Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, December 19, 2008

a common thread

Just in case it’s not obvious, there is at least one common thread in these recent posts about how I read and how I write: Distraction is the enemy. Yeah, I know, you think you’re a master of multitasking, but you’re not. Seriously, you are not. Okay, I mean it, Give it up.

For most of us, focus and concentration are the pearls of great price, and if we want to get them, we have to be prepared to give up options. Options, possibilities, choices are the obvious enemies of focus. This is why I do most of my writing in my office, because when I’m at home I always have the option of seeing what’s on TV to watch or in the pantry to snack on. I have options at the office too — primarily seeing if there are any friends around to talk to — but those typically don't afflict me quite as much as the tube and food do, not because I don't like my friends, but because I know that a planned brief visit can easily turn into an hour-long schmooze session. TV and pantry are usually briefer stops.

Of course the internet provides options almost wherever I am. Years ago, I would sometimes take the Metra train into Chicago and work all day at a coffee shop in the station — the buzz of commuters somehow helped me concentrate, like a kind of animate white noise — but the advent of public wireless access has made that a less Spartan, and therefore less attractive, alternative than it used to be.

And you know, I need the internet. I need to look stuff up. I need to find PDFs that I’ve saved so that I can copy quotes and paste them into essays I’m writing; I need to check dates or confirm authorship. So what I have to do is find that right balance: the balance that allows me access to what I need while offering minimal additional distractions. One of the ways I get that is by reducing the number of options available to me in my writing environment. I don't need to be wondering what this essay would look like in another font, or with different spacing. (For that matter, I don't need to be trying to decide which fountain pen to use with my Moleskine notebook — or should I be using an Alwych? But that’s a story for another post.) I need to achieve the highest level of attention possible to writing the words I need to write.

For some people that means using a full-screen editor like WriteRoom, and while I think WriteRoom is cool, I don't like going in and out of full-screen mode all the time, which is what I have to do as I work with my research. If I were a fiction writer Writeroom might be more attractive to me. But for me BBEdit seems to hit the sweet spot. You mileage may vary, of course — but I can't bring myself to believe that Microsoft Word is the sweet spot for any writer.