Text Editors and Academic Writing

Tools for writing using a computer fall into two broad camps. On the one side we have WYSIWIG word processing applications like Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, and Google Docs. They allow not only the typing of text but also real-time formatting and display. These applications are familiar to most, and are the dominant ones used in higher-ed today. They also tend to be expensive (or available only to those with institutional affiliation), suffer from issues of feature-bloat and unnecessary make-overs, and use proprietary non-human-readable file formats.

In contrast to the WYSIWIG editors stands the text editor. It operates on plain text, human readable, files. And its main purpose is to parse text in the most efficient way possible. It does not (typically) display a page as it will look when printed. There are many, many text editors one can choose from them, and the two most well-known—emacs and vim—are free.

As far as I can tell there are basically three main reasons to prefer a text editor over a word processing application.

  • Text editors are more efficient at editing text
  • Text editors connect better with other research and writing tools
  • Text editors are easier to enjoy working in/with

I’m not sure that I find any of these or the many other various arguments for writing in plain text with a text editor totally convincing, at least in isolation. Certainly there is no one-size-fits-all answer. If you like writing in MS Word or Apple Pages, if such programs help you get on with writing, then great.

That said, there are some really useful things that you can do when writing in plain text and using a powerful (and often free) text editor, or command line tools made for manipulating text (like cat, grep or sed). Here are a few reasons that I find compelling. I’m sure there are others.

  1. Search

    Whether searching in a single file or across files, when writing in plain text it is really quite simple to perform searches looking for a particular word or combination of words. If you know the syntax for writing regular expressions the process is even easier. For example, from a directory of notes I can search for the occurrence of particular words or phrases and then move to each occurrence (even if they are in separate files) seamlessly, all using just a text editor (emacs) and a simple search command (in this case using emacs to interface with a search program called the silver searcher or “ag”).

  2. Version control

    I’ve written before about how useful it is to have your writing under some sort of version control. Most modern text editors allow you to directly and easily interface with the vc of your choice in the course of an editing session. In the case of emacs there is the incomparable Magit.

  3. Outlining & Notetaking

    Since their main use is manipulating text, text editors are unsurprisingly great for outlining and notetakeing. For example, Vim has a great outlining tool called Voom and emacs has the incomparable org-mode. You can even use org-mode for keeping a research wiki if that’s you’re thing. You can see a historian making use of vim’s notetaking powers here.

  4. Flexibility

    Do you spend a lot of time on your computer at night and wish MS Word wasn’t such a blaringly bright white application to work with? Do you wish you could automate or create keyboard shortcuts for repetitive tasks during editing? At least with the three major open source editors—emacs, vim, and atom—this is relatively easy to do (or to learn to do). You can change how your editor looks, what kind of keyboard combinations do what, and automate simple (or even complex) tasks.

  5. Interface with other programs

    Though this connects with the second bullet point above, it is useful to emphasize. For example, I use pandoc for converting all my academic writing and teaching materials. I also keep all my bibliographic material in a bibtex document. My text editor has plug-ins which allow me to seamlessly interact with these programs and others, without having to leave the editor. I’m also able to do all the upkeep for my various websites within the editor. I’ve found this kind of uniform interface for everything to be extremely useful.

So try a text editor (or two or three) and see what you think (but really, use emacs). Write your next paper in it (or at least the notes for it) and see if you find it helpful. There is always a learning curve to take into account. But after you get the hang of a particular editor you can decide whether it is really a help or if you’d rather just chuck it and go back to MS Word, Pages, or whatever worked for you before.