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Word Processors — One Writer's Further Retreat 391

Posted by timothy
from the flipping-toggles-is-next dept.
ch-dickinson writes "In 2003, I posted an essay ('Word Processors: One Writer's Retreat') here about my writing experience — professional and personal — that led to a novel draft in vi(m), and I outlined reasons I chose a simple non-WYSIWYG text editor rather than a more full-featured word processor. A few novels later, in 2010 now, I decided to try a text editor that predates even vi: ed. I'd run across ed about 20 years ago, working at a software company and vaguely recalled navigation of a text file meant mentally mapping such commands as +3 and -2: ed didn't click with me then. But writing a novel draft is mule work, one sentence after another, straight ahead — no navigating the text file. The writer must get the story down and my goal is 1,000 words a day, every day, until I'm done. I have an hour to 90 minutes for this. So when I returned after two decades, I was impressed with how efficiently ed generates plain text files." Read on for the author's brief account of why he looked a few decades back in the software universe to find the right tool for the job.

Documentation for ed is available on the Internet, but I found it a great help to take Richard Gauthier's USING THE UNIX SYSTEM (1981) with me when I reported for jury duty in Portland, Oregon. His 30-page discussion of "the editor" is thorough and gave me some sense of the power of this pioneer text editor (cut & pastes, for example).

As I said, what drives my mule-like early morning routine is word count. The text editor ed has no internal word count tool (through dropping back to the command line gives, of course, wc). What I had to do was quite simple: I converted byte-counts (which ed does with each write to the file) into word equivalents. So if my style of writing runs 5.6 characters per word, then a word goal of 1,000 words is simply 5,600 bytes. Every day, I set my target byte count and once there, I quit.

In less than three months, I finished a 72,000-word novel draft and give ed credit for not slowing me down. Based on my experience writing novels with plain text editors (vim, geany, and now ed), I understand how few computing resources are needed to take manuscript composition off a typewriter and put it on a personal computer. The advantages of the latter are several, including less retyping, easier revision, and portability among different systems. Whether going from typewriter to personal computer makes for better writing I'll leave to others for comment.

What doesn't make for better writing is confusing text on demand (that daily word count that grows to a manuscript) with desktop publishing. Desktop publishing makes so many word processors into distracting choice-laden software tools. Obviously, there is a place for a manuscript as PDF file compliant with appropriate Acrobat Distiller settings, but that ends, not begins, the process. I like to think I'm not putting the cart before the horse.

So why would I recommend ed for a wordsmith? I'd say it comes down to just enough computing resources to do the job. WYSIWYG word processors have a cost and intuitively I think there's cerebral bus contention between flow of words onto the screen and keeping a handle on where the mouse arrow is (among other things).

But then perhaps I've a "less is more" bias (I have a car with nonpower steering — better road feel; I ride a fixed single-speed bike — ditto). That feeling is the sum of things there (and things left out). When I ride my fixie bike, it seems to know why I ride. Similarly, when I invoke ed, the text editor, it seems to know why I write. An illusion, sure, but also a harmony that goes with being responsible for all of it and staying focussed (without any distracting help balloons!).


One of Charlie Dickinson's novels is available for download at cetus-editons.com.
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Word Processors — One Writer's Further Retreat

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  • Next step? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by eddy (18759) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:13PM (#33845952) Homepage Journal

    I guess the next step is writing a novel using a hexeditor?

    I get using a simple editor to not get down in layout/font issues, but I don't get using ed over vim (or emacs or any other simple text editor). This story failed to sell me on the concept. Is the idea that because it's hard to navigate in ed, you're not tempted to rewrite during the first pass? Seems a bit weak, you should probably have the mental power to just not do that.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by buswolley (591500)
      Well why don't you just buy a pen and notebook then chump?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by buswolley (591500)
        Well why don't you just buy a inkwell and parchment, chump?
      • Re:Next step? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by fishbowl (7759) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:28PM (#33846548)

        Neil Gaiman writes his novels longhand, with a fountain pen (usually a Lamy Safari) and paper. I believe there is a lot to be said for this approach.

        I believe that as text editors go, so long as one is writing in English or at least a language in a latin character set, it's tough to beat the efficiency of VIM. That's certainly what I use, when I have a choice.

        But the overall efficiency of a fountain pen is also pretty hard to beat. (For those of you who don't know, a fountain pen requires practically no pressure in order to write, and is held at a very natural angle, and is a quite different experience from writing with a ballpoint. I have serious fatigue problems if I try to write for a long time with a ballpoint pen, these problems go away with a fountain pen.)

        • Re:Next step? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by BungaDunga (801391) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:54PM (#33846708)

          As long as you're right handed, anyway. I looked into fountain pens and they're very difficult to use with your left hand- the ink smears unless you write in bizarre orientations.

