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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Communication Grad Launches Tool to Help Simplify Writing Process

By Brendan O'Hallarn

It's a universal obstacle. Every writer, in fact everyone who has ever faced a writing assignment, has at some point stared at the blank page and thought to themselves: "Where do I begin?"

For those whose business is the written word, writer's block can be a fatal barrier.

Joel Cox ('07), an Old Dominion University Communication graduate, moved to California to pursue a career in writing. He had some success, earning an MFA in Creative Writing from San Diego State University, and eventually worked for the social-mobile game division of Disney Interactive in Palo Alto.

A student of his craft, Cox was always curious about why the writing process can be so frustrating. After reading an article about how "Game of Thrones" author George R. R. Martin wrote the bestselling books (and still writes) on an old school DOS computer, Cox thought there might be a tool that all writers could use.

Technology has advanced so rapidly since the early days of word processors, that the machines now have the processing and connective power of supercomputers from 30 years ago. And with all of those bells and whistles come distractions, which can help feed writer's block.

"I started thinking, 'What would the modern word processor look like had we never become attached to the notion of simulating the page?'" Cox said. "How can we take the best of Google Docs and combine it with this old school aesthetic? And it sort of grew from there."

The result is Volta, a free program for writers that turns the look of any desktop into terminals with different traditional look, such as a simple blue and white screen, or that of a DOS black and orange terminal, complete with blinking cursor.

The process wasn't an easy one. Cox drove an Uber to pay bills while working on the concept and product development last year, somehow fitting in his own wedding last June.

"You wake up one day, and though you weren't a business major all of a sudden you know what phrases like market sizing and segmentation mean. Or product positioning. Or net present value," he said. "You're not a developer, but you know what a dustjs file is or a non-relational database or a node framework, and you know why these things are important."

Originally intending to call the product WriterBoy, Cox and his team hit an obvious roadblock when they brought a prototype to a writers' conference. "People there loved the product, but half of our potential customers are women. So we had to change the name."

Cox settled on Volta, which is a writing term for a turn or change within a sonnet. And also applicable to what the entrepreneur hopes to do to the writing and self-publishing process.

Volta is a free program that provides one of several distraction-free writing environments while still supplying all the modern affordances of cloud computing. Cox is creator of Volta and CEO of the small company that has brought the product to launch. They are seeking 10,000 sign-ups for the free product to get in into the marketplace. Interested writers can sign up for their copy of the product when it is launched early in February at http://voltawriter.com/.

Cox said the plan is for Volta to evolve into a site where authors can write, buy, publish and sell ebooks all on one platform.

"We're trying to alleviate the pains of writers, on a number of levels," he said.

Stephen Pullen, chair of Old Dominion's Department of Communication and Theatre Arts, isn't surprised with the success of his former student.

"Joel was always one of our most talented and ambitious film students," Pullen said. "While here at ODU, Joel made several short films that were thoughtful, provocative and well-produced. I'm not surprised to see him pursuing entrepreneurial goals such as this. With his creativity, I always knew he would succeed."

For his part, Cox feels his coming to Norfolk from Silver Spring, Md. to attend Old Dominion represented an important step in his career growth.

"Old Dominion, I've said this for years, was the greatest period of my life so far," he said. "I fell in love with the campus, the people, southern hospitality. And for the first time, I really developed relationships with mentors, who took an interest in my work and helped cultivate my vision. I'll always be grateful for that."

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