Plain-Text Writing Lesson Two: The Editor

[Note: This is part two of a multi-part series on the joys of writing with plain-text tools. If you haven’t already, you might want to take a look at the first lesson, which covers why one might want to use plain-text tools in the first place. This lesson, and all the forthcoming lessons, are geared toward writers who aren’t techy and don’t have a great deal of time to devote to learning new gadgets and gizmos. They’re designed to take just a few minutes each to complete, with a view toward having a complete plain-text workflow in place by the time you’re through all the lessons]

Lesson Two: Let’s Get a Text Editor

If the first segment of this series convinced you–as I hope it did–that working with plain-text tools might be worth exploring, the next step is to get yourself a brand new text editor.

One of the great things about text editors, as I mentioned in the previous lesson, is that they’re extremely lightweight when compared to traditional office suites. This gives them two major advantages:

  • They’re lightning fast, even on older hardware. No whirring hard drives or laggy performance gets in the way of your thought process.
  • They get out of your way: The interfaces for most text editors are very minimal, giving you space to write and a few commands, many of which are accessible from the keyboard rather than mouse clicks. Working with the keyboard as much as possible also speeds you up: if you think about how many times your hand leaves the keyboard in order to grab the mouse when you’re working with a traditional word processor and add that up, it can work out to be a significant chunk.The less your hands leave the keyboard, the less there is to break the flow of your thoughts.

There are many flavors of text editor out there, and your ultimate choice of editor (or editors) will depend on how you decide you work best. I’m writing this in an editor called VIM, which is one of the more old-school and traditional options out there, and a long-standing mainstay for programmers. I like it primarily because of the gets-out-of-the-way factor: it presents you with only text in a terminal window, and works only with keyboard commands, keeping all my focus on what I’m doing.

Screenshot - 10292014 - 03:29:58 PM

The VIM editor running in a terminal. Nothing but the words.

The initial drawback of VIM, however, is that there’s a bit of a learning curve involved, since one needs to learn a lot of keyboard commands that make writing faster in the longer term, but not the shorter. So, for our purposes we’re going to start with something that’s geared more toward writers and more intuitive to use, an editor called Gedit. It’s available for all three major platforms (MacOS, Linux, and Windows), it’s free, and it’s intentionally designed to be as simple as possible.

So, your first lesson is to download, install, and spend a little time playing with Gedit. There are many different text editors out there, all geared toward different kinds of users and tasks, some more fancy than others. Gedit gives us a good starting point with its balance of simplicity and functionality.

Start by doing to the Gedit download page for your OS:

  • For Windows, go here, and click on the file with the .exe estension. Double-click on the file and follow the prompts.
  • For Mac, go here, and click on the file with the .dmg extension.
  • For Linux, if you’re using Ubuntu, Gedit is already installed, just access it from the menu or open a terminal and type “gedit.” For other distributions, just use your distribution’s package manager.

When you first open your installed version of Gedit, you’ll get a very simple interface that looks like this:


What you’ll see the first time you open Gedit. Clean lines and no fuss.

That’s it! There’s nothing else to do, at this point, but play around with writing in that nice, clean interface. You can save your documents just as you would with any word processor. When you first save a file, it’s good practice to give your filename a .txt extension. Note that you can have multiple documents open simultaneously and switch between them by clicking on the tabs at the top of the writing area.

You can also click “view” and then select “side panel” to open a side panel that will show your list of open files. Click the tab with what looks like a file cabinet at the bottom of that panel, and you’ll get a directory tree (very handy for working with multiple files at once).

If you want to make the interface a little easier on the eyes for longer writing sessions, you can change the color scheme and font it uses (note that this will have nothing to do with determining the font in your final output document; this is just about using the font that’s most attractive to your eyes while composing). Just click on the “edit” menu, select “preferences,” and then the tab for “fonts & colors.” You’ll get a list of several preset color schemes (I like the “oblivion” scheme, which gives you gray text on a black background). If you want to change the font, uncheck the checkbox that says “use the system fixed width font.” The otherwise grayed-out pull-down menu for selecting the font and size of your text will become active, and you can choose any font you like.

That’s all for now! Have fun playing with Gedit! Next time, we’ll look at the elegant MarkDown syntax, the most important “power tool” for plain-text writing.

If you run into any problems of have questions, feel free to contact me in the comment section.

Writing in Plain Text: A Tutorial for the Non-Techy Writer

Cuthbert-Gospels-John-1-1Inspired by a conversation with some of my advanced literature students, I offer, here, a short set of tutorials for writing productively (especially as an academic) using plain-text tools. Unlike most of the online resources on this subject, this series of tutorials is designed for the non-techy writer who doesn’t have a lot of time. The lessons are desgned to to be extremely simple, even if you’re a technophobe, and take only five to ten minutes to complete. By the end of the series, you’ll be up and running with a digital writing process that gets the technology out of your way and puts your creative process first.

