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Linux Text Editorial

Is it a hack to use a text editor as a word processor?

For the better part of two months, I've been putting together what I thought was going to be a presentation about text editing using the most common Linux editors: vi, and emacs. I was also going to cover another editor, nano, which I find very useful as well. As it turns out, it's not much to talk about. A half-hour consultation of the web tutorials pretty well gets the wheels in motion, and after that, it's just a matter of usage.

After that, I wanted to talk about using text editors as a quasi-word processor. I kicked the tires on all the editors, trying to just blurt out ideas, the way I would with a pen and pad. The results were interesting. All of my efforts have yielded the decision that vi sucks the worst, of three editors. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with vi, it’s mainly a design choice that favors the needs of computer programmers, and the piles of text they shovel around trying to bang out software for us. Unlike poetry and prose, programmers are composing blocks of text that often need to be changed in bulk, or reused extensively. Tools like vi allow the automation of tasks like this, and free up a programmer's attention

Poetry, prose, and grocery lists, are linear material. The writer writes it, the reader reads it. If a writer just copied and pasted a book together out of reused paragraph routines, I’d be pretty disappointed. So, much of technical keystroke magic is buried in vi’s underbelly, never to be used in composition, and without the simple ability to type, and use edit commands simultaneously. In my opinion, juggling the mode functions of vi is distracting when just trying to jot a quick thought.

If the idea of a text editor “with modes” sounds foreign, crack open vi at a prompt, and try writing a quick letter using this cheat sheet.


I wish I was a vi hater, but I’m not. In fact, it’s the first, and only text editor I used for years, until I started “feeling creative”. Once I started writing more than configuration blurbs, and manipulating comment marks, I tried to hold on, but could, since I had to keep typing SHIFT+: +26yy, and that sort of thing. I had to kick the habit.

For this reason, I now use nano, or emacs.

Yeah, I use emacs.

Come and get me!

Before you do pick me off, from a rooftop, let me say a few kind words about nano. I launch the software, and just start typing. I get my ideas tapped out, and leave the rest for later. I use emacs the same way, only it takes longer for the software to load. Remember, this is prose, not the next sendmail replacement. Yes, I know it’s strange that I write better, and faster this way, but nevertheless, I have become a firm believer in Linux computers; as genetically modified, ten ton, turbo boosted, future-proof…typewriters. After four years of software sampling, distro bickering, config tweaking, and computer building, this is what open source has yieled for me.

It all started when I decided to buy an oddball laptop, on a trip to Austin. Like all geeks, I thought, well, at least I can run Linux on it. Six months later, it was imprisoned deep within my closet, so as not to remind me of my poor decision making skills.

Well, some time later, I need to write some materials, and was not excited about using my work PC for personal stuff. I had to do something, so I put my dying laptop to some real use. It was a decrepid 486 laptop, that never could do X-Windows. It wheezed along with 20 MB of RAM. I stood before it, and thought, it's got to be better than a pencil, and scraps of paper, right? At that moment I promised my laptop, on it's death bed, that I would ressurect it into the world most powerful typewriter. I booted the computer, and after it clicked and burped into consciousness, I installed debian, apt-got nano, and ws off to the races. I fired it up, and found myself happily tapping away at my keyboard. Then I noticed that nano had a usable spell checker, simple cut/paste functionality, and I was sold.

But, I think I used nano for another reason, though.

To avoid emacs.

At this time, I was an emacs hater, but why? I think it originally had something to do with mainframes, and modems, but I tried to make it more like good vs evil, as I am a bit dramatic. However, during my research, I forced myself to sit and endure emacs indoctrination. I gave it a fair chance, and was happily surpised. It launched slower than both vi and nano, but once I learned some basic commands, I was plugging along as comfortably as I had in nano. While communing with the savages, I found this cheat sheet, just in case you wanna give it a go.


After using using emacs a bit, I started getting curious about all the other things it can do, like email, web browsing, and can opening. I felt dirty inside. I opened up vi, inspected my /etc/hosts file, and I felt at ease again. Actually, emacs showed me that even a command line program can be as distracting as modern office applications, if you sig to deep ,or ask too much. In a way, it was the Office, of text editors, and that scared me.

So, to set aside the age-old beef, I'm rolling with the nano, for the purposes of this article. It's cheat sheet is right here.


I've buried the hatchet with emacs, and I see my novice error in vi myopia. The rule I apply to distros, is just as applicable to text editors, and that is; No matter which one you choose, stick with it and master it. Once you can manipulate text on the command line, with confidence, you have all the basic tools to work within your command line environment. Everything else is a function of communication, an information sharing. We'll cover these topics, in our later segments. So, that's it for now.

Have fun,


P.S. I'd like to thank John Lightsey, for sitting in for me during the actual class, and also Peter Hodgson, for consistently tolerating emacs bashing, without holding a grudge.

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