          • Re:Next step? (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 09, 2010 @02:48PM (#33846986)
            That's because your schoolmaster was a stupid twat that didn't teach you how to use a pen properly.

            You're supposed to hold your hand /below/ the line you're just writing.

            Right-handed people should have the same ink-smearing problem when writing in arabic or hebrew. Yet that isn't the case.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Riktov (632)

              It's not just smearing; you're also pushing the pen "into" the paper with nearly every horizontal stroke, so it digs in. Especially with cursive, where every letter is connected by a horizontal ligature.

              And if holding the pen above the line is incorrect, apparently the vast majority of teachers are doing it wrong.

    • Hex editors are too bloated. He should use cat instead (not the bloated monstrosity that is GNU cat of course).
    • I guess the next step is writing a novel using a hexeditor?

      Well, assuming his next novel keeps the same word count, he just needs 3136 punch cards (I'm assuming 7-bit ASCII is enough for him, Unicode is probably too advanced).

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Real Writers use a magnet-tipped pen to flip bits on the hdd.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by BrokenHalo (565198)
      Seems to me this issue has been explored as thoroughly as it needs to be - by none less than Neal Stephenson in In the Beginning Was The Command Line" [cryptonomicon.com]. The man can write, and having done do on a subject close to the heart of many geeks is doubly cool.
    • Re:Next step? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by icebike (68054) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:49PM (#33846674)

      This story failed to sell me on the concept. Is the idea that because it's hard to navigate in ed, you're not tempted to rewrite during the first pass? Seems a bit weak, you should probably have the mental power to just not do that.

      It failed to convince me too.

      Almost every word processor has a non-layout presentation option used for banging out text without sacrificing running spell checking, syntax, auto capitalization, or the use of outlining capability, etc.

      Self imposing a limitation making it harder to make changes mean more post production work. Consistency suffers. Continuity is the first causality. Errors creep in and persist.

      Some things should be changed at the minute you decide to make the change, or the text suffers. No amount of editing after the fact will find all of these. (Especially in technical writing, where your editor will know far less about the subject than you).

      No one who writes anything of length works in page layout view or worries about fonts, page breaks while entering the basic document. New writers may make this mistake their first time, but soon learn.

      But in technical writing, when a term or a name changes you pretty much have to find and fix that immediately, because your editor won't have a clue. In non technical writing, when it becomes important for continuity to insert some facts or flesh out a character earlier in the story to support a later story twist, you have a choice of inserting it inline, with the intent of moving it later, or finding the appropriate place, and inserting it right then when the idea is fresh. The former leads to more re-writes.

      A well developed story, or a well thought out technical outline saves far more time than simply forgoing structural edits by using self limiting tools with the hope of remembering to relocate, rewrite, or revise text later. The annotation features of word processors would actually help in these tasks if one wanted to put them off till later.

      That the writer in TFA feels the need to impose self exile from modern tools suggest more about his work habits and discipline than about word processor technology.

      There are still a few authors that write with a typewriter. Or even in long hand. Some are even successful. Not many. Fewer every day.

      • by Hatta (162192)

        Almost every word processor has a non-layout presentation option used for banging out text without sacrificing running spell checking, syntax, auto capitalization, or the use of outlining capability, etc

        With a little creativity you can do any of that with command line tools. There's aspell for spelling, and regular expressions for formatting & navigating.

        Self imposing a limitation making it harder to make changes mean more post production work. Consistency suffers. Continuity is the first causality. Err

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Sir_Lewk (967686)

          With a little creativity you can do any of that with command line tools. There's aspell for spelling, and regular expressions for formatting & navigating.

          Vim has had real-time interactive spell-checking for a while now (:set spell), and navigation is generally where Vi editors are seen to particularly excel :)

      • Syntax? Spelling? This is a WRITER, not a secretary. He wants to put what he has in his mind in some medium that can then be further processed later. By an editor/proof reader. He doens't need to highlight things.

        What he explored was how much do we REALLY need? IF he can write, then does he need to re-edit what he wrote? I do, but then I can't write. My thoughts are all over the place and I need to go back in a sentence to reword it. Or do I? Is the reason I can't write because I keep re-editing what I wro

  • Even though I'm struggling to understand why you went this route (I'm leaning towards you're a hopeless romantic, or worse), let's put that aside for a moment and focus simply on your statement about the mouse cursor. I know of no text editing/authoring/publishing software in existence that requires use of the mouse. Not a single one. You could have easily not even connected a mouse to the computer and proceeded to write with any program out there. The fact that you chose one so old and out of normal use speaks more to it being old and out of normal use, and to your romanticizing or somehow aggrandizing that facet, than the fact that it doesn't have a mouse cursor in your way.

