FocusWriter Rich in Features, Poor in Some Important Ones

FocusWriter uses an intriguing concept that makes you wonder why other word-processing tools do not offer the same hide-away tool panels to eliminate distractions. It offers a set of writing tools with the ease and speed of unencumbered text editors.


Editing a document in FocusWriter
(click image to enlarge)

Focuswriter is a full-screen writing program. It has no option to resize or minimize. Its user interface lacks the traditional windows-control icons to minimize, maximize or close the window. This may require some personal workflow adjustments if you multitask or use numerous virtual workspaces on the Linux desktop.

One slight workaround is available. Unchecking the full-screen mode in the Tools/Preferences menu shows the panel or your dekstop’s specific notification item. This makes it a bit more convenient to switch screens and access icons for specialized tasks that your desktop flavor uses.

It takes a few mouse clicks on the hide-away menu bar to access a special minimize option. This hides the entire application to the docking bar.

What you get is a very successful distraction-free writing environment. You can customize the writing screen by changing the font, colors and background image to create a personalized ambiance. Moving the mouse to the top or bottom edges of the screen accesses the more traditional icon rows and menus of tools.

This approach is a unique concept. FocusWriter provides the best of two worlds. You get a familiar look and feel. All the interface frills stay out of sight until you need to navigate through them. When you do not need to see them, all you see is the writing on the screen.

Deceiving Real Estate

The idea of having a full-screen view to create words on a page is an empty promise, unfortunately. FocusWriter delivers something much less.

The panels that hide when not needed work as advertised, but the interface is mostly wasted with its wide blank borders that frame a much smaller display space for the words you create.

This is not much of a problem on smaller monitors and small-screen laptops. But on my 21-inch diagonal monitor, staring at huge wide borders is a big disappointment. It is counterproductive to have a box in which to write that is centered on an otherwise wasted screen.

A fix would be simple. Just add a setting to adjust the size of the writing area. The documentation claims that setting exists. Maybe it does in the OSX and Windows versions of this application. If it is available in version 1.3.3 of the Linux package, it is so well hidden that it might as well not be there at all.

Useful Features

FocusWriter has a nice set of features that measure up well against the typical settings and options available in other word processors such as Abiword. It even matches many of the tools provided in my favorite text editors. However, the features it lacks relegate FocusWriter to a lightweight tool that falls short of power writers’ needs.

For example, you can tailor the word count options to include characters and the number of paragraphs. You can also set the average word count to fill a paragraph and can divide the character count by six to get a closer length estimate.

These options may not be of much use to business writing tasks. But it is a nice touch that few word processors offer. Other niceties include an optional auto-save, optional daily goals and the ability to change the background and foreground colors.

You also can have the program open with your current work in progress. This option lets you jump immediately to the spot you where last typing. And yes, FocusWriter has auto-save and spell-check functions as well. It uses Hunspell as the spelling engine.

Fluff Functionality Flows

FocusWriter includes some added features that almost seem out of place on a desktop application. I do not even like these traits on my mobile devices’ virtual keyboards. I am talking about funky features such as the optional typewriter sound effects, timers, alarms and daily goals.

I fail to see why developer Graeme Gott thought writers would need a keyboard sound effect. The physical keyboard on PCs actually needs a switch to silence the sound of my fingertips pounding on the keys.

The timers, alarms and daily goals are totally useless to me. I am fairly certain that fellow writers who make their livings as full-time wordsmiths have little need for word-limit goals and reminder alarms within a writing app. Daily goals can be set for word count or writing time.

Useful Utilities

Despite the fluff stuff, FocusWriter comes with an impressive collection of features that real word-processing applications need. For instance, it saves into these necessary file formats: TXT, RTF and ODT.

While support for Microsoft Word documents is missing, RTF and ODT bridge that gap. First you will have to save a .DOC or .DOCX file as RTF or ODT. FocusWriter does not handle that conversion, so you will need another word-processing application to resave an unsupported file format.

FocusWriter’s multi-document support makes the app useful as an everyday writing tool. It uses a tabbed interface that displays on the pop-up bottom panel. Each open file is held in a tabbed screen. You move from one to another by clicking on the named tab.

FocusWriter also supports 15 languages in addition to English, most of which are European.

More Than Typical

Other distraction-limiting writing tools such as the Pyroom Text Editor give you little more than basic text editing or simple notepad-like functionality wrapped into a stark no-frills interface. FocusWriter is more functional than that.

For instance, it provides fully customizable themes. These are easy-to-create modifications to the color and font schemes. However, creating themes is less than intuitive. The background and foreground settings do not refer to the frame and the page, but rather to the page and the text on it. The Session Management feature is handy for working with groups of related documents.

I like the ability to customize the menu bar. This lets me include only the items I use often.

Perhaps the biggest difference in using FocusWriter compared with a lightweight text editor or Pyroom is the extensive text formatting that is possible. For example, the Format menu gives ample choices for text alignment and font styles.

FocusWriter is less capable, however, in its ability to select font and point sizes. Basically, you can’t. That one limitation alone disqualifies FocusWriter as full-time replacement for a standard word processing application.

Bottom Line

FocusWriter is simple to use and fairly flexible writing tool. It is neither a full-fledged text editor or word processor. But it will function fairly well as either type of application to get your words on a page — or screen.

A little more tweaking by its developer could morph FocusWriter into a first-class text editor or top-flight word processor. But until then, it will serve well as a nifty word drafting assistant that you can use as an intermediary step before adding visual polish for printing.

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.

1 Comment

  • I realize this is an old article, but feel the need to comment. The author misses the point. The review of FocusWriter appears to me to be from the standpoint of the needs of a journalist, not a fiction writer. FocusWriter’s so-called "superfluous" features are of great value to a fiction writer. Things like live word count, alarms, and daily targets are really important to, say, a novelist.

    The comments about use of full-screen real-estate, and about looking for the minimize button so that multi-tasking is possible, also miss the point. The idea of a distraction-free environment is to NOT multi-task. If screen real estate is left blank, that’s hardly an issue; the idea is to focus on writing, not on all the other things that you can "multi-task" to do.

    I judge (and use) FocusWriter for its ability to allow me to produce fiction. If I’m doing blog posts or other things that may resemble journalism, I use different tools.

    And by the way, I like that old-fashioned typewriter sound. To me it’s an audible indicator that says "I’m getting work done." (If you use it, just be sure to use headphones or earbuds. Others around you probably don’t want to hear it!)

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