Return of The Text Editor?

Remember when almost everything you did on a computer was, essentially, in plain text? Sure there were “word processors” back in the day, but the “formatting” was really just markup within text to start and stop formatting. Then came the “revolution” of WYSIWYG. Now, I’m not going to decry that as a terrible thing in computing. It wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination. WYSIWYG gave birth to modern publishing as we know it. Being able to see how something would look before it was printed or rendered allowed not only desktop publishing, but also things like me being able to write my books in MS Word and ship revisions back and forth electronically. But a funny thing has been happening lately. I’ve been noticing more and more people (at least in the geek set) working in plain text. Steve Rubel in his post (know I’ve cited it before) talks about the inherent transportability of plain text. Which makes me wonder if we’re seeing a new day for the humble plain text editor.

Truthfully I’ve never stopped using plain text editors. I need them for editing PHP, HTML, CSS, and other files, but I haven’t used them for anything more than editors for website files in years. Oh sure, occasionally I’d dash out something fast in a text editor that I needed to paste somewhere else (for spell check if nothing else), but it wasn’t until I discovered SimpleNote and Notational Velocity and now nvALT that I started seriously writing in plain text. Discovering that sticking to plain text made it painless for me to work on a document on my desktop, iPad, even iPhone was pretty revolutionary to me. After years of working in dedicated word processors with proprietary formats, breaking free of all that to be writing in plain text and if I need formatting use Markdown makes writing more about writing than fighting with applications that put looking good ahead of writing well.

That’s not to say that when I start my fourth book (yep, number three is done and published as of this week) and consider second editions for previous ones, that I’m not going to be writing them in Scrivener. Far from it! In fact it’s the fact that Scrivener easily imports from SimpleNote and Dropbox that I can write in plain text on the go and then incorporate those new works into my books without effort at all. The plain text editor, in fact, means freedom and flexibility in your writing, not being bound to applications that have their own formats. Armed with a slew of different text editors on my iPad and iPhone (some sync with SimpleNote, some with DropBox) I can settle in to write and know that what I start can be finished in a myriad other applications.

What about WYSIWYG? Isn’t that still important? Actually WYSIWYG is still essential to what I do. Once book chapters are written, I convert them into Word using a special set of style sheets that smooth the process of turning my words into completed works. Sure, at that point I have to leave text editors, but the hard part is done by then and I need to work with a larger team.

However, as for my day-to-day writing, like this post, I stick to working in plain text, synced to Dropbox, marked up with Markdown so I can then have it ready for posting as HTML. Actually now that I’ve found Brett Terpstra’s Markdown for WP plugin, I can write this here in his nvALT editor and copy it as is into the post editor all set for becoming a post (in correctly formatted HTML). Yeah that’s pretty cool.

So I encourage you to look at plain text writing apps like OmmWriter or WriteRoom that allow simple and basic text writing. Don’t worry, formatting can follow when you need it too, but first, let writing be writing and text be text.

Originally posted on the Future Shop Tech Blog

Comments

  1. says

    Personally I never found using Markdown or any of the other semi-markup formats useful: I’ve been writing raw HTML myself for so long that it’s easier and faster for me to do that (especially with the tools in BBEdit to speed it up) than to teach myself some other style. It’s also why I find wikis annoying to edit, since often they don’t use exactly the same syntax, while HTML always does. But that’s just me; I doubt others would feel the same way.

  2. says

    Personally I never found using Markdown or any of the other semi-markup formats useful: I’ve been writing raw HTML myself for so long that it’s easier and faster for me to do that (especially with the tools in BBEdit to speed it up) than to teach myself some other style. It’s also why I find wikis annoying to edit, since often they don’t use exactly the same syntax, while HTML always does. But that’s just me; I doubt others would feel the same way.

    • says

      The only problem I have with writing in straight html is the number of characters I need to mark something up. It’s one character for most formatting so there is little to break my writing flow and then I can flip into HTML through a quick keystroke and it’s all good.

      • says

        That’s why a tool like BBEdit is handy: a quick key combo or button click surrounds selected text with a formatting element (like em or strong or whatever), another one brings up a dialog to insert a URL for a link, and so on. Even then, I find I’m pretty quick typing raw HTML by hand too, just from long practice. However, I certainly don’t think that’s normal for most people, so something like Markdown or Textile would be a better idea for the majority.

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