    Look, I get it, you want to write without distractions. That's fine. All I'm saying is there is something else going on here behind the scenes...
    • by Balinares (316703) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:50PM (#33846270)

      > Even though I'm struggling to understand why you went this route (I'm leaning towards you're a hopeless romantic, or worse)

      I think you would be surprised.

      The thing about writing is, it's hard. You get this brief bright spark of a plot idea that you've got to write, and then it's hour upon hour upon hour of churning word after word after fuck it I'll go check out Slashdot. The initial excitation lasts perhaps all of 10 minutes before you start asking yourself what the hell you're doing. And at this point anything -- anything -- becomes a tempting distraction. A simple, no-nonsense editor is a boon. You set it full screen and keep trudging along. I like vim; dark color schemes are easier on the eye, you can jump between sentences at the press of a key, and if you're at all the nerdy type a plug-in like ScmFrontEnd or Fugitive lets you version your work on the fly.

      There's a reason why George R. R. Martin notoriously uses Wordstar on MS-DOS to this day, you know. :)

      • by loufoque (1400831) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:08PM (#33846418)

        There's a reason why George R. R. Martin notoriously uses Wordstar on MS-DOS to this day, you know. :)

        Maybe that's why his next book is five years late?

      • Writers are also know for their idiosyncratic ways. Stephen King basically made his Underwood type-writer a religious artifact, and later his Mac. Neil Stephenson does everything long hand using a pen and ink. I just read a bio on an author who swore off electric lights while writing (I think it was Joe Haldeman). A lot of times this choice has more to do with superstition than rationality. You manage to write your first successful novel with a fountain pen on velum; why risk killing your muse by using anything else?

        Using older and simpler means of writing doesn't really matter in itself, since many authors DO use Word, or whatnot and manage to churn out text.

        When I briefly tried my hand at writing I got fixed into using a certain method of outlining, using certain tools. I had to do it this way, while fully knowing it was less efficient than probably any other way known to man. The actual application for writing didn't matter much to me, since I can ignore pretty much any feature (do I really need advanced formating for a draft?). The actual preparation phase was a pain though, since I kept trying different software to keep track of things. I probably spent more time playing with software than actually preparation. If I found a method that worked, I would probably stick with it forever, even if the technology became so archaic that I had to go kill and skin animals and forage my own parts.

    • by macshit (157376) <miles @ g n u . o rg> on Saturday October 09, 2010 @04:53PM (#33847740) Homepage

      ed is a fine editor (the fact that it's "old and out of normal use" don't change that), if barebones.

      It's notable because it:

      1. Makes it somewhat cumbersome to do lots of little micro-edits or twiddling. If you're going to change something, it's often easier to replace the text, typing the replacement in again.
      2. Doesn't keep the document all up in your face -- the past is the past, you want to see it, it's there, but there's no active display of the document cooing "edit me... edit me... just a little"

      The process of writing using a medium where it's really easy to tweak the text is very different than when one can't. I've noticed many cases where I've simply tweaked a text to death -- there end up being fewer "small mistakes", but the cohesiveness and large scale structure suffer. Moreover, the urge to tweak can be a real time sink.

      If I had a will of iron, maybe I could just force myself not to tweak ... but I don't have a will of iron; despite my best intentions, I often succumb to temptation (to my later chagrin). And most people don't. So I can easily understand how a professional writer, for whom these points are even more important, may want to use some light artificial restrictions on his working environment in order to focus on what's really important to him.

      So I don't think it's really fair to assume "there's something else going on here behind the scenes". Maybe this guy just wants to get on with his craft and cut out the crap that he's found to interfere with it. It's probably the same reasons many authors write on paper, despite the inconveniences (sure some of them may do it because they have a fountain-pen fetish, but I don't think it's reasonable to assume that must be the reason).

      [As an aside -- I've noticed that many people (not saying you do, just the general vibe of the thread, and similar threads) often seem almost personally offended by others explicitly choosing to not use some popular modern technology... and while such choices may sometimes have silly reasons ("I don't watch TV, haha I'm so intellectual!"), I think the responses are often just as banal or even scary...]

  • by Nethead (1563) <joe@nethead.com> on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:21PM (#33846010) Homepage Journal

    real men use

    cat /dev/stdin >> story.txt

  • The writer has a point. Words processors have continued to have more and more tools, making them harder and harder to use. Look at Microsloth Word: it keeps getting more and more like a page layout program, and less and less like a tool to get text in the computer.

    When all you're trying to do is get words down on paper, all you really need is a simple, repeat, simple, text editor. Anything beyond that can get in the way, and detract from the creative process.

    That's my 25 cents worth, reminding everyone

    • But then why go to all the trouble of finding the perfect text editing software (i.e. a piece of software that has absolutely no features)? Why not just type it up in Word and ignore the fonts and other settings? Or just use what came with your computer (Gedit, Notepad, Wordpad, whatever)...?

