Prose with a text editor
February 11, 2009 9:46 AM   Subscribe

I'm beginning the long process of physically typing my dissertation, and I want to tap the hive mind for how to make the best use of my text editor. Yes, I said text editor: I know that programmers swear by emacs/vim/whatever for physically manipulating text, and I want to know what tricks they know that will be useful for someone writing actual English, not just code.

More details: I've become quite well acquainted with the text expansion functions of my text editor (Textmate, fwiw) to save my fingers on long technical terms or words I type frequently. What I'm looking for are other ways to save wear and tear on my hands. A lot of text manipulation tricks by experienced text editor pros seem more oriented towards working with code than with prose. If you can explain how some of their macros, etc. can be fruitfully used in non-code settings, I'd love to hear it. Essentially, I'm looking for help in thinking about *how* to use the text-manipulation power of text editors for my writing, not just a list of "here's cool things you can do with a text editor that you can't do in Word." Give me your usage scenarios and examples, and make me look forward to the physical typing of the dissertation!
posted by philosophygeek to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Use Textmate's syntax highlighting and Markdown (so that *bolding* a word actually makes it appear bold, and so that marking off a section with # makes the section heading appear to be a different color).
posted by yesno at 9:54 AM on February 11, 2009

Textmate appears to look similar to LaTeX. Can you create yor own macros?
posted by kldickson at 9:54 AM on February 11, 2009

Some of the answers will depend on how you plan to do your typsetting and layout. Are you using TeX, pasting into Word, importing into Framemaker, what?
posted by bonehead at 10:25 AM on February 11, 2009

This may not be exactly what you're looking for, but -- like you -- I do all my writing in Textmate. I like the simplicity of it (compared to MS Word). I don't want any clutter, so I put everything for a chapter in one Textmate file. In other words, if I start with an outline and then write the actual text, I write the text below the outline in the same file. If I have a to-do list, I put that in the same file, too, usually at the end. At then end, I also paste in links to sites I'm using for research, quotations I intend to paraphrase, etc. It does mean I scroll a bit more than I'd like, but I've come to appreciate having everything in one file so that I can email to myself, put on a thumb drive, etc. Naturally, when I'm done, I delete the outline and the to-dos.

Whenever I'm unsure of anything, I type two percent signs, as in "In 1988, a man name %% rode a bus from Chicago to %%." I late search for %%. This stops me from breaking the flow while I'm writing.
posted by grumblebee at 10:28 AM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I will almost certainly be pasting the text into Word/OO.o at some point. My director would die if I gave him a LaTeX file, and he wants to be able to just type comments into the text, so PDF isn't an option except for the final version. I'm planning on using a simple Markdown-like syntax for "formatting" in plain text and then using find/replace within Word to apply the appropriate styles.
posted by philosophygeek at 10:33 AM on February 11, 2009

The editor's features are going to be most useful in dealing with a markup language. I think when programmers rave about an editor's ability to make writing text easier, that is usually what they mean.

As a programmer, the main reason I write most of my notes (not in a markup language) in emacs is because it is convenient when I already have it open to write code, rather than because it is so far superior in editing prose. But there are a few advantages I can think of:
  • Easy and simple version control. Check in your dissertation every day to a repository on a different computer.
  • The easy ability to set up a vertical split screen with two views of the same document is especially helpful when moving bits of text from one part to another without forgetting my place.
  • A single keystroke to select a whole paragraph is nice too.
  • I set up syntax highlighting so that the character string XXX is in yellow, which makes it easy to find things that need attention later. I also use a string of lots of Xs as a bookmark when I have to leave when I'm in the middle of something.
There's a whole list of editing tips on EmacsWiki.
posted by grouse at 10:40 AM on February 11, 2009

This isn't a text editor tip per se, but if your dissertation will be a big complex document written out over some months you will benefit from source code management. I have lately been using git. If you're not afraid to type in a terminal, you would do
$ cd ~/my_dissertation
$ git init
$ git add ./
$ git commit -m"import my dissertation"
Now when you change something, git status and git diff will show you what's new, and git commit will save your new stuff, with a note to yourself, without making your old stuff inaccessible. With git log you can see the notes you made with each commit, which will be useful when your advisor wonders what you have done since last week.

