Want to be faster and more focused with your writing? Write in Notepad!
Fri Apr 5, 2019

Most people use a word processor when they want to write things on a computer, but if all you want to do is write, this can be counterproductive. My alternative? A text editor you likely got free with your PC. (the title isn't exactly what I would recommend, but notepad is an editor that works for this you probably already have installed. I recommend some good upgrades later on)

Why are word processors slower?

So before I start talking about an alternative, I need to explain why I was looking for one in the first place. Word processors like Microsoft Word, Libreoffice Writer, Google Docs, etc are great tools for intuitively laying out and typesetting documents without requiring learning a tool like LaTeX.

Word Processors present you with a view that looks the same (well, close enough) as what the final printed document will. This is already the first issue with the word processor for writing. As you are seeing what the printed document will look like, you end up worrying about how it looks as well as what you're writing.

I'm not trying to say that you cannot use a Word Processor to write in, or everyone gets distracted by the formatting and typesetting of their document. Graphical Word Processors do encourage this behavior though, and it is something that affects most people who use them. 1

A better environment for writing in would be one where layout is not an issue, and you can simply focus on what you are writing without thinking about how it looks or how it is typeset, yet also provide an easy way to revise and edit what you have written.

So What? Buy a Typewriter?

No! There is an environment that fits all these ideas that you no doubt already have - your text editor! Notepad is pre-installed on Windows, TextEdit on mac has a plain text mode, and most Linux users probably already have a strong opinion on which they prefer using (if you don't, I can recommend nano if all you are doing is writing markdown.

Even a very basic text editor like notepad fits our requirements. It's got no distractions with formatting, and you can easily search, edit and revise what you've written.

Another benefit of working in a text editor is how easy it is to send others what you have written. Every device2 will support reading a text file, rather than messing up your documents because they're running version 5 not 6 or open it without a specific font etc.

So this is great, no distractions, whatever. But I need Headings/Emphasis/Formatting/Lists/Footnotes...

There are a few solutions for this that require something in-between a text editor and a word processor called a WYSIWYM editor, But there's a far simpler solution I recommend which will allow you to stay in your text editor - Using text for marking your formatting.

You could start a line with a # to mean a heading, wrap italic text in *s, make lists with

1. Item 1
2. Item 2

* Bullet Point 1
* Bullet Point 2

and so on. If this sounds familiar, that's because it's Markdown, a really easy way to create formatting in plain text. If you've ever used Reddit, Github, WordPress, or even some email clients, you already know it! It's also convention to save text files using markdown formatting as .md and not .txt, but you don't have to.

So I have a document I have written in my text editor using markdown, But I need it in Word/on a website/a PDF!

There are some plugins for word and other editors to import markdown, like Writage, but I have not tried them myself. Google docs also supports directly importing markdown files.

My own method for converting markdown is Pandoc, which can convert your markdown to web pages, Word Documents, LaTeX typeset PDFs, and basically any other format, including slideshows for powerpoint. Pandoc is a command-line tool, but using it is as simple as opening