      Personally, I like Notepad++... don't think I've ever been distracted by all the options, as I only ever actually grab the mouse when I realize I actually need it.

    • What's your point? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Petersko (564140) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:35PM (#33846150)
      "Words processors have continued to have more and more tools, making them harder and harder to use."

      For the purposes of this guy's word grinding, any word processor in existence would be spectacularly easy to use. Launch, type, save. Maybe print. The fact that he couldn't resist doing the formatting when writing is his problem, not the tool's. He overcomplicated his work flow. "But too often I tackled the day's writing deciding such issues as a font for the day's draft." I mean, come on, dude. Pick one that looks like the typewriter output you yearn for and go write.

      "Look at Microsloth Word: it keeps getting more and more like a page layout program, and less and less like a tool to get text in the computer."

      Actually it's a perfectly decent tool for getting text in the computer, unless you're VERY easily distracted, and then when you're done typing, it becomes a page layout program. And seriously, "Microsloth"? Is it 2002 again? I thought that tiresome insult-through-spelling thing had died down.
    • by hedwards (940851)
      Word is a word processor, if you want to just get text into a computer, you've got better choices. Both vi and emacs would suffice. As would notepad, wordpad or any number of other text editors.

      Word has for quite some time now been about WYSIWYG which involves a whole lot more than just getting text into a computer.

      Perhaps I'm missing something, but ever since sometime in the mid 90s, a word processor has been used for page layout as well. Much of the complaining about Word is the failure to properly
  • ed knows all (Score:2, Insightful)

    by daremonai (859175)

    Similarly, when I invoke ed, the text editor, it seems to know why I write.

    Or, in my case, why I shouldn't write. Whenever I try to type anything into ed, it simply responds:

    ?

    posing the question it knows I cannot answer.

  • by jfengel (409917) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:24PM (#33846038) Homepage Journal

    Not if you're going to see it in print, that is. A writer writes the words. An editor and publisher will have it put into the final form.

    I got to review Jef Raskin's book in its manuscript form, and "manuscript" is very close to what it was. One of the early human-computer interface experts, who helped develop the Macintosh, created his book in double-spaced Courier, designed to be proof-read, not published. Drawings were sketched; a real artist created what ended up in the book.

    I don't know what he used, and he'd probably find "ed" to be a little ridiculous: it's a line editor, not suited to blocks of text. He probably used something WYSIWYG. But didn't bother with any formatting, and that saved him a lot of time and care.

    • by hedwards (940851)
      That's an excellent point, and the reason why there are software programs dedicated to manuscripts. A good system will provide for diffs and revision control. Which you can do outside the program, but it's probably better to have it integrated.
  • by travisb828 (1002754) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:25PM (#33846046)
    Its all about personal taste, and I happen to like little red squiggly lines under most of my words.
  • by lxs (131946) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:27PM (#33846062)

    Use the most backward impractical tool available and declare it superior.

    cf. fixie bikes and Holga cameras.

    • by colmore (56499)

      In defense: Holga cameras take really interesting looking pictures, and fixie bikes are good for...

      um...

      bike polo i guess.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by JackDW (904211)

      Counter-example: Macintosh computers. A hipster is only permitted to be without his Mac if he is carrying at least one iPhone. On a Mac, the only backwards, impractical tool in common use is iTunes.

    • No kidding (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @02:13PM (#33846802)

      It is a badge of pride for hipsters to have things that are "retro" and "ironically hard to use." It is all about appearances, functionality has nothing to do with it. They claim it does, but they are lying. A great example is with the bikes. If you look around at what they ride, and I get to do this since I work on a campus and bike to work, you discover that very few actually have a fixed gear bike that one might own for functional reasons. That is to say an old, cheap bike that is truly fixed gear. That has a functional reason to own in that it costs very little to get, and very little to maintain. Almost all of them ride new bikes, which are quite expensive. You search for them, like say a Surly Steamroller which is popular, and you find it is over $700. You can get a nice commuter for less than that (a Jamis Commuter 3 is about $650) which of course features far more hardware and thus ought to cost more (the Commuter 3 has an 8 speed hub, generator light, brakes, rack for a bag, and so on). Also you'll notice that a good number aren't actually fixed gear, they have brakes. They are just single speed bikes.

      The choice is purely one of being "cool". Same reason they often feature bull horn handle bars. That is also hipster cool these days. They are of no use to street riding, and in fact are less practical than a number of other handlebar designs. It is just an appearances thing.

      You are right, that this sounds just the same. "Oh I've gotten back to the roots of writing, I use a really simple tool, and that means I am more in touch with being a writer and that I write better." No it just means you make more errors that your editor has to fix you hipster douche. New word processors don't change what you write, they just make things easier. The creative process is still the same. Of course if you are a hipster that lacks any creativity... :D.

