My minimalist writing environment

…with research question permanently displayed

As I’m writing up my PhD dissertation, I am continuously striving to streamline my writing process and simplify my writing environment. For this reason I have been drawn to minimalist writing applications that reduce unnecessary distractions, such as too much chrome and colourful menu buttons in applications. I use different software for different writing situations. Currently I am writing up a chapter for which I have detailed notes organised in an elaborate Freeplane mind map, which I keep in my right hand monitor.

My central monitor is where I do the actual writing. Currently, this consists of a WriteMonkey window that takes up most of the left and centre of the monitor area, while on the right I have a Notepad2-mod window open to take some ad hoc notes and organise them into a quick outline prior to writing. To do the actual writing, I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate directly into WriteMonkey, while looking at my Freeplane mind map, which I check off gradually, as described in this post.

Notepad2-mod is a recent discovery for me. It is a replacement for Windows’ own Notepad. I have learnt about it at the Donation Coder forum, where you can find instructions on how to turn it into a very simple plain-text-based outliner. I like to use it in conjunction with WriteMonkey, as it is easy to copy and paste unformatted text from one to the other, and I also find it distraction-free enough. I also use Notepad2-mod as a scratch pad area, to work out ideas quickly, before dictating them into WriteMonkey.

There’s one more screen element that has become an important part of my setup. As I was writing my chapters, I continually wished that I was able to view my main research question at the top of my screen, so that I would be reminded of it at all times, in order not to lose my main focus. However, I had a hard time finding a solution that would display a single line permanently at the top of my screen, without there being any chrome around it, and without it being obscured by maximised windows.

Eventually it was another of Mouser’s brilliant little solutions that allowed me to do this. It is a very simple little application called DesktopCoral, which lets you reserve an area of your screen and prevent other software from covering it. Besides other uses, you can also select a .jpg image file to be displayed within it. So all I had to do was to take a screenshot (using Mouser’s excellent Screenshot Captor) of my research question displayed in a single line in WriteMonkey, and insert it into DesktopCoral’s docking bar, which I docked to the top of my screen. It takes up just a tiny sliver of it. As you can see (exactly because you cannot actually see it!) from the screenshot below, the DesktopCoral bar blends into my screen environment seamlessly.

WriteMonkey, Notepad2-mod, DesktopCoral, Winsplit RevolutionTo achieve this effect, I also needed to enlist Winsplit Revolution, which I used to position the WriteMonkey window into the centre-left area while in full-screen mode (otherwise WriteMonkey would cover up the DesktopCoral bar, as full-screen mode is different from maximised-window mode). (By the way, I’m not bothered by my Windows taskbar at the bottom of the screen. It allows me to quickly switch between applications with the mouse, and I don’t find it too distracting.)

If I did not need the Notepad2-mod window, then I could just centre WriteMonkey in full-screen mode (again, with Winsplit, in order not to obscure the DesktopCoral bar), and the research question area at the top would simply look like it belongs to WriteMonkey itself, except that it is permanently there, and it does not disappear when I scroll up or down, or indeed do anything else: it remains visible even when I close WriteMonkey and switch to other tasks.

At the moment nothing is more important to me than remaining mindful of my research question, therefore I do not mind at all that it is always in my face. I could imagine that other people might find this solution useful for pinning important reminders—or even inspirational quotes—to the top of their desktops to permanently remind them what is important.

The most amazing thing is that, with the exception of Dragon, all of the above tools are free– though their developers do welcome donations, and they deserve them, too. I just love these tools to bits—or should I say, to bytes?


If this is just not minimalist enough for you, you could always 1) turn off the numbering in Notepad2-mod, if it’s too distracting, or 2) instead of Notepad2-mod just use another instance of WriteMonkey and position it on the right with Winsplit Revolution, and 3) make the Windows taskbar autohide. With 2) and 3) it would be truly just a single-coloured background with a single-coloured font, and nothing else to distract you. Here is what the screen would look like then (the file name, word count, and time info in blue at the bottom is optional, as is Winsplit’s little floating tool in the bottom right corner):

WriteMonkey with DesktopCoral and Winsplit RevolutionP.P.S.

WriteMonkey’s developer tells me that it is also possible to display the research question with WM’s own Corkboards plugin. And it turns out you may not even need full-screen view + Winsplit to get rid of WM’s Windows chrome: you can just CTRL+right-click with the mouse on the right side of WM’s window, and the chrome disappears. Here is his screenshot of the Corkboards feature:

WriteMonkey with Corkboard plugin

2 thoughts on “My minimalist writing environment

  1. Hey, Doc, I think you worked a bit too hard for this effect. WM can manage the whole thing for you with just a tiny bit of manual setup.

    First off, let me say that keeping your research question visible at all times is brilliant.

    There are two ways that WM could keep that front and center for you. One, just make the name of your composition file the question you want to have visible and move the info bar position to “top”. Might be kinda silly, but there you go. Two, you just open a second WM instance, window it, Ctrl+click the frame away if you haven’t already set that as your default in Preferences>Screen elements>More (button in the lower right above OK)>uncheck “Show border in windowed mode”, then grab the lower right hand corner of the window to stretch it into shape and grab it by the right hand edge to move it into position. You can either type the question or you can have saved a file with just that in it. Remember Ctrl+Tab accesses your recent files list and can be a big help setting up things like this for projects that you are working on recently. Finally, set to “Lock on top” using F8.

    Then for your second pane, just fire up another WM window, get it shaped and positioned as you like, lock it on top, then in your main WM window, open the Jumps window, then size and position it in such a way as you force your main window text to jog away from your secondary WM window, but that it also hides under the secondary window (you can always quickly gain visibility on this window by using the F2 minimize on the secondary, and then get the secondary back with a quick Alt+Tab). You may have/want to adjust the column width at this point to get things into harmony for yourself. You know, season to taste.

    I’m sure this doesn’t work for all situations, but there was some extra functionality that you can use creatively here that it didn’t seem you were aware of. The fact that you were using two extra Windows defying apps to make all this stuff happen kinda gave me the shakes, so I had to stop to help out.


    • Hi Todd, many thanks for stopping by, and for taking the time to share these great tips. You’re right, I wasn’t aware of these options. WriteMonkey’s versatility is pretty amazing.

      Having said that, I will stay with my current setup (which I have amended since the above post) for the following reasons. 1) I only need to set it up once and it stays in place permanently, even after rebooting. 2) It is displayed 100% of the time, not only when WriteMonkey is running. 3) It cannot be covered up by any other maximised or full-screen window: its space is fully reserved for the “research question” banner.

      I have achieved this effect by also enlisting Samurize, for which Desktop Coral was originally developed. I use Samurize for one purpose only: to display the line of text against a grey background (I can type it directly into Samurize, no need to mess around with screenshots any more). The benefit of Samurize is that it can be positioned over Desktop Coral, which prevents other applications from maximising their windows into the banner space at the top of the screen (while Samurize can override windows in full-screen mode). Moreover, the banner can be toggled on or off by just clicking on the Samurize icon in the taskbar area.

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