WordGrinder and the escape from distraction

The Write Tool

© Lead Image © victoroancea, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © victoroancea, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 199/2017

WordGrinder offers distraction-free writing; we look at how realistic that concept is in everyday use.

Would-be writers often believe that the fewer distractions software offers, the more efficiently they can write. This is the idea behind FocusWriter [1] and Calligra Suite's Author [2]. Now, WordGrinder [3] takes the concept even further, stripping down the word processor to the bare minimum, and running on the command line, primarily through keystrokes.

In my experience, this belief is a fallacy. Most professional writers are attached to a favorite application mainly out of habit, and the tool does not make the writer. Still, it remains the assumption behind WordGrinder. David Given, its writer, states on the project's GitHub page [4] that "WordGrinder is not WYSIWYG. It is not point and click. It is not a desktop publisher. It is not a text editor. It [does] not do fonts and it barely does styles. What it does do is words. It's designed for writing text. It gets out of your way and lets you type." Click on the About page in WordGrinder's menu, and you get nothing except a reference to "cat-vacuuming:" tasks that distract from actual writing.

Still, starting with this assumption, Given has produced an old-fashioned application. To use it efficiently, you need to make some preparations and be willing to learn a few dozen keyboard shortcuts, but the result is curiously refreshing, especially if you are working without a graphical interface.

Setting Up

WordGrinder opens on the fewest possible number of tools (Figure 1). In the middle of the screen is a cursor between the indicators of the start and end of the file (terminators, as WordGrinder calls them). On the status bar at the bottom of the screen are indicators for the file name, its saved state on the left, and for word and page count on the right.

Figure 1: True to its philosophy, WordGrinder opens with a minimal interface.

If you choose, you can begin typing immediately, using the arrow keys to navigate, and pressing the Esc key to summon the menu in the upper left corner of the screen (Figure 2). However, unless you are writing a completely unformatted document, the concentration that WordGrinder is intended to offer almost completely disappears. To take full advantage of the application, you need to memorize or note keyboard shortcuts you are likely to use, and perhaps make some adjustments to the default settings.

Figure 2: Press the Esc key to open the menu.

To start with, I recommend that you select File | Global Settings from the menu (Figure 3). The default of 80 characters per line makes for a long line that is hard to read, and I suggest a more standard 72-75 characters. Depending on your language preferences, you might also want to load an ispell dictionary for your locale.

Figure 3: You may need to adjust some global settings for best performance.

Next, open File | Document Settings (Figure 4). You should change the page count from the default count of 250 words, which is short even for letter sized paper – let alone legal or A4 paper – to at least 325 words to give yourself a more accurate page count. You will also probably want to enable Autosave as a precaution and enable smart quotes (rounded quotes) to save yourself the effort of changing them before submitting a manuscript. Depending on your needs and preferences, you might also want to enable the Scrapbook, a buffer for storing snippets of text, along with HTML export, and Spellchecker.

Figure 4: Document settings give you additional tools with which to work.

If you really feel the need to minimize distractions, turn off the display of terminators from File | Document Settings and the display of the status bar from Style | Toggle Status Bar. The result will be a screen that is blank except for your input and occasionally the menu.

Other modifications can only be supported for the display, and not the actual document. For example, you cannot select document fonts, but you can display fonts or foreground and background colors for the display in a profile in which WordGrinder is running.

In theory, further modifications can be done using the Lua scripting language. You can call a script by starting WordGrinder with the --lua FILENAME extension. You are also supposed to be able to set your personal configuration file using Lua. So far, however, no examples seem to be posted, so modifications with Lua will need to wait for another day.

Making all these changes each time you start a file would detract from WordGrinder's purpose, so you should make these changes in a new file and save it as a template. When you start a new document, you can then open the template and save it with a new name, to save yourself repeated work.

Working with WordGrinder

WordGrinder supports 33 navigational shortcuts (Figure 5). Most are obvious, such as the Page Up, Page Down, Delete, and arrow keys. Others add the Ctrl key, which is indicated by ^ in the menu. Other options are to use the Find Next and Go To tools in the Edit menu. You can switch between open files from the Documents menu. However, no tools are available for comparing documents, let alone for advanced functions like mail merge.

Figure 5: WordGrinder is most efficient when you know its keyboard shortcuts.

One advantage that WordGrinder has over text editors is that copy and paste functions, as well as Undo and Redo, use the same keyboard shortcuts as the desktop. For example, instead of the usual Ctrl+Shift+V in a virtual terminal, pasting requires only Ctrl+V. Although Ctrl+Shift+V will work in WordGrinder, if you are like me, you may welcome not having to press the extra key.

Character and paragraph styles are supported – but "barely," as Given notes (Figure 6). So-called character styles are limited to italic, bold, and underline. Similarly, paragraph styles are limited to a few items, such as plain text, three levels of headings, list items, and indented paragraphs, none of which can be edited. Basically, the selection is limited to formatting supported by HTML without any CSS files. Although WordGrinder can display styles within the manuscript, you may want to select Style | Margin Mode to have styles listed in the margin, as well as the number of words in each paragraph.

Figure 6: WordGrinder offers minimal support for character and paragraph styles.

Saving a file in WordGrinder can be confusing. To save a file with a native .wg extension, you must first designate it as a Document Set in the File menu, so that it includes the Scrapbook, and then save the document set. Exporting to HTML, Open Document Format, LaTex, or troff is more straightforward, but all saves require a full path name, a requirement that can momentarily trip you up.

The Price for Reducing Distractions

WordGrinder provides fewest distractions when you enter unformatted text. Despite Given's claims, formatting from the menu or pausing to add keyboard shortcuts feels to me as much of a distraction as formatting in any other text editor or word processor. The amount of formatting can be reduced by using a template, yet the distraction remains.

To make matters worse, WordGrinder is at best the work for a first draft. Before actually submitting a manuscript, you will still need to format headers and/or footers so that you can add the title, name, and page number to every page. Margins and possibly even a standard font must also be formatted. In other words, using WordGrinder means basically preparing a manuscript twice, even when exporting to Open Document format or LaTeX. Unless formatting seriously distracts you, you are probably better off using a regular word processor or text editor, especially with a template to take care of all the formatting.

WordGrinder may have a use in embedded systems, where space is limited. But, as intriguing as WordGrinder may be – particularly in 2017 – the quest for distraction-free writing seems quixotic. Inescapably, some formatting is required, and, in the end, some distraction is inescapable.

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