3 Distraction-Free Writing Applications for Linux

Distraction-free, full-screen writing software has been popular among writers on all platforms for many years now. Such software offers an apparent solution to a common writer’s problem: too many distracting websites applications, games system functions, and emails to attend to, especially when one feels less like writing and secretly welcomes any distraction as a saviour.

There are many excellent applications for Windows and Mac that offer a clean, full-screen writing environment without the bells and whistles you would find in a regular word processor, but Linux seems to be somewhat lacking of quality Zenware writing applications. Development on most of this software seems to have halted years ago, and some promising applications have lost compatibility with newer systems due to outdated dependencies.

If you are a writer or engage in any sort of writing regularly and prefer using Linux, there is still some hope. The following three applications are either actively developed and maintained or have not yet lost functionality on Linux.

Possibly the best and most feature-rich, and apparently one of the very few actively maintained Linux-native distraction-free writing application is Focuswriter from Gott Code. It has packaged candidates for most major Linux distributions, such as on Ubuntu you could install it typing

sudo apt-get install focuswriter

Although this will only provide you with somewhat limited functionality and definitely less available themes. To install upstream (the latest version), just use the official PPA:

sudo add-apt-repository sourceforge.net/projects/twin/
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install focuswriter

While most distraction-free writing applications make an effort to maintain their “cleanliness” by removing functionality, Focuswriter offers many rich text formatting features. You are initially presented with a background and a writing window and nothing else.

Initially presented with a background and a empty writing window.

If you move your mouse around the screen edges, however, you will find the hidden controls pop into view.

Hidden controls pop into view.

Apart from the basic text formatting features, focus writer lets you set daily goals in either minutes or words written (the completion of which will be indicated at the bottom panel), set up timers, and work on multiple documents in a tabbed manner.

Work on multiple documents in a tabbed manner.

You can choose from four default themes or create your own using any background colour or image you like.

Focuswriter space theme.

An interesting feature of Focuswriter is the Focused Text (Settings>Focused Text) that lets the active line, three lines, or paragraph stand out slightly, dimming all other text to the background.

Focused Text lets the active line, three lines, or paragraph stand out.

Focuswriter will let you save your work in Plain text ODT, OOXML and RTF formats, which makes it easier to import and format it in the word processor of your preference.

The runner-up for Linux is KoalaWriter, a clone of Ommwriter, a pretty Zenware writing application that is unfortunately unavailable for Linux. KoalaWriter is built on QT, so if you want to install it on any other DE, you will also have to install plenty of libraries first.

There are no packages for Ubuntu. You should instead visit the developer’s Google Code Page and download the tar archive from there. The last version 1.0.1 segfaults upon startup. Since it has been released in November 2011, and the bug report pointing this out is still marked as new, it is safe to assume that the project has been abandoned. The previous version however appears to work well on Ubuntu 15.04. You can get it with the command:

wget https://koalawriter.googlecode.com/files/KoalaWriter.tar.gz

Install the dependencies:

sudo apt-get install build-essential qt4-dev-tools libphonon-dev

Unpack the archive:

tar -xvf KoalaWriter.tar.gz

Change to the unpacked directory:

cd KoalaWriter

and compile:

qmake
make

To run, type:

./KoalaWriter

KoalaWriter has a much more minimalistic approach. You get a background image, a resizeable writing area and a basic set of controls.

KoalaWriter has a much more minimalistic approach.

These disappear as soon as you start typing.

The basic set of controls disappear as you start typing.

You can adjust the font and the text size, but you can expect little text-formatting features.

It more or less achieves its goal, apart from the included background images that are unfortunately rather distracting, unlike the nice ambient colours of Ommwriter. The other two extra functions, (not necessarily distraction-free) playing some quiet music and making clicking noises for key presses will only work with a phonon-backend installed. Under KDE, you would have no problems, while on other systems you would need to install one:

sudo apt-get install phonon-backend-gstreamer

It is worth noting, that on the first start, the writing area will appear on the extreme left which you can correct by dragging the sides and corners to their proper position

On first start, the writing area will appear on the extreme left.

You can also control the opacity of the writing area with the not-so-obvious sliding control on the bottom.

You can control the opacity of the writing area.

KoalaWriter will only allow you to save your work as a plain text file.

JDarkRoom is a very simple, Java-based, cross platform writing application with a super-clean user interface that is reminiscent of the old monochromatic screens of the 80s. On Linux it is a Java application with 1.5 beta being the latest version released in 2010, but still working flawlessly. To run it, you will need Java 1.6 or higher. If you don’t have Java installed, the easiest way to get your distro’s default JRE is

sudo apt-get install default-jre

To download JDarkRoom, type:

wget http://www.codealchemists.com/jdarkroom/versions/15-beta/JDarkRoom.jar

Then you can start it with:

java -jar JDarkRoom.jar

in the directory where it has been downloaded.

Whether you are a die-hard nerd or a middle-aged writer who felt most comfortable using the word processors of his old Commodore 64, you will feel right at home with JDarkRoom. For other people it might just appear a bit too Spartan.

If you are a die-hard nerd, or a middle-aged writer you will feel right at home with JDarkRoom.

JDarkRoom takes “distraction-free” seriously and comes with an extremely limited set of front-end features. Pressing F5 will show them all.

JDarkRoom comes with an extremely limited set of front-end features.

Of course there is plenty of configuration you can do under the hood like changing colours, line-endings, font, cursor style, screen borders and much more, by pressing F6.

There is plenty of configuration you can do under the hood.

JDarkRoom will let you save plain text files with an option to turn on MarkDown export.

Distraction-free writing applications seem to have been abandoned on Linux, with the notable exception of Focuswriter. While some of these are still working, it is not guaranteed they will continue doing so in the future. Although Focuswriter has some nice features, it is probably best to consider switching to Full Screen mode of your favourite word processor to achieve a similar effect with really no unnecessary bloat. OpenOffice, LibreOffice and even Scrivener offer such features, and it would allow you to work in the environment you would use to further enhance your text later without the need of exporting and importing between applications.

Photo credit: Rubin Starset, Foter, CC BY-NC-SA