Text Editors for Writers

Update: Added a link to Jedi Concentrate, thanks to Lifehacker.


I remember reading an article, years ago, by Chris Bidmead, where he mentioned that people were often surprised to hear that he didn’t use Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. The quote was something like “I’m a writer. What on earth would I want a word processor for?”

It sounded odd at the time, and it sounds just as odd now, because that’s what writers are supposed to use. When you stop and think about it, though, it can make a fair bit of sense.

What’s wrong with word processors for writing?

  • They often concentrate on the formatting, not just getting the words down. The more time you spend deciding what font looks best for your headings, the less time you’re spending writing.
  • They can be big and slow – not terribly slow, but slower than a text editor would be. You never want to have to slow down when you’re in the flow because your tools can’t keep up.
  • File formats – if you want what you’re working on now to still be readable in ten years, you might want to put a bit of thought into the format you’re saving it in – or just use plain text.
  • Text editors often have better features for getting text into the computer and modifying it quickly.
  • If you’re writing for the web, features like ‘smart-quotes’ can have unpleasant effects on some browsers when copied and pasted from word processor to blogging software.

On the other hand, what’s wrong with text editors?

  • If you have to produce work formatted in a certain way, you may well have difficulty. If you have to print the result with double line-spacing, for example, you’d probably have to move the text to a word processor to do that. Not a problem if you’re just going to send the work elsewhere to be formatted, though.
  • Some people would really miss their auto-correct, which not all text editors can do. Some people would love to escape their auto-correct.
  • Depending on the editor you choose, there can be a steep learning curve. Some text editors are very easy to use, but some of the most fully-featured ones are anything but.

What it comes down to in the end is that writers have to write – it’s all about getting text from your head to the computer. A text editor can be the fastest, most distraction-free way of doing that.

So, what are your options? Well, you could go for…

Very Simple Text Editors

If you’re using Windows, you’ve already got Notepad. It’s a simple text editor. Almost every operating system comes with some sort of simple text editor, so you shouldn’t be stuck whatever you’re using – there’s a selection of editors supplied with MacOS and most Linux distributions too. The very simplest of text editors will only give you a few features. You’ll be able to type in them, and edit what you’ve done, and you’ll be able to save and open files, but probably not all that much else. If you’re after the most distraction-free environment for writing, though, you can always just fire up Notepad, maximise it to take up the whole screen, and maybe even hide your task bar (right-click, Properties, tick ‘Auto-hide the task bar’), and off you go. You might as well get writing, there’s nothing else to look at.

Just remember to save often, won’t you? There’s no auto-save in Notepad.

  • If you’re a Mac user, there’s WriteRoom – a full-screen text editor that’s designed for exactly this situation.
  • Windows users after something similar can try Darkroom – full screen, green-on-black courier goodness. (Thanks to Lifehacker for finding it.)
  • Unix people can do all this with the command line, of course.

If you’re hooked on a favourite app, but like the idea of cutting out the distractions, there’s also Jedi Concentrate – a Windows app that fades everything but the current app to (or towards) black.

Powerful, Friendly Text Editors

There are editors out there that are very powerful, but still quite easy to get going with. I’ve tried a fair few, and my favourite in the end was PSPad. It’s Windows-only, so Mac users are out of luck. Linux users already have their own favourite, and they’ve only read this far down to make sure I don’t say anything offensive about their pet editor 😉

Like most really powerful text editors, it’s aimed at programmers, so there’s a whole lot of options and features you’ll probably never use, but you can just ignore them. It’s fast, it’s worked very reliably for me, and it’s got pretty much every feature you could think of.

There’s a couple of others that I’ve used for a while, too…

  • Notepad++ was my previous editor of choice. It doesn’t have quite the range of features of PSPad, but the interface is a bit less cluttered too, and there’s less quirks – might be a better choice for the less technical.
  • Notepad2 did me very nicely before finding Notepad++ – it’s a bit simpler again, and might suit you if Notepad++ is a bit much, but Windows Notepad is a bit little.

Powerful, Unfriendly Text Editors

There are other editors that are faster in use than anything mentioned above, but aren’t as friendly to use. If you’re willing to invest a bit of time in learning to use an editor, though, it will pay off if you spend a bit of time writing in it. Think about how often you have to go up or down a line or two when you’re writing. Every time you do that, you take your hands off the home keys, and use the arrow keys to go where you want to go. Then you go back to the home keys to make the change, then back to the arrow keys to move back to where you were, then back to the home keys to carry on typing. (If you don’t touch-type, learn to do that very soon – it will take a while to learn, but your writing will take half as long from then on.)

In Emacs, you can go back up a line with Ctrl-P, and down again with Ctrl-N. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re doing a lot of editing, being able to keep your fingers on the home keys can make a real difference. In Vi, you move up and down with ‘k’ and ‘j’.

This is just an example of how they make everything quick, at the expense of learning time – there’s a lot more to both of them than that.

Don’t expect to open either of these editors and just start typing, though – if you don’t take a bit of time to learn first, you probably won’t get far. Both Gnu Emacs and Vim (Vi IMproved) have tutorials that can teach you the basics, but you’ll need to set aside a few preconceptions, and a couple of hours of time – just to get used to the basics. Once learned, though, either of these editors will make you faster at editing text than ever before, so you’ll save a bit of time on every bit of writing.

Learning a really good editor is worth the effort, but it is a lot of effort – if you’re not ready for that kind of commitment to a text editor yet, stay with the friendly stuff for now. When you’re ready, though, Emacs and Vi will still be around – they’ve both been around for over thirty years now, so they’re not going away any time soon.

There is one problem that might actually slow you down with an editor this different – they use completely different keystrokes to all the other applications you use. If you’re just working in Emacs or Vi all day, you’ll be able to work much faster, but if you have to switch back and forth, you’ll have to remember which app you’re in before you can copy and paste. I found this to be a real problem – in Emacs, copy and paste are Alt-w and Ctrl-y – in all other Windows apps, it’s Ctrl-c and Ctrl-v. One of the things I needed to do most is copying and pasting things back and forth from my text editor to my browser and RSS reader. I’d keep trying to do Ctrl-y in Firefox, or Ctrl-v in Emacs.

In each app you’re using, efficiency is important, but when you’re using several, consistency can be more important.

Conclusion

Text editors are probably a better fit for most writers than word processors. You need to decide how much effort you want to invest in your chosen editor – it can pay off well, but you don’t want to spend three days learning Vi or Emacs, only to decide that you don’t like them after all. You can always try them all – every editor I’ve mentioned above is free.

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