Lesson One: Why Plain Text?

I’ll admit it, I’m a tech nerd. Or, at least, as much of a tech nerd as one is likely to find in an English department.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I think medievalists bring a kind of historical awareness to tech that allows us to see it more as a collection of useful functions–where novelty isn’t necessarily the only value–than a progressive march toward perfection. This approach allows us to ask not “what’s the newest thing?” but rather “what’s the best technology for the job?” in an awareness that the best tool for the job might potentially be a very old one.

One thing scholars in the humanities do all the time is write, and taking my “medievalist mind” to the available technologies for doing that has helped me light on some tools for supporting my writing that are in some ways older and less “high tech” than other options. For the same reason, however, they are also more stable, more sustainable, and (with a little practice) faster and easier to manage than traditional electronic writing with a word processing suite such as Microsoft Office.

The Elegance of Plain Text

To understand how working in plain text is helpful, think about the tools you normally use to write on a computer. If you’re like most, you default to a traditional “word processor” such as Microsoft Word. But consider this: have you ever had a problem with Word where some strange formatting seems to have sneaked into your document and you can’t get rid of it, no matter what you do or what settings you change? Have you ever had a Word document behave in infuriatingly odd ways for no apparent reason? Well, there is a reason, which is that Word documents are actually extremely complicated beasts. For example, a very simple sentence in Word, such as:

This is a simple sentence typed in the Word .docx file format

only appears to be very simple. Underneath what you can see in Word, there’s a huge amount of code that you don’t see. Here’s that same sentence with all the underlying word code revealed:


The image you’re seeing is only one out of nine pages of code Word generates to display that single sentence.

Hence the reason Word tends to misbehave, and misbehave more the more you work with a document. As you add edits, elements such as notes and images, copy text from other sources, rearrange blocks of text–in other words, most of the things an academic does with documents all the time–the more of that code is inserted, the more random and redundant strings of code interact and conflict with one another, and the more complex and unwieldy the document becomes. No wonder your document starts behaving as though it’s possessed by something unholy.

On the other hand, a plain-text file contains only the ascii characters that you type. A plain text file in which you type:

This is a simple sentence in plain text.

contains only the characters you typed, nothing else. If you make edits, rearrange things, paste in text from elsewhere, make lots of revisions over time, add sources, etc., you’re only rearranging and adding your text. Where a graphical Word processor might boast that “what you see is what you get,” a text editor can boast “what you see is what is there.” Nothing is hidden.

For this reason, plain text documents are much more stable and sustainable through the process of composition and revision than word processor documents. That doesn’t mean there’s something inherently wrong with word processors. What it does mean is that word processors are the right tools for the job when the job is formatting and processing complex documents, and not necessarily the right tools for the job when the job is writing.

A few other advantages of plain text:

  • It’s compatible with everything. You can edit plain text files on any device, with any simple text editor. You can work on your writing on any computer, your tablet, or even your phone without screwing up any formatting in the process.
  • It’s sustainable over time. As mentioned above, plain text doesn’t add tons of behind-the-scenes code the more you work with a document, so you can say goodbye to Word’s shenanigans. It’s also true that popular file formats change over time: if you wrote documents in something like, say, WordStar years ago, those documents take a lot of doing to access these days. Plain text documents have always been, and will aways be, universally accessible.
  • You can focus on your words. Word tends to be so complex, and presents you with such a dizzying arrange of options (most of which you don’t need unless you’re a massive insurance corporation) that the tool itself can distract from your writing. A simple text editor removes all that nonsense–it’s just you and your words.
  • You have more control over formatting. The basic idea behind a plain-text workflow is that you do your composing with a text editor in a sustainable, unversal format, and then, only when your text is ready to send somewhere–say, to a journal for publication–do you worry about formatting. We’ll cover how to make this work in later posts, but for now, imagine this: you’ve written an article as a text file. That file contains only universal formatting for everything–subheadings, footnotes, citations, etc. To format the file for different venues, you use another piece of software to convert that document into any format you like. One journal wants the document submitted as a Word document with citations in MLA style? You simply tell your conversion software that’s what you want, and, with a few keystrokes, ZAP! You’ve got a properly-formatted Word document ready to go. Another journal wants the same article submitted as a PDF with footnotes using the Chicago notes-bibliography style? A few more keystrokes and voila! Need to make some substantial edits after a peer review? Make those edits in the original text file and avoid all the formatting shenanigans your word processor always gives you.
  • It’s blazingly fast. Text editors are tiny pieces of software compared to word processors, so they start instantaneously, load documents almost instantly, and run like lightning even on old hardware. Nothing gets between you and your words.

