Discovering Plain Text Editors
Note: Click images to enlarge. Scroll to the bottom to see a comparison table.
As a writer, I spend a lot of time in front of a word processor. Switching word processors is almost as drastic as switching offices, and finding software you like feels like getting promoted from a cubicle to a coveted corner office. I didn’t put much though into which software to use when I started writing, and defaulted to Microsoft Word. After a month or so of writing, however, it became clear that Word wasn’t the best solution. While most of us think of it as a word processor, it’s also a publishing tool, and it has many features writers don’t need. I write all my content for the web, so any formatting I do is in HTML, which just confuses Word’s spell checker anyways.
Though I don’t remember how I discovered them, the idea of distraction-free text editors piqued my interest. It’s so easy to go from writing to checking Facebook without much conscious thought (for me at least), and I’ve always been intrigued by the handful of tools that try to tackle this problem. The first program I tried was WriteMonkey, which I absolutely loved. It has continued to be one of my favorites ever since that point. When I got my Windows 8 laptop last November, WriteMonkey began crashing occasionally. Though the problem mostly resolved itself after some updates, WriteMonkey still has occasional problems, so I’ve had an eye out for a good alternative. A recent forum post I read made me consider some alternatives, but despite trying several programs, I’ve stuck with WriteMonkey.
Though the distraction-free, plain text editor community is small, it’s heavily divided. My research on the different text editors has revealed many different opinions on which is best, and I figured there were enough contenders to merit a review. Here is my review of four of the most popular distraction-free editors, including WriteMonkey, FocusWriter, Q10, and Dark Room.
I can’t find any reliable statistics on usage, but FocusWriter seems to have the most supporters. FocusWriter is definitely the most feature-rich of the bunch. Paradoxically, it also has the least on-screen features of the group. When you’re writing in full-screen mode, there’s literally nothing but text and your mouse cursor. The features are all hidden in menus that appear when you hover over them. Move your mouse to any of the four sides of the screen to find buttons, toolbars, and the scroll bar. The full menu at the top is something many authors will appreciate, as it has the familiar feel of other Windows programs.
The menu bugs me for a couple of reasons, however. I prefer a black background with green text to Focus Writer’s default gray color scheme, but the menus don’t switch colors, and thy stick out like a sore thumb against any alternate color scheme. The other thing that bugs me is the placement of the word count feature. FocusWriter places the word count in the bottom info bar, which is only visible when you hover over it. I usually have word constraints to deal with, so word count is important, and it’s annoying to have to move the mouse periodically to check it. Dark Room doesn’t have a visible word count feature either, but WriteMonkey and Q10 both have a word count feature constantly visible on the screen.
WriteMonkey is my current text editor of choice. It’s changed significantly since I started using it, and I’m not a huge fan of some of the new defaults. Whenever I download a new version, I immediately revert to the older green on black color scheme, and turn off the “blinds” on the side of the screen. It also has a corkboard plugin that allows you to pin other content to the screen, though plugins are only available to donors. I also prefer the info bar on the top, and always enable the visual progress bar for the word count feature.
Default display settings aside, I love WriteMonkey. You can customize what you see on-screen, including adding features to the info bar or removing it completely. This gives it more versatility than the other programs I reviewed here. F1 brings up a list of the extensive keyboard shortcuts. You can also access these hidden features through the right-click menu. WriteMonkey has a decent spell check function, and recently got a thesaurus as well, one unique feature to this program. WriteMonkey combines the features of FocusWriter with the minimalism embraced by Q10 and Dark Room, and is my favorite program.
If I had to switch from WriteMonkey to a different program, I’d choose Q10. Though Q10 doesn’t have nearly as many features as WriteMonkey or FocusWriter, it has all the basics. Q10 takes minimalism to the extreme, with on-screen features limited to an info bar you can toggle off or on, and no hidden features. You won’t find spell check or formatting options with Q10, but you do get a great text editor that really embraces the idea of distraction-free writing. I like how the word count, clock, and file name are displayed in the info bar (similar to WriteMonkey), but there are no superfluous features or distracting buttons on-screen like in FocusWriter.
Dark Room is my least favorite of the group. Like Q10, it really focuses on minimalism, though in this case it just feels like it’s missing features. The main screen has nothing but text and some navigation arrows. When running Dark Room in a window instead of full screen, you can see a menu at the top. There is a statistics feature that shows you the word count, but that’s about the only feature included. Like the rest of the software mentioned here, Dark Room has a loyal following, but it’s not my favorite.
Though all four programs focus on minimalism, FocusWriter and WriteMonkey are feature rich, while Q10 and Dark Room are bare bones text editors. All four programs are free, and none require installation. They can all be run as portable apps from a flash drive, which is another convenient feature. One final tip: because each program runs in full-screen mode, you won’t see the Windows toolbar. Rather than closing or minimizing the application to switch windows, you can use the Alt + Tab keyboard shortcut to cycle between open windows. This is useful for switching to a browser to do research while writing. You may wish to try one or more text editors to find your favorite. Since they’re all free and don’t take long to download, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The simplicity of these great programs lends itself to small file sizes.
|Price||Free / optional donation||Free / optional donation||Free / optional donation||Free / optional donation|
|Operating Systems||Windows / Mac / Linux||Windows only||Windows only||Windows only|
|On Screen Features (Distractions)||Menus appear on mouse hover||Optional info bar, progress bar||Optional info bar||Navigation arrows|
|Spell Check||Yes||Yes||Versions available with or without spell check||No|
|File Size||9.7 MB download / 25.3 MB installed||6.56 MB download / 10.2 MB installed||400 KB without spell check / 1.04 MB with spell check (2.22 MB installed)||46.1 KB download / 140 KB installed|
|Notes||Typewriter sound effects, customizable themes, supports .txt, .rtf, and .odt files.||Thesaurus, typewriter sound effects, shourtcuts to look up words online||Typewriter sound effects||Clone of WriteRoom for Mac|