In praise of simple tools

What tool do you use for your writing? If you’re like most of the free world, you don’t even think about it. You just open up Word (or possibly Open Office or some other word processor) and start banging out the prose.

But maybe it’s worth examining that assumption.

Beginning authors tend to think that all those features are exactly the kinds of things that writers need: fonts, bolding, indentation, headings, and so forth. For some kinds of writing, this is true, but for most creative writing – especially stuff aimed at commercial markets – this is not true. The writer puts the words together, but a designer or layout editor is the one who’s tasked with making it look pretty. And the first thing they typically do with your manuscript is strip out all the extraneous eye-candy you might have put in.

Nope. Most writers actually need very little: a spell-checker, a way to print, a single font, some way to indicate emphasis, and some way to save and load content from disk. Oh yeah, and there’s one more thing: lots and lots of screen space for all those lovely words to inhabit.

Believe it or not, Notepad is probably closer to what you need than a word processor is, although admittedly, Notepad doesn’t have a spell checker. But jumping from there all the way to MS Word is like recognizing that your scissors are not quite enough to cut your lawn with, so opting for a combine harvester instead, because that’s what all your neighbors seem to use. The logical step up from the scissors would be a push mower of some kind. What would correspond to a push mower in your choice of editors? I would look at one of the enhanced text editors, such as Notepad++ (for Windows users), Text Wrangler (for Mac) or GEdit (for Linux).*

Why those? Well, for starters, they’re all free, as in costing zero dollars. Second, they all have minimal menus, buttons and widgets cluttering up the display, which means maximum screen space for your words. They all have spell checkers, too. But what I like most about these tools is that they free you from a number of risks that word processors expose you to – some of which may never even have occurred to you before. Specifically these are: file corruption, accumulated distraction lag, processor bloat, and completion cueing.

Each of these issues is a potential threat to either your sanity, your productivity or your wallet. In the next few postings, I’ll be talking about each of them in turn, outlining what I mean and why you should be concerned about it, and then explaining why I think the text editors are a better way to go. So if you already agree with me, go ahead and give one of the text editors a try. If not, stick around for the next few articles and maybe I’ll be able to convince you.

And for those of you who have already swallowed the Koolaid, what editor do you use?

* For those who want the Swiss Army chain-saw version of text editors, you might want to have a look at vim. It is one of the most powerful editors on the market today and it is completely free, but it is not for the faint-of-heart or the techno-timid.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.