  • Writing forward with no editing or deletion, while still getting to read what you wrote yesterday. They still make new typewriters and a no-frills manual model goes for like $90.

    But unlikes some sourpusses around here, I appreciate the appeal of using weird tools to do common tasks. So if ed is really your thing, ignore the haters.

    • by haus (129916)

      Although, assuming that one does want to edit at some time in the future, having the output in a text file vice a pile of loose leaf pages, is a step in the right direction.

    • by weav (158099)

      Recapitulating some earlier posters in this topic: when I was at Javasoft, a co-worker of mine once asked Gosling what his favorite editor was and he answered, "cat."

      Whatever works for ya...

  • Dont you get all the lack of functionality in Notepad itself. use the edit command in DOS, if you dont want to use the mouse at all. Whats the point of using an editior like VI where even the backspace key does not work as it should?, doesnt it just add more overhead? Isnt it simpler to ise the arrow keys for navigation and backspace for backspace,etc.. I believe gedit does the same for Linux Pls enlighten me..
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Why people use vim, in 2 minutes:

      The popular vi clones (like vim) allow users to perform advanced editing (not just tapping arrow keys to move around), and it does it with the keyboard alone -- and mostly keys that are easy to press (like :w to save, instead of Alt+F, S). This means you do not waste time moving one hand back and forth from the mouse -- it *removes* this overhead. If you try to use something like Word with the keyboard only, you'll be using some very awkward key combinations. Not so with vim

    • Re:MS Notepad (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Fallingcow (213461) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:01PM (#33846354) Homepage

      Especially if, as he says, he's not going to be traveling around the text very much, VI is exactly the wrong tool. It's designed to let you move around a ton without leaving your normal typing position, and to re-arrange bits of text quickly. This ability comes at the price of a painful learning curve and a non-intuitive interface for doing simple shit like moving over a few characters to replace a letter or two in the last word.

      If you're just typing text but want few distractions, something like Nano/Pico or one of those newer editors that run in the graphical OS but turn the whole screen black and show only what you've typed would make way more sense--especially the latter, which are designed precisely for this situation. VI's modes and other useful-for-code features are, for the purposes of writing, just another form of counter-productive bloat; it's not remotely worth learning VI if you're not going to be moving blocks of code around and bouncing about your document almost as often as you actually modify the text.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Waffle Iron (339739)

      Isnt it simpler to ise the arrow keys for navigation and backspace for backspace,etc..
      I believe gedit does the same for Linux

      Pls enlighten me..

      Firstly, the arrow keys work just fine in vim. However, in my experience, the arrow keys are just about the worst irritant for RSI problems, surpassed only by certain mouse operations. The arrow keys encourage you to bend your wrist sharply and make a bunch of repeated keypresses. This is very hard on the tendons that go through the wrist.

      Using the HJKL keys in vim is much more natural hand positioning, and the powerful cursor movement commands in vim cut way down on how many keys need to be pressed in the

  • by Shihar (153932) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:34PM (#33846132)

    Personally, I think you just sound like a romantic, not someone who has stumbled upon a magic productivity method. What gets your rocks off is thinking that you are doing something old sk00l. It is pretty dead easy to make MS Word 2040 or whatever version they are on a blank white screen where words appear when you type. Your other old sk00l romanticism is just that, romanticism. A fixie really isn't better than a bike with gears unless you like having your legs sheared off when you go too fast. Gears are actually awesome when you need to go up a steep hill or want to haul ass down a steep hill. Power steering, computer control traction, and all of that goodness is likewise is awesome when something dives in front of your car and you need to make a sharp dodge. Touchy feel decelerations that you can feel the road better and that somehow improves your not hitting shit skills don't stand up the statistical reality that power steering, traction control, and fun stuff like that reduces accidents.

    There is nothing wrong with being a romantic who idealizes simplicity, and there certainly is something to be said for keeping thing simple, but your methods are almost certainly useless to someone who doesn't see the romanticism in using old obscure text editors. For those people, if the editor is really distracting, they should just take a few seconds to pair down the interface to MS Word or Open Office (or whatever), rather than run an archaic text editor. If you are a romantic and need to be in a mood to write, find what gets your rocks off and go for it. Neal Stephenson wrote the 4000 or so page series with a freaking fountain pen. Inefficient? Sure, but if acting a little archaic gets your creative juices flowing, go for it.

    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      Touchy feel decelerations that you can feel the road better and that somehow improves your not hitting shit skills don't stand up the statistical reality that power steering, traction control, and fun stuff like that reduces accidents.

      Professional drivers and professional writers fall on the far end of the statistical curve.
      They don't necessarily want or need the fancy assists that keep the rest of us from failing in spectacular fashion.

