For a long time I had looked for a way to write on a computer with a distraction-free set up. I started writing in composition books, and still prefer the single-use feeling of a paper notebook—the only distraction there is the temptation to go back and read earlier entries. But on a computer there’s so much more to waste my time. There’s the entire world of the web, pointless games, and, in the word processor itself, myriad useless tools to click. When I’m just getting ideas down, or even spending a long time looking at drafts, I can waste a lot of time playing with fonts and formatting and spellcheck, instead of actually writing. I’ve always liked using text editors over full blown word processors like LibreOffice, Google Docs, and MS Word, at least for the early stages of writing, when all I’ve ever wanted was a clean screen with nothing but letters on it.
This likely goes back to the first computer my family had—an Epson with a black screen with green pixels. It had three inch floppy disks and a dot matrix printer. There was no mouse or modem, just a keyboard with a basic word processing program that was more like most of today’s basic text editor programs than Word. That computer, a hand me down from a family member who had moved on to a flashier and better machine, was a godsend to me. I was in fourth grade, and interested in writing as long as I could type. Until that moment, I wrote almost exclusively with typewriters. Every adult in my life had told me my handwriting was terrible, so the only way I could exercise my creativity without feeling self-conscious was with a keyboard. But typewriters were too finicky and broke my concentration. Every time I made a typo, I had to erase or white it out. By the time I had fixed the error, the original idea had gone from my mind, and I couldn’t write much more than a page. When that Epson came, I could finally focus on writing because I wasn’t wasting time with corrections. The backspace key and spellcheck solved all that. And I didn’t have to worry about my horrible handwriting anymore. I spent hours in front of that computer through middle and high school. It was that computer that made me a writer. All it took was a bare bones word processor for my imagination to be unleashed.
When I got to college, my email was through a Telnet program that looked identical to that old Epson screen. I loved it so much that I would spend hours reading and writing emails. I joined campus activist listservs and typed some of my greatest screeds on politics and society in that black and white Telnet window. But at that point, I hadn’t carried my love for plain text into writing and research. I typed everything in Word for classes. It was cumbersome, with dozens of fonts, headings, headers, and compatibility issues. I tried Wordpad for a while but never fell in love with it. I did try Notepad, but it was a little too basic, with no extra tools like search and find, or spellcheck. So I stuck with Word, then Open Office and LibreOffice once I switched over to Linux. Eventually I tried Gedit, the default editor in Ubuntu, and I really liked it. But I couldn’t get it to work as well as I wanted. Eventually, I discovered the functions and plugins for Gedit, and came to love the tabs, spellcheck, find and replace, document statistics, and the file browser side panel. Finally, I can customize and resize the font, but without ever having to see the font dropdown menus. With this set up, there’s almost no need to leave the program, making Gedit in fullscreen as close to distraction-free as possible.
Around the time I was discovering all of this about Gedit, I came across Cory Doctorow’s essay, “Writing in the Age of Distraction,” which evangelizes for writers to use basic text editors instead of feature heavy word processing programs. I also picked up an iPod Touch around the same time, partially to experiment with digital tools for writing. I came across the PlainText iOS app which synchs .txt files to Dropbox. I figured out that I could edit those files on my laptop, then sync them right back to my iPod.
Here is how my set up works:
PlainText syncs seamlessly with Dropbox, which syncs with my Lubuntu Linux netbook, on which I installed Gedit.
I can create a text file on my iPod Touch, then open it in Gedit the next moment. Any change shows up almost immediately on either device. It’s not quite as synchronous as watching a Google Doc with multiple contributors fill up with text before my eyes, but it’s darn close.
When I create a document in PlainText, it asks for a file name before you start typing in the document, so it shows up in Dropbox, and then on my netbook right away.
Linux text editors don’t need it, so don’t automatically add it. When I create a document in Gedit, I have to make sure to give it the .txt extension or else it doesn’t show up in the PlainText app. Other apps may treat this differently, but after using this set up for a week or so, I got into the habit of adding the file extension and now I do it without thinking about it.
If you want to adapt this set up for your own writing, I recommend making sure it’s an editor that supports spellcheck, find and replace, document statistics, and resizable font, but that all of these functions are nicely hidden away into menus, and not shouting at you with annoying icons at the top of the screen. I recommend Gedit, but search for reviews of text editors for your operating system and see which one suits your own needs the best. I also recommend using a mobile .txt editing app and some cloud syncing service.
As Doctorow points out in the essay above, text files are at the center of computer programming, which makes them one of the basic building blocks of information, and, I would say, of creativity in the digital age. Viva .txt!
This piece has been going around the web in the past few days. It’s not from me, but I sent it to Cory Doctorow on Twitter, just thinking the guy would appreciate it, and he put it on BoingBoing. I love to share things I like, and I’m glad that I could help spread these words around.
Here’s part 1 of “We, the Web Kids.” It was written for print by Piotr Czerski, translated to English from Polish, then posted at Pastebin under Creative Commons, so read it and share the hack out of it:
We grew up with the Internet and on the Internet. This is what makes us different; this is what makes the crucial, although surprising from your point of view, difference: we do not ‘surf’ and the internet to us is not a ‘place’ or ‘virtual space’. The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it. If we were to tell our bildnungsroman to you, the analog, we could say there was a natural Internet aspect to every single experience that has shaped us. We made friends and enemies online, we prepared cribs for tests online, we planned parties and studying sessions online, we fell in love and broke up online. The Web to us is not a technology which we had to learn and which we managed to get a grip of. The Web is a process, happening continuously and continuously transforming before our eyes; with us and through us. Technologies appear and then dissolve in the peripheries, websites are built, they bloom and then pass away, but the Web continues, because we are the Web; we, communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.
Brought up on the Web we think differently. The ability to find information is to us something as basic, as the ability to find a railway station or a post office in an unknown city is to you. When we want to know something - the first symptoms of chickenpox, the reasons behind the sinking of ‘Estonia’, or whether the water bill is not suspiciously high - we take measures with the certainty of a driver in a SatNav-equipped car. We know that we are going to find the information we need in a lot of places, we know how to get to those places, we know how to assess their credibility. We have learned to accept that instead of one answer we find many different ones, and out of these we can abstract the most likely version, disregarding the ones which do not seem credible. We select, we filter, we remember, and we are ready to swap the learned information for a new, better one, when it comes along.
To us, the Web is a sort of shared external memory. We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others. Should we need the details, we can look them up within seconds. Similarly, we do not have to be experts in everything, because we know where to find people who specialise in what we ourselves do not know, and whom we can trust. People who will share their expertise with us not for profit, but because of our shared belief that information exists in motion, that it wants to be free, that we all benefit from the exchange of information. Every day: studying, working, solving everyday issues, pursuing interests. We know how to compete and we like to do it, but our competition, our desire to be different, is built on knowledge, on the ability to interpret and process information, and not on monopolising it.
Read this on Google Docs, where you can download it as doc, odt, rtf, pdf, txt, or html.