02 July 2012

writing: the virtual environment

I run a proudly Microsoft-free and Mac-free household. No Windows, no iThings. I admire some of the design of the various iThings, but their "intuitive" interface drives me crazy. Whenever someone hands me a Mac product to use, they always have this gleam in their eye, because if they know me well enough to lend it to me they know that I work in software development and they know I'm a freak about user interfaces. They're always disappointed when I can't figure out how to work the damn thing half the time.

So instead my (Dell) laptop runs Ubuntu, which is a flavour of Linux. My phone also runs Linux, but that's not so unusual in phones — both Android and iOS are Linux flavours. More on how I use the phone to write in another post.

Linux has got a bad rap over the years for just being a nerd toy. Sure, it started out like that.... but then again, Steve Wozniak's first PC was an Altair, and look where he took things. I'd argue that Linux is actually more user-friendly now than the Big Two operating systems.

Plus it's free (at least the home & small office versions), so there's far fewer licence agreements, security keys, and other DRM crap to deal with. Ubuntu in particular installs all the common applications most users will need at the same time it installs itself, so you can spend half an hour installing it and then settle down to your word processor and spreadsheet immediately afterwards. And because Linux software developers know they're developing for a world where most computers don't run Linux, they tend to include features (like file converters) that let Linux users interact with the rest of the world, even if the rest of the world doesn't know it's interacting with Linux users.

So, this is what my virtual writing environment looks like:

Not a whole lot of clutter. To the left is a (hidden) toolbar which launches all the applications I use regularly. At the top are Tomboy notes, the mail/chat/Twitter menu, Bluetooth, wireless, sounds volume, calendar, and screen lock/logout. If I wanted to, I could save files to the desktop, but I try not to want to.

One thing Linux tends to have standard that other operating systems tend not to have is an extended desktop. I have mine set up to the Ubuntu standard four panes. This means I can set up application windows in logical groups on each of the four panes and flip between them as necessary. If you use more than one monitor, the pane will include the extra real estate on the monitor.

For writing, this is wonderful because you can open all your virtual Post-It notes in Tomboy on one pane and your word processor on another pane, and flip between them. If you want to change the arrangement, you can switch to the all-panes view and drag and drop the windows to where you want them, or use the window menu to change which pane a window shows up on.

The screen shot below also shows the left-hand toolbar that I usually keep on auto-hide (although you don't need to).

There's been a lot of talk lately about getting off the Net while you're trying to write. Ubuntu has an application (yes, a free one) called FocusWriter that blocks out your entire screen, including its own toolbar. All you see is what you're writing and whatever theme you've chosen for the background. If you mouse over the toolbar or status bar, you can check your word count or alter your formatting. I use it for Friday Flash and Tuesday Serial pieces a lot because it converts well to Blogger, but for longer works I just go straight to the Libre Office word processor.

It's comfy, it's simple, it's free, and it's easy to install. It also comes with all the basic tools a writer would want to use right away: a word processor, a note-maker, Twitter and e-mail connectivity. (Yeah, we're not supposed to want Twitter and e-mail connectivity, but let's face it, we do, especially for the communities I mentioned above.)

Somehow this wound up being a long post again. Next post about environments, I'll show how I use Tomboy Notes to keep longer works straight.


  1. I used LyX for a little while when I was running Linux. For me, its primary drawback is that it didn't export very well to anything else (and having an "exit strategy" from any writing tool I use is paramount). Pity, because its interface is perfect for writing otherwise. It's a pity that Sigil doesn't work on your system, it would be a nice novel-ing prog.

    With OpenOffice now owned by Apache, I wonder how long the LibreOffice fork will exist. Any thoughts there?

    1. Hm, haven't heard of any of those writing apps before. I just use FocusWriter and LibreOffice Write.

      The whole point of LibreOffice is that it is the free offshoot of OpenOffice. It's very popular and gets regular updates, so I don't see it dying any time soon. And hey, if it does, at least the file format is an international open standard!

  2. I've been wanting to change over to Linux for a while but the time factor kills me. I'd need to get another computer and gradually switch, which I'd like to do sooner than later. I use a lot of progs for web design, graphics, music and the like, so it's going to be a temple throbber. Now I have someone's brain to pick... hehe.

    1. It is easier to start fresh, for sure... what I did at first was create a dual boot (easy from the Ubuntu install) and then gradually stop using Windows. Just quickly:

      Web design: I haven't had to build a whole site in a while, so I just roll HTML by hand. There's some options with good ratings in the Ubuntu App Manager, though.

      Graphics: The GIMP replaces PhotoShop, easily. The LibreOffice Draw tool is great for drawing.

      Music: Ubuntu installs with RhythmBox included for music libraries and playing music. Just drop all your music files into the Music folder made during the install. If you want to edit music, Audacity seems to be the go-to app. I've used it a bit, and it seems to work well.

  3. Thanks Katherine, I've used Gimp and Audacity, so I know those. I have an old 2.3 Gb Intel PC I should load Ubuntu and get going with it.


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