    • by Nyder (754090)

      Personally, I think you just sound like a romantic, not someone who has stumbled upon a magic productivity method. What gets your rocks off is thinking that you are doing something old sk00l. It is pretty dead easy to make MS Word 2040 or whatever version they are on a blank white screen where words appear when you type. Your other old sk00l romanticism is just that, romanticism. A fixie really isn't better than a bike with gears unless you like having your legs sheared off when you go too fast. Gears are actually awesome when you need to go up a steep hill or want to haul ass down a steep hill. Power steering, computer control traction, and all of that goodness is likewise is awesome when something dives in front of your car and you need to make a sharp dodge. Touchy feel decelerations that you can feel the road better and that somehow improves your not hitting shit skills don't stand up the statistical reality that power steering, traction control, and fun stuff like that reduces accidents.

      There is nothing wrong with being a romantic who idealizes simplicity, and there certainly is something to be said for keeping thing simple, but your methods are almost certainly useless to someone who doesn't see the romanticism in using old obscure text editors. For those people, if the editor is really distracting, they should just take a few seconds to pair down the interface to MS Word or Open Office (or whatever), rather than run an archaic text editor. If you are a romantic and need to be in a mood to write, find what gets your rocks off and go for it. Neal Stephenson wrote the 4000 or so page series with a freaking fountain pen. Inefficient? Sure, but if acting a little archaic gets your creative juices flowing, go for it.

      So your saying, using my TRS-80 4p, and Scripsit (first word processor I ever learned) to bust out a wonderful novel today would be wrong?

      Calling the Model 4p portable was wrong. =)

  • by gratuitous_arp (1650741) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:34PM (#33846134)

    "When I log into my Xenix system with my 110 baud teletype, both vi and Emacs are just too damn slow. They print useless messages like, ‘C-h for help’ and ‘“foo” File is read only’. So I use the editor that doesn't waste my VALUABLE time.

    Ed, man! !man ed"

    http://www.gnu.org/fun/jokes/ed.msg.html [gnu.org] :-)

  • You can medicate ed with Viagra.

    What you really want is TECO [wikipedia.org] FTW!

  • Do word processors not make it too easy for writers to write bloated books?

    I take the position that word processors have had a detriment on clarity of writing. It's too easy to not have to keep everything in you head when writing with a word processor.

    I used to enjoy Asimov, but it seems his later books (after 1980) just got fat and I stopped reading.

    And look at college textbooks. Who reads all those pages?

  • Writeroom, et al. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by pushing-robot (1037830) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:43PM (#33846208)

    I've seen plenty of modern apps that offer "distraction free writing". Even most full-featured word processors have a full screen mode that hides the UI. Plus, you get nice extras like proportional fonts, bold, italic, and underline, simple copy and paste, and so on.

    Also, modern CPUs are so powerful that even a graphical word processor should leave the processor idling most of the time. Unless your GUI word processor is incredibly bloated and inefficient (*cough* Word *cough*) there isn't really a practical performance or battery life benefit to switching to a command line editor.

    But hey, you're writing a novel, so whatever fuels your creative process is fine by me. After all, some authors use antique typewriters, or pen and paper. I've even been known to use a stylus and clay tablet, but only when I'm writing Sumerian viruses.

  • by flyingfsck (986395) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:48PM (#33846248)
    Next year he should upgrade to Microsoft Edlin. That'll teach him.
  • by Greyfox (87712) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:50PM (#33846274) Homepage Journal
    I've always hated Word and its ilk because the program is constantly fighting how I want to work. I spend more time fighting with the program than I do creating new content. Microsoft and Apple both seem to feel they know how to do what you're trying to accomplish better than you do, and not just in the word processing tools. So if you found a tool that works better for you, more power to you.

    Personally I prefer markup languages like HTML or LaTeX, which I create with vi or Emacs for the documents I write. You can generally get away with HTML for just about everything these days. You can generate (beautiful) PDFs with LaTeX, but a lot of times people don't want a read-only document. I expect that if you're writing a book the publisher will eventually format it the way they want it anyway, and plain text is ultimately the lowest common denominator!

  • by netsavior (627338) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:51PM (#33846278)
    I get that Office Suite 20xx is bloated, but it is not like there aren't a wide array of Novel specific editors that cater to the exact things novel writers need, and it is not like OSs don't come with VI, EMACS, DOS Edit, Notepad, etc...
    Scrivener is almost good enough to make me want a mac. [literatureandlatte.com]
    Rough Draft [f2s.com] is what I actually use to write novels, it is simple and outputs in RTF, has very few features, but the ones that it does have are what I want.

    IMO a good creative writing software package has to be simple, and it looks like TFA is looking to simplify even further... It is an understandable thing, because distractions are killer for a writer...