In the end, the best thing about working with plain text is that it’s a technology that gets out of your way, allowing you to think and compose without distraction.

Convinced? If so, stay tuned for the next lesson, in which we will download and get started with some elegant text editing software.

Surfing the Matrix: A Medievalist Does Tech

Surfing the MatrixTheMatrixWallpaper1024 

Here’s an interesting etymology for you:

In the present, the word “Matrix” conjures a lot of high-tech imagery. Part of my mind immediately envisions that parade of mystical green characters cascading down a screen in front of Keanu Reeves, the manifestation, in raw digital code, of the virtual creation most people in that world accept as “reality.” That reality, in the film, is also not a disinterested one, but rather one imposed by the robotic conquerors of mankind to keep human beings docile as they unwittingly serve as the biological batteries that power their own enslavers.

But why is that thing called a “Matrix” as opposed to anything else? That’s where the medievalist and Latinist in me kick in. In the Middle Ages, the word “matrix” referred to the physical tool used to impress the form of a seal on another surface, such as wax or a coin. To own the “matrix” of a seal was to possess power: seals were the way in which power was transmitted. Normally, the power of a King or nobleman was expressed by his bodily presence. This is why, for sealmatrixexample, medieval monarchs typically didn’t headquarter their administrations in fixed capitals, but rather moved around their territories: to spread their power evenly, they had to spread their persons evenly. What allowed such a person to spread his power where his body was not was his seal, which was a sort of material symbol that acted as a stand-in for his physical presence. A document bearing the seal of the monarch bore the power of that monarch. Anyone with access to that seal had access to that power. Thus the word “matrix” in the movie is really just a reiteration, in a later, digitized era, of precisely what the “matrix” was in the middle ages: a virtual construct that transmits and spreads power.

But again, why, in the Middle Ages, was that tool called a “Matrix?” You need a geeky little Latin lesson to understand this: in Latin, the ending -er on a noun most often indicates a neuter or masculine gender, as in pater, “father,” or puer, “boy.” Mater simply means “Mother” in Latin, a female role. Interestingly, there’s a different kind of noun in Latin that expresses the idea of a person specifically as an agent of something, and agency is often gendered. Hence a pastor is a male person who tends sheep. If you want to talk about a female person who tends sheep, you change the ending, to pastrix. In the same way, mater simply indicates a mother. The word matrix, on the other hand, specifically denotes the mother in respect to the role of propagation. Metaphorically, then, matrix can mean origin, progenitor, cause, or even womb. The word also comes to refer, by metaphorical transference over time, to other things that are “wombs” or “origins” of power, such as public registers, lists–and, eventually, the patterns for seals, matrices.

Tracing the term through its medieval and classical origins, then, allows us to see more clearly the meaning of The Matrix in the present. It is, as it always has been, virtual power, or the potential for that power’s deployment. It is the “womb” that holds us (nurturing us, or holdings us captive?), or that contains the potential for and propagates power. Hence it is no surprise that the the denizens of the Matrix in the film exist, literally, in artificial wombs, floating in manufactured amniotic fluid, hooked up to mechanical umbilicals.

A Medievalist in the Digital Matrix

I just received a happy little automated note from WordPress reminding me, in a congratulatory tone, that I officially created this blog two years ago. Less-than-consistent blogger than I am, I appear to have waited to post anything until about a year ago, when I began my blogging experiment in earnest.

I named the blog “surfingedges” because I’m always very interested in strange and difficult middles, and seem to exist on quite a few of them: one of the main things I study as a scholar of medieval literature is the literal and imaginative borderland between England and Scotland in the Late Middle Ages, but my interest in that particular border only obtains because it is such a rich ground for exploring the way human identity behaves at its limits.

Looking back across a year of blogging activity, I’ve talked about that particular “edge” a few times, but I seem to have concentrated even more on three others:

The primary “edge” has been the often-blurry seam between medieval and modern. I think I’ve tried to take this in two directions: on the one hand, I’ve thought about ways in which texts and ideas from the Middle Ages can be useful and relevant to us in the present; on the other, I’ve also reflected on the meaning of modern representations of the Middle Ages in the present day, such as John Eldredge’s use of the figure of William Wallace.

