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

Nuance software 50% off in the UK this weekend

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 is an indispensable tool for me and this weekend (begins midnight Thursday, ends midnight Monday) Nuance has a 50% off sale for the home edition, and also for some other software, at its UK online store. I’m not sure if these offers are also available to non-UK shoppers but it might be worth a try. Here are the prices:

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Home – £79.99 £39.99

PDF Converter Professional 8 – £99.99 £49.99

PaperPort 14 – £49.99 £24.99

OmniPage 18 – £79.99 £39.99

I already have DNS 12, but I’m looking for an OCR application to convert entire (including scanned) PDF articles to text (that would be OmniPage then), so I can import them into ConnectedText in one go and then delete the unnecessary bits, rather than continuing with my current piecemeal method of converting bits of text with the otherwise excellent ABBYY Screenshot Reader.


After a bit more research I’ve decided to pay the extra couple of pounds and go for ABBYY FineReader 11 Pro. For one, it has generally better reviews than OmniPage 18, but also I’ve been so impressed with their Screenshot Reader – which I got for free and have been using for years – that I’m happy to reward them for that.

Update no. 2:

Wow, OCR applications have moved on since the last time I used them a few years ago! So far I’m very pleased with ABBYY FineReader. It only took a couple of seconds to convert a 17-page PDF article to Word, complete with not only all the footnotes and headings but also all of the images.

The main purpose of the scanning is to end up with a text version to be imported into ConnectedText. The scan wasn’t entirely perfect in the sense that the first page with the abstract ended up appended to the end of the Word document, but it was easy to fix that with a cut and paste job. There were a couple of italicised words in the original that weren’t kept in italics in the scan and some block quotes didn’t end up looking the way they were supposed to, however the OCR-ing, which matters to me the most, was very close to 100% accuracy.

Update no. 3:

Correction: in fact the ABBYY FineReader scan was perfect: the problem I mentioned regarding lost italicisation and indentation of block quotes had nothing to do with ABBYY. Those features got lost in the conversion process from .docx to .htm and the CT import process. Apologies to the ABBYY folks…