    IMO he should get an AlphaSmart [neo-direct.com] A portable, purpose built device which does text and only text. Full keyboard, it gets something like 700 hours on 3 AA batteries, it does not have fonts or animated assistants or 1gb install files, and best of all, you don't have to look like a pretentious douche on slashdot to use it.
  • by starfishsystems (834319) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:52PM (#33846288) Homepage
    Remember when you were a kid and you would pretend that the cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels was a telescope? You would look down the tube and see a tiny piece of the world. That's what it's like to compose text using a line editor.

    I was once compelled to write a WYSIWYG editor, in the days when all the system provided was a line editor equivalent to ed. I noticed that the work became an order of magnitude faster once I was able to use my editor as a development tool.
  • by TheNarrator (200498) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:55PM (#33846302)

    One good thing about using technology that old is there's no chance you could be violating any patents. It certainly makes sense as a symbolic gesture at least.

  • Ed not pioneering (Score:3, Informative)

    by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @12:57PM (#33846314) Homepage Journal
    Ed was never pioneering in any sense—if you're going to be romantic about the past, at least be right. It's essentially a minimalist clone of qed [bell-labs.com] made by and for, as usual, Unix guys who couldn't run the real deal on their low-end PDPs. qed/qedx, for the record, had all sorts of bells and whistles, including at one point regexes.
  • This guy should have checked out Scrivener [literatureandlatte.com]. It's not focusing on layout and stuff like that, but useful features that keeps a larger work (novel or other things) together. Keeping track of your loose ends with a storyboard feature and much more. There are more tools like this too.

  • As i am not a masochist, if i wanted to go minimalist I would choose Joe. Back in my MSDOS days i used to use Galaxy ( i couldn't afford anything else, until i bought FrameWork II.. and it worked just fine for me )

  • by Reeses (5069) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:12PM (#33846448)

    I don't know what OS the author of the original post is using, but if he's using a Mac, he should look into WriteRoom.

    http://www.hogbaysoftware.com/products/writeroom [hogbaysoftware.com]

    It's like writing on the word processor from the Apple II days, it clear all the modern OS widgets out of the way so you're not constantly distracted, and you can edit in any combination of background/text colors you want.

    I prefer bold blue text on a black background. None of the formatting is saved in the document, it's only done in presentation by the app and you get modern features like word count and what not.

    I can't recommend it high enough.

    But hey, I'm an oldster around here, what do I know?

  • by Gooberheadly (458026) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:15PM (#33846474)

    This article is more about how the process of hammering out chips of stone in a tablet focuses the mind on the words than it is on technology. Asimov, King, Heinlein, and DeCamp all wrote about establishing a writers discipline and what it takes to get the job done. This article isn't about efficiency or technology per se. Discipline is about output over a period of time and what it takes to 'make' yourself produce. What this author is talking about is how he disciplines himself to create output. Notice that he mentions his daily time limit. Apparently, a lot of writers have to force themselves into certain constraints to get the job done.

    Whatever works for him. Some people still write out their novels in long hand on lined paper.

    • by FoolishOwl (1698506) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @08:42PM (#33849126) Journal

      I believe that's the primary point.

      I do, however, think that word processors are badly designed from the point of facilitating writing. Most advice on writing encourages the writer to break the process up into separate phases: brainstorming and free-writing, outlining, writing a draft, revising, revising, and revising. Word processors tend to encourage doing all steps at once, and worse, encourage the writer to choose layout and typesetting options before the writer begins writing, when writers generally shouldn't bother about those details at all. Brainstorming and free-writing are widely recommended practices, that most word processors implicitly discourage, with automatic spelling and grammar checking.

      Nearly everyone I've known who takes writing seriously, student or professional, struggles with minimizing distractions from the writing process. There's something particularly difficult about writing, the process of putting one's thoughts in words which, in itself, cannot be a clear algorithmic process, and most people will be tempted to procrastinate, in the form of doing something that seems related, but isn't really useful. Word processors, with all their layout tweaks available when clicking on bright, attractive buttons, are full of temptations to procrastinate and distract oneself from the writing itself. Even launching a word processor is significantly slower than launching a text editor, and most include a (distracting) splash screen.

      I've never seen a child, assigned to write an essay, who will not fiddle with fonts, layout options, etc., before typing a single word.

      Concentrating on writing in a word processor is like meditating in an amusement park -- with sufficient discipline, it can be done, but it's really not a conducive environment.

      For writing, I think a better approach is, at least, breaking the software tools into two: the actual writing, and the layout. The latter part could often be optional. Most simple text editors, like Notebook or gedit, are more than adequate for writing, revising, saving, and loading, and include basic spell-checking.