Also this makes it very easy to back your dissertation up, complete with its whole history. It's especially easy if you have access to two machines and can get git clone and git push working.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:59 AM on February 11, 2009

For Emacs, take a look at Muse Mode. Muse can publish to HTML, in addition to many other formats such as PDF and LaTeX.

Another helpful library is yasnippet, which provides functionality like TextMate's templates (and can even import them).

Lastly, org-mode and remember-mode are worth investigating.

On preview: seconding the recommendation of git. This is especially applicable for files stored as plain text, as it makes it trivial to see differences between versions from either the CLI or any GUI tool that can parse diff-type output.
posted by harmfulray at 11:31 AM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

What is your subject area? Are you using a standard style such as APA or MLA? If so, MS-word templates are available online. Will you need to format complex formulae? If so, a LaTex-based solution might help. Note that MS-Word sometimes produces unpredictable results in documents longer than 50 pages, and in documents packed with tables figures.
posted by doncoyote at 12:12 PM on February 11, 2009


I first got the idea from this "effective emacs" essay. Basically, if you type fast (as it sounds like you probably do), it's much more efficient to just delete the whole word if you mess up and try again, since the error is probably a few letters back. Additionally, you will often realize the word you just typed is not the one you wanted (which vs. that, or something), and it's so handy to just delete it in one fell swoop.

In OS X, opt+backspace does this in almost any program (firefox, textedit, itunes search bar, etc). In Emacs, you have to bind backwards-kill-word to a key to get the functionality (it explains how in the link above). In vim, I don't know. It's the kind of thing you'd want to do in the "typing" mode rather than the "control" mode (or whatever they're called).

I've probably used backwards-kill-word 30 times (literally, and just now I used it to change "50 times" to "30 times"), in writing this comment. You'll come to wonder how you've lived without it.

Also, vim (and I imagine emacs) are good at identifying "sentences" and "paragraphs". I, at least, move my sentences around a fair amount when I write, and "cut this sentence, jump to beginning of paragraph, and paste" is very quick and useful in vim.
posted by losvedir at 12:18 PM on February 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm working in the humanities; my dissertation will follow the Chicago Manual of Style. However, I'm not looking for a template or a set of styles; I'm really interested in ways to harness the features of text editors to type more efficiently.
posted by philosophygeek at 12:53 PM on February 11, 2009

In the spirit of backward-kill-word, I get lots of use from transpose-chars and transpose-words. In Emacs, typing "t e h C-t" produces "the." (Why, I just used C-t to move the period inside the quotation marks.) Useful for correcting little typos without having to move the cursor around.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 12:56 PM on February 11, 2009

This isn't TextMate per se, but if you're using TextMate, that means you're using a Mac. If you're on a Mac and are typing a lot, you really ought to look into Text Expander.

It's text-editor-agnostic, and it'll expand certain keywords you type, as you type, with anything else you want. So, for example, ddate would automatically expand into 11 February 2009, ttime would expand into 15:59, and myname might expand into John Doe.

It includes a "time saved" meter. After a year of academic use, mine was at several hours saved versus typing long-hand. A history major friend of mine got his into the days.
posted by oostevo at 1:00 PM on February 11, 2009

One of the biggest time sinks in any academic writing is reference management. There's nothing more tedious than checking references, and god help you if you're using some consecutive ordering scheme (i.e. [1], [2], [3], rather than [Arthur, 2008], for example).

Even though you can't use TeX as an output form, you may find BibTex itself useful as a reference manager. It's possible to do this with placeholder characters (as gumblebee describes above), but reference managing by hand is roughly the same as self-scourging in terms of religious penance. Are you a sinner?
posted by bonehead at 1:04 PM on February 11, 2009

I use Vim (and yes, Git) to write text, and couldn't imagine working in any other tool, although I'm sure TextMate offers just as much to its fans. I hear Neal Stephenson writes his novels in Emacs.

