Plain-Text Writing Lesson Two: The Editor

[Note: This is part two of a multi-part series on the joys of writing with plain-text tools. If you haven’t already, you might want to take a look at the first lesson, which covers why one might want to use plain-text tools in the first place. This lesson, and all the forthcoming lessons, are geared toward writers who aren’t techy and don’t have a great deal of time to devote to learning new gadgets and gizmos. They’re designed to take just a few minutes each to complete, with a view toward having a complete plain-text workflow in place by the time you’re through all the lessons]

Lesson Two: Let’s Get a Text Editor

If the first segment of this series convinced you–as I hope it did–that working with plain-text tools might be worth exploring, the next step is to get yourself a brand new text editor.

One of the great things about text editors, as I mentioned in the previous lesson, is that they’re extremely lightweight when compared to traditional office suites. This gives them two major advantages:

  • They’re lightning fast, even on older hardware. No whirring hard drives or laggy performance gets in the way of your thought process.
  • They get out of your way: The interfaces for most text editors are very minimal, giving you space to write and a few commands, many of which are accessible from the keyboard rather than mouse clicks. Working with the keyboard as much as possible also speeds you up: if you think about how many times your hand leaves the keyboard in order to grab the mouse when you’re working with a traditional word processor and add that up, it can work out to be a significant chunk.The less your hands leave the keyboard, the less there is to break the flow of your thoughts.

There are many flavors of text editor out there, and your ultimate choice of editor (or editors) will depend on how you decide you work best. I’m writing this in an editor called VIM, which is one of the more old-school and traditional options out there, and a long-standing mainstay for programmers. I like it primarily because of the gets-out-of-the-way factor: it presents you with only text in a terminal window, and works only with keyboard commands, keeping all my focus on what I’m doing.

Screenshot - 10292014 - 03:29:58 PM

The VIM editor running in a terminal. Nothing but the words.

The initial drawback of VIM, however, is that there’s a bit of a learning curve involved, since one needs to learn a lot of keyboard commands that make writing faster in the longer term, but not the shorter. So, for our purposes we’re going to start with something that’s geared more toward writers and more intuitive to use, an editor called Gedit. It’s available for all three major platforms (MacOS, Linux, and Windows), it’s free, and it’s intentionally designed to be as simple as possible.

So, your first lesson is to download, install, and spend a little time playing with Gedit. There are many different text editors out there, all geared toward different kinds of users and tasks, some more fancy than others. Gedit gives us a good starting point with its balance of simplicity and functionality.

Start by doing to the Gedit download page for your OS:

  • For Windows, go here, and click on the file with the .exe estension. Double-click on the file and follow the prompts.
  • For Mac, go here, and click on the file with the .dmg extension.
  • For Linux, if you’re using Ubuntu, Gedit is already installed, just access it from the menu or open a terminal and type “gedit.” For other distributions, just use your distribution’s package manager.

When you first open your installed version of Gedit, you’ll get a very simple interface that looks like this:

gedit

What you’ll see the first time you open Gedit. Clean lines and no fuss.

That’s it! There’s nothing else to do, at this point, but play around with writing in that nice, clean interface. You can save your documents just as you would with any word processor. When you first save a file, it’s good practice to give your filename a .txt extension. Note that you can have multiple documents open simultaneously and switch between them by clicking on the tabs at the top of the writing area.

You can also click “view” and then select “side panel” to open a side panel that will show your list of open files. Click the tab with what looks like a file cabinet at the bottom of that panel, and you’ll get a directory tree (very handy for working with multiple files at once).

If you want to make the interface a little easier on the eyes for longer writing sessions, you can change the color scheme and font it uses (note that this will have nothing to do with determining the font in your final output document; this is just about using the font that’s most attractive to your eyes while composing). Just click on the “edit” menu, select “preferences,” and then the tab for “fonts & colors.” You’ll get a list of several preset color schemes (I like the “oblivion” scheme, which gives you gray text on a black background). If you want to change the font, uncheck the checkbox that says “use the system fixed width font.” The otherwise grayed-out pull-down menu for selecting the font and size of your text will become active, and you can choose any font you like.

That’s all for now! Have fun playing with Gedit! Next time, we’ll look at the elegant MarkDown syntax, the most important “power tool” for plain-text writing.

If you run into any problems of have questions, feel free to contact me in the comment section.

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