Text Editors for All

I am now, more than ever, convinced that writers should be taught how to write on text editors and not on modern word processors. The same goes for beginning writers as well as advanced writers. Why? Good text editors — and there are plenty of good ones for the Mac, for Linux, and for Windows — do not give you WYSIWYG. (“What You See Is What You Get” is a close approximation of what the printed page will look like). Instead, text editors give you a blank screen, perhaps some line numbers, perhaps some syntax coloring (more on this in a moment) and no real sense of what the output is going to look like. And that’s a good thing, because you shouldn’t be thinking about the output while you’re writing.

You should be thinking about what it is you are trying to communicate. You shouldn’t care what the margins look like, what the headers and footers look like, what the headings look like, etc. What you should be paying attention to are the words themselves and how you structure them into paragraphs and sections that convey what it is you are trying to say. Unfortunately, most word processors sidetrack writers, especially inexperienced writers, into worrying about formatting, into confusing the styling of typography with styling of prose. (Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth explores what style really is.)

I want to be clear: typography and design are important, but they are only important insofar as they reflect and/or augment what it is the text itself is trying to say. Or, as I will say more about in a minute, design should be a function not only of the text and the audience and the intended meaning but also the medium in which the transaction is taking place. Even some of university professors and high-powered business people confuse formatting with structure, and so what hope for beginning writers and thinkers? And it’s going to get worse before it gets better, because for every web application that uses Markdown, Textile, ReST, or some other version of easy-to-use markup, there are four web apps that provide a WYSIWYG editing interface.

So let loose the dogs of bold and italics! Facebook and MySpace have made everyone having a home on the internet easy, but in making it easy they have also taken a lot of thinking out of the process.

Okay, I’m a humanist. I think thinking should always be a part of the process. It stings me that so few humanists worry about this. I understand that not everything needs to be thought about. My wife is a good example. For her, Microsoft Word works just fine. And, so far, she has never had a Word document go bad. I have. And it only took a time or two before I began thinking about not only how my data was locked up in someone else’s proprietary format — it’s a lot like someone encoding your data and turning it into a secret message that you can’t open with anything else but their key — but also how fragile that format was. Fragile both in terms of corruptibility and in terms of longevity. And never mind that every document was ten times, ten times, the size of the data it contained. What else was Word stuffing in there?

Elsewhere I’ve written about the importance of thinking about platforms, so I won’t go into it here. But obviously one thing having “just plain text” that can then be transformed into xhtml and from there into an rtf document or a PDF or a myriad of other things does is allow the writer to move quickly across platforms, multi-purposing their work. It’s my belief that we’re going to have to teach both humanists and communications people not only how to do this but the mindset behind it. I know the humanists aren’t getting it in their classes, and I’m pretty sure the communications folks aren’t either. Personally, I think this is the key not only to good thinking, but also the key to good design. Once you “get this,” then your world changes. Suddenly, all media forms become languages that have their own grammars that you are free both to use conventionally and also innovate within — depending upon your objective.