It's true that a lot of the features are geared toward things like repetitive tasks and indenting blocks, things that don't help much with prose -- which, let's face it, does ultimately have to all be typed out by a human. If your first draft is perfect, all text editors are pretty much the same as long as the colors suit you. Where editors differ, and some shine, is in the editing, moving blocks of text around, visualizing different versions, global changes, and so forth.

For that, here are a few aspects of Vim, off the top of my head, that I do find extremely helpful:

- The most general is the extreme flexibility of the software to handle al sorts of situations. If you want to automatically copy every paragraph in your document containing the phrase "King Ludwig" into a separate document, that's a simple command. Its awesomeness is more due to that versatile strength than to any specific capability. But here are some more specific aspects.
- Quick leaping around in documents, with tools like "find the previous occurrence of the word under the cursor" and "bookmark this spot"
- Branching undo, which lets you go back to the state of your document "ten minutes ago," for instance
- Autocompletion of words and sentences from elsewhere in the document, or from other documents or a dictionary
- Multiple cut/copy registers.
- Being able to keep my lovingly tweaked configuration in a portable text file, so I can write in pretty much the same environment on any computer
- Being able to script my own custom tools, like the little trick I have that autocorrects DOuble CApitals at the beginning of a word, or a macro to wrap the current sentence or sentences in parentheses with just a keystroke or three.
- That customizability and depth makes it fun to use as well, in my experience. And if I hit a stumbling block in my creativity, I can monkey around fine-tuning the tool while I wait for inspiration to return. (That could conceivably be a downside as well if you are easily distracted.)
- On a Mac, Vim can open and save RTF and DOC files using the textutil plugin, I hear.
- Vim is, in my experience, extremely stable and lightweight, even with multiple massive documents.
- It can be integrated into Firefox, so I can use it to compose even in textareas like this one.

I'll be happy to share my configuration if you do opt to hop on the Vim train.
posted by Eater at 2:15 PM on February 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

I hear Neal Stephenson writes his novels in Emacs.

You hear wrong.
posted by ChasFile at 4:00 PM on February 11, 2009

Hate to be a killjoy, but Word (etc) is made especially to write text to be read by humans. It also has all sorts of "macros" to make writing easy for you, like auto correct, a spellchecker, thesaurus, outlining and overview features, etc. And of course, WYSIWYG. It may not be cool, but it's a great tool to get the job done.
posted by cdx at 4:05 PM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I hear Neal Stephenson writes his novels in Emacs.
You hear wrong.
Emacs and TeX on OS X, four-ish years ago. More recently? Who knows.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 5:04 PM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I gather that Word is for some reason regarded as the devil, but when the time comes for dealing with footnotes, and especially cross-references, Word will save you a huge amount of time. Not sure how precisely to deal with them on the Mac version, but if it's anything like the Windows version it won't be too hard to find. Not having to go through and redo all of your footnote numbers and cross-references because of an added footnote is a godsend.
posted by sinfony at 5:15 PM on February 11, 2009

Potentially outdated but hard-won advice:

There is someone at your university library whose job it is to receive the dissertations after they are defended. This librarian has extremely picky and possibly arbitrary guidelines for the physical presentation of the document: binding, fonts, margins, spacing, pagination, as well as citation style. It would be good to consult this person and hir office about these details BEFORE you have 200 pages of material to reformat before you can deposit your dissertation and graduate.

If you do give into the dark side and open Word, USE A SEPARATE FILE FOR EACH CHAPTER!! Fix the page numbering at the end, perhaps through a Master Document scheme. But continually editing from within a Master Document will corrupt your documents. And Word doesn't like very long dissertation-length documents.

Good luck!
posted by egret at 1:03 AM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's not very tree friendly, but when I did my big-ass dissertation I used LaTeX and just printed out chapters for my supervisor to mark with a red pen.

For me, LaTeX was hundreds of times better than word once I'd learnt it. No formatting worries, brilliant reference/bibliography management, etc etc.

Just a thought.
posted by latentflip at 10:52 AM on February 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

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