we writers
    are just plain spoiled and do
    not have to think enough?
    If so, I agree.

  34. posted by MJ on

    “At some point in our technological past we perfected word processing. Every feature since then seems to have subtracted from the experience.”

    I did love Word 5.2 for the Mac. I once reported a bug in the Equation Editor that had never been reported. This was back when telephone support still came free with the software, and the guy on the other end of the line was so excited about getting an unreported bug.

    I’ve still got it on a Mac Classic that is unfortunately not as portable as a Neo… maybe I should look on eBay for one of those Classic-sized backpacks they used to sell. 🙂 Of course, I’m not sure I’ve got anything else with a floppy drive anymore, so my immortal prose might end up stuck forever on the Classic’s approx. 180MB hard drive.

  35. posted by Mer on

    I don’t need fancy tricks, I just tell myself that when I get the required output for the day completed, I can surf all I want.

  36. posted by Chet on

    Greetings from a 10-year AlphaSmart user from Malaysia. The great thing about AlphaSmart is that it lets you concentrate on your writing physically away from a computer.

    The various alternatives mentioned here are still found in a computer, so the distractions are still there – to go and check email, chat with friends on IMs, play a game, etc. True, we can resist, but all these distractions are still there in the same machine. True, we can switch off the Internet but it is always within easy reach for us to turn it back on.

    On the other hand, the AlphaSmart is a stand-alone machine that can take you physically away from the computer to go and write somewhere pleasant. AlphaSmart users have always enjoyed being able to write away from the desk (as in the standard environment that we usually write in), but today, after reading this article and the comments, I realised that AlphaSmart really lets me write away from the computer. Sure, a laptop will also let me write away from the desk, but not from the usual computer distractions. The AlphaSmart does. And it’s a great machine which does one thing and does it really well.

    Disclaimer: I am not an AlphaSmart employee, altho I have previously been a moderator on the now defunct online AlphaSmart Community Center. We do have a group on Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/groups/alphasmart/), and you are welcome to visit with any questions you may have. Thank you.

  37. posted by drew loewe on

    LyX is the answer for me. Free, powerful, open-source, and gorgeous output to .pdf from tiny text files.


  38. posted by Mathieu Tozer on

    I wrote so very much on my Newton eMate, 10 years after it had been discontinued, for all the reasons you stated. Highly recommended if you can find one!

  39. posted by Andrea on

    Just a note to say that a Neo or similar would be an amazing tool for someone who takes a lot of minutes/notes at meetings for work! I’m currently working as an admin and would love one of these to take to the meetings I attend.

  40. posted by Sam on

    @Roy Jacobsen:

    Q10 (http://baara.com/q10/) is the new love of my life. Thank you!

  41. posted by Jen on

    I have an AlphaSmart Dana, and I love it to pieces. I’ve written well over ten novels on it, probably more, and it’s still going strong. When it finally dies, I will buy another one. I use it ALL the time.

    I flirted with switching to an XO laptop, but the battery life really wasn’t up to par. I ended up selling mine, and I haven’t regretted that decision yet.

  42. posted by iztok on

    Try also distraction free writing software Writemonkey at http://pomarancha.com/writemonkey. Some cool features …

  43. posted by metadet on

    I struggled to find a simpler writing tool last year when I had some free time between jobs.

    I prefer the old method of handwriting on a notepad, but then there is the extra work of transcribing into a computer. I wanted a simple keyboard and readable LCD screen, not a laptop.

    I wanted a device that would go directly to my writing when I hit the power button, no operating system bootup, PC clutter, or other aggravations. Just a writing tool.

    I bought a used Palm Pilot and foldup keyboard off ebay for about $60 total. It also connect to the PC with a USB cable and automatically updates any files. The combo works ok for simple writing, though the Neo looks closer to what I wanted ergonomically. Wish I had seen it sooner. The Palm also has other functions, such as contact software, calendar, etc. but I don’t use these. Just want to write.

    Also, on the topic of simplicity, for years I have used one Word text file as my PDA. It contains calendars for the current and next few months (pasted from http://timeanddate.com) and my list of short and long term tasks. I print this out and carry in my pocket, using as a notepad when I get a brilliant idea.

  44. posted by JenK on

    This reminds me of how I used to boot DOS and write performance reviews in Edit.

  45. posted by Rachelskirts on

    WriteMonkey is one of the best distraction-free text editors I’ve found, and I use it constantly to write my blog entries. With MS Word and even Google Docs, I find myself spending all my time messing with margins and colors and fonts instead of putting together sentences. I’m so glad that programmers understand that and put out such lovely alternatives!

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