The situation in which I work (as a professional scholar at an institution with a strong Protestant Christian affiliation), also leads me to deal with a third edge: that of the very strange, often surreal, hinterlands one encounters as both a professional learner and a person of faith. A subset of this hinterland is the set of often even-stranger relations one negotiates from such a position, between one audience that is often suspicious of any religious affiliation whatsoever, and another that is, equally often, suspicious of or even hostile toward anything they regard as too “secular” (or even politically liberal).

Looking back over my posts, though, there’s another edge that I’ve come to explore that seems incongruous with the rest: that of a scholar of the middle ages working with and in relation to various technologies. At first, finding, among my own blog entries, postings that had to do with technology seemed incongruous: what do things like my own development of a writing process centered around digital plain text have to do with my fascinations with temporal, imaginative, and political borders?

In large part, I think, I’ve been interested in technology because it’s the medium in which, especially in blog form, my interaction as a modern person with the Middle Ages takes place. It’s the matrix, if you will, both of much of my engagement with the past. It is through the digital medium that I and most of my fellow medievalists access texts, read articles, study images of manuscripts, and communicate our findings and questions with one another. For me, the digital field is also the one I’ve used to try to communicate the relevance of medieval studies to a wider audience.

I’ve had colleagues in other disciplines express surprise, at times, that I’m one of the people at my particular institution who is overtly interested in what’s known as the “digital humanities.” What does a medievalist, who studies things that were, originally, hand-copied my monks using organic inks on cured animal skins, have to do with interest in digital technologies in the present?

In part, it’s because medievalists, like any other scholars, exist and operate in that digital realm. Like other denizens of the matrix, we interact through and within its amniotic medium. But as those who deal in what were original very “analog” materials, I think medievalists have a sort of advantage: we tend to be acutely aware of the differences and similarities between the medium in which we do our work, and in which we interact with our subject matter, and the medium in which those who created the texts in which we study operated. The differences, of course, are obvious: screens and manuscripts seem like vastly different things. On the other hand, there are similarities: is the power conferred by the matrix of a seal any less “virtual” and figurative than the ghostly arrangement of pixels that organize light into an image of such a seal on a screen? How different is the stamping of a symbol on an impermanent surface like wax from the projection of a set of binary symbols in a pattern on a TFT display? Is the only real difference the speed at which the impression occurs and changes?

Also in part, it’s because awareness of the origins of the modern world in the medieval and classical worlds can help us understand the modern more fully. The concept of the “Matrix” in the Keanu Reeves film could not exist as it does in the present day without the evolution of the idea that I traced earlier in the article through the Middle Ages back to classical Latin. Every word we use, concept we think, comes to use through such a historical process. In a culture that tends to see itself as the hotbed of everything new, of innovations that only we enlightened moderns could dream up, medievalists can remind us that nothing we think is without a history, and that we can understand ourselves better by being mindful of that history.

Finally, I think medievalists can help us negotiate technology in the digital present by communicating a healthy sense of what technology is. We moderns often tend to be blinded by novelty, as though the term “technology” only refers to the cutting-edge of present-day science and tech. Medievalists (and, really, students of any other points our our more distant past), can help remind us that “technology” refers to a history of human making and not only its present. For example, when we hear the term “information storage and retrieval technology,” we tend, as a knee-jerk, modern response, to think of computers. Ones and zeroes encoded on optical, magnetic, or solid-state media. What a medievalist knows is that while a computer might be one information storage and retrieval technology, so is a paper codex. So is a wax tablet. Or a papyrus scroll. A computer can also be an information encoding device. As can a typewriter, a fountain pen, or a quill.

Technology, in many ways, can become more useful and effective for us in the present, I think, when we conceive of it historically, taking novelty out of the question. Doing so allows us to ask not “what’s the newest technology we can use” but rather “what is the best technology for the job?” in the realization that novelty may not be the best indicator. For example, I own a stack of 5.25 inch, 520k floppy disks that I used to store information with the Commodore 64 computer I had in high school. That computer is long gone, and there’s little chance I’ll ever retrieve the information stored on them again. On the other hand, I can go to the British Library and read a vellum codex created 700 years ago as if it were written yesterday. Which, then, is the better technology for long-term information storage?

On the other hand, medievalists are also at the forefront of making use of those very new technologies for studying the past. The digitization of manuscripts is making it possible for scholars to access medieval texts in ways that, previously, required expensive travel to various libraries around the world. Digitizing things like medieval records allows us to search for patterns therein that once took years of manual collation to see. I regularly work and collaborate with colleagues across the country–and across the Atlantic–in ways that would be virtually impossible without electronic forms of communication and data transmission.

Hence a thread for this blog, an “edge” which I plan on honoring and reflecting upon, along with the others, even more in the coming year: the edge where a medievalist stands, between the analog past and digital present and future. Surfing the matrix.