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Does It Make Sense To Prefer A Text Editor?

bachmeil profile image Lance Bachmeier ・3 min read

I've always had a preference for using a text editor like Emacs or Vim rather than a program like MS Word or Evernote. I'm not the only one; millions of others use text editors by choice and complain when it's not an option.

This confuses a lot of people. They just cannot wrap their minds around the idea that someone would prefer a primitive text editor over a fully evolved GUI program like MS Word. Someone even asked me once, with a disgusted/shocked look on his face, "Why would anyone use that?"

I have an answer to that question on my website:

The vast majority of people do not use text editors like Emacs. They'll use MS Word, Google Docs, and the like. In contrast, I try to avoid those apps as much as possible. I'd much rather use Emacs in the terminal. This is not because, as many people might assume, I'm old and don't understand how to use technology. Over time my workflow has evolved in the direction that provides the greatest productivity, and for me that has been away from Google Docs and toward text editors. There are two reasons a text editor in a terminal makes me more productive. (I make no claim that this applies to others; you should use what works for you. This works for me.)

Text editors are designed to support a full workflow without a mouse. This is one that I never understood until I was trying to understand why I was so much more productive when I avoided using the mouse. Text editors allow you to do everything with the keyboard. A mouse distracts you every time you use it. No matter what you do, the mouse will be in a different position the next time you use it, the cursor will be in a different position on the screen, and you will be doing different things. You can never automate the use of a mouse no matter how many times you use it. You have to think about it every single time, every time you save the document, select text, or scroll to the start of the document. The keyboard never changes. You quickly adjust to the keyboard shortcuts associated with a task, and you can do it without thinking about it. I'm able to think much more clearly when I'm typing in a non-GUI text editor because I'm not subject to the constant distraction I'd have if using a mouse. Many writers have moved to markdown, and I think that's because you don't have to leave the keyboard to write a fully-formatted document.

Text editors make it easier to focus. A text editor is a minimalist app. You don't worry about formatting. You just write. There's no way to procrastinate when you're looking at a terminal with no formatting options other than what you put into the text. The content is all you have. You get it right if you can't make up for weak content by making your document look nice.

This doesn't say anything about the ability to customize the heck out of your text editor to do everything you want it to do. I haven't mentioned that because text editors vary in their support for customization.

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bachmeil profile

Lance Bachmeier

@bachmeil

I'm a macroeconomist, energy economist, and time series econometrician that does a lot of programming

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