I've been dabbling in writing for several years and can vouch for these apps improving my productivity and helping me focus.
What Is Distraction-Free Writing?
Some writers swear by the good old pen and paper, but nothing beats a computer when it comes to editing and revising your draft. Problem is, computers are filled with pesky, easy-to-access distractions like social media, Youtube, and email that can ruin your flow.
This is where distraction-free writing tools come in. Without exception, these take up the whole screen, leaving nothing in sight but a blank page to be filled with words. Many come with additional features like progress tracking, custom backgrounds, or even typewriter-like sound effects. All of it is designed to help you focus on writing and enter a flow state easier.
I've tried quite a few of these apps over the years, and settled on a winner - but everyone's preferences are different, so you might like the runner-ups more. In any case, I hope my little top 5 list will be of use in your quest to eliminate distractions while writing.
Described by the developers as a "simple fullscreen word processor", FocusWriter offers a minimalist writing environment without skimping on features. There is a word count and a goal tracker at the bottom, a chapter/section system on the left, and a menu at the top, but all of these are hidden unless you move your mouse over them. By utilizing keyboard shortcuts, you won't see the menu unless you want to. The app starts up very quickly - great if you only need to jot down a few notes - and remembers where you left off the last time.
The best feature of all, and the one that makes FocusWriter a clear winner, is custom themes. You can pick a background (plain color or image), select the width of the text column, choose a font, and customize almost everything to your liking.
FocusWriter supports a variety of formats including Rich Text Format, OpenDocument, and plain text (in which case your formatting won't be saved). It is entirely free, open-source, and available for Windows, Linux, and mac.
WriteMonkey is a writing app conforming to the principles of what the developer calls "zenware" - minimalist software without bloat and unnecessary features. The interface is even simpler than that of FocusWriter, with most settings accessed by right-clicking the mouse.
Its most interesting quirk is that all formatting is done using Markdown - so if you'd like to mark the selected word in italics, for example, you'd press Ctrl+I or put it between two asterisks. This is how WriteMonkey can use formatting even though it stores everything in plain .txt files.
The app is close to perfection in my book, yet the interface can't be customized as far as FocusWriter's, and the startup times are oddly long, especially given that you're working with regular text files. This is why it only earns a second place.
WriteMonkey is entirely free and runs on Windows, Linux, and macOS. It's a portable app, meaning you don't even need to install it - just unzip it in a location of your choice and run!
Named after American author Edgar Allan Poe, the app provides a respectable full-screen writing experience. You get customizable themes, word count goal, an optional timer, automatic saving, and a built-in spell checker - the usual features that can greatly improve your productivity.
When it comes to the downsides, they're few but major. First of all, Poe only works with .txt files and does not support formatting such and bolding or italics. It does not remember your last cursor position and will set it either at the start or the end of the document. There is a Find feature, but not a Replace. If these shortcomings don't bother you, then you might want to give the app a try.
Poe is exclusive to Windows 10 and is available for free through Windows Store.
#4. Calmly Writer
Calmly Writer is a browser-based app with a simple interface and not too many features. While the default look can't be customized much beyond font and text width, it certainly looks good enough as is. All the options are hidden underneath the lotus icon in the corner, and the formatting bar only appears when you select a portion of the text, certainly living up to its name.
I found it a great way to try full-screen writing, but - and you may call me a grumpy old curmudgeon - I prefer local software that will happily run on my computer even without any access to the internet. If you don't mind online apps, this won't be an issue for you.
Calmly Writer is available as an app for ChromeOS or inside your browser regardless of operating system. The latter can save files in .txt, .htm, and .docx formats either locally or to Google Drive, whereas the former additionally makes automatic backups to the cloud. Both are entirely free.
OmmWriter is one of the more polished distraction-free writing tools out there, which should come as no surprise seeing how it's a paid app. Its standout features are nature-inspired backgrounds that emulate the passing of the day and relaxing ambient soundtracks that are said to aid concentration.
I'll be blunt: OmmWriter is pretty, but I personally find music - any music - to be nothing more but another distraction. Sure, it can be disabled, but then why choose this particular app in the first place? Yet many writers swear listening to music enhances their creativity, so OmmWriter receives an honorable mention.
OmmWriter is available for mac and PC. It's not free nor open-source, although you can choose your own price starting from a minimum of $6.84. I'm not affiliated with them in any way.
Hardware Alternative: Freewrite
If even full-screen writing apps aren't enough to stave off distractions as you write, going retro with Freewrite is an attractive albeit pricey option. Seeing how it's essentially a high-tech typewriter with a tiny grayscale screen, you won't be able to peek at social media or waste time on Youtube even if you want to.
The device features a mechanical keyboard, an easy-on-the-eyes e-ink display, and seamless backups to Dropbox, Evernote, and Google Drive. It lasts weeks on a single charge, so you can take it with you to cafes or out in the nature where no one will disturb you. Editing still has to be done on a proper computer, however.