  • by bazorg (911295) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:18PM (#33846494) Homepage
    How I'd love to see this guy's clutterfree text editor, especially if it's running in a window surrounded by blinking reminders to upgrade Skype, update Java, download the new version of Nokia PC Suite, check whether there are new updates for all Apple applications installed; then the antivirus requires immediate attention because the subscription is due, there's 20 unread Twitter status updates, and everytime a new friend comes online MSN Messenger throws a big party on its side of the screen... Oh yeah, that would be worth writing a big story about productivity.
  • by MrLizard (95131) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:35PM (#33846588)

    Fetishizing (sp?) the "simplicity" of your tools is every bit as much an act of narcissism as bragging about the ten million bells and whistles on your new HAL-compliant AI Write-Buddy TM that automatically scans TVTropes.org after each sentence to make sure your cliche factor is under 3.5 millilyttons per chapter. (Exact limit can be set via the user, of course, via a series of 16 nested dialog boxes).

    Dude. Write. Or don't write. Just don't write about the tool you use for writing; it's about as dull as possible.

    I've used manual typewriters, TRS-80s, WordStar 1.0, Appleworks, Microsoft Word, a zillion other things, and I have seen almost no difference in my writing speed, which is a pretty steady 500 to 1000 words per hour, depending on what I'm writing. (Fiction, usually, >1000... it's easy, the limit is my finger speed. Game writing, towards the lower end, because I have to check rules, do some math, look up references to see the proper formatting of a skill or a feat or a monster, etc.).

  • Typewriter (Score:3, Interesting)

    by NixieBunny (859050) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:35PM (#33846592) Homepage
    They worked very well for 100 years. If your editor complains that it's too hard to get the words into a computer file, then introduce her to OCR.
  • the real problem (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jeek Elemental (976426) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:42PM (#33846638)

    is any environment that lets you run eclipse or open office etc. also has firefox 1 click away and hence slashdot or facehook or whatever your particular weakness is.

    Boot to a pure shell and theres atleast some temporal insulation from the howling winds of distraction.

  • by herojig (1625143) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @01:51PM (#33846686) Homepage
    Some days I write up to 10,000 words, and it just takes me a 1/2 day. I even get paid for most of it. But there is no freakin way I would ever go back to using anything older then Word 2011 to do the deed. Anyone who considers MS Word a distraction needs to seriously take some meds, or try one-pointed Vajrayana training, or something :)
  • by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @02:05PM (#33846764)
    A true believer wouldn't be using a computer at all -- or using the Internet -- or posting to Slashdot.
  • by Homburg (213427) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @02:08PM (#33846780) Homepage

    Line based editing? That's just got too many distractions [kungfugrippe.com] for a real writer.

  • by OrangeTide (124937) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @02:20PM (#33846818) Homepage Journal

    Get yourself a CP/M machine and write your novels on that 64kB at a time. Like a Kaypro II or maybe an Osborne 1 would probably be your best bet. Although a C128 or AppleII with Z80 card would would be usable as well.
    A Xerox 820 II with 8" disk drives would also be fun, but they are a little pricey on ebay in working condition, especially if it had the 8086 expansion board for CP/M-86 or MS-DOS.

    Then to send it up to your PC you can use the serial port, which was often used for printers on CP/M, so you might be able to just hit "print" to transmit to your PC.

  • by supercrisp (936036) on Sunday October 10, 2010 @07:23AM (#33851218)
    Others are posting on this, but I thought I'd post as someone who teaches creative, academic, and professional writing--and who has training in the pedagogical theory and assorted gobbledygook (ie theories I don't like). Yes, eliminating distractions as you draft is very helpful. And some people find it helpful to switch the tool or the context when drafting. Probably the best way to draft is to force yourself to write, with whatever tool, in 15-20 minute sprints, with no correction, pausing to think, or whatever. For more on this, you can read Writing with Power by the unfortunately named Peter Elbow. And, yes, a text editor is one way to avoid distractions, but so is a little discipline. Others opt for a legal pad. I myself use a legal pad with blue or black ink. Or I use MS Word or a "light" option for the Mac called Bean. When I'm writing stuff that feels good, I type in black. When it feels like it might not work, I type in blue. So blue is my code for "relax." I never use a text editor, but I can see why you would, if you're the sort of obsessive person who also thinks that a text editor merits a review with instructions for use, or if you're the sort of person who will choose a text editor so poor for you purpose that you have to talk about byte counts. But let's face it, writing those reviews, fiddling around with bite counts, looking for the perfect text editor that will blank our your screen and has a single-keystroke function to load content from lifehacker or the latest theories on sleep technology, well, that's all just a technique for PROCRASTINATION. My favorite advice on that is from an anecdote about Faulkner. He was once asked by a woman how he got inspired to write. He replied that he only wrote when he was inspired, and he was inspired every morning at eight.
  • jdarkroom (Score:3, Informative)

    by Lawrence_Bird (67278) on Sunday October 10, 2010 @12:53PM (#33853130) Homepage
    I've used jdarkroom [codealchemists.com] It is a very simple text editor which puts the focus on the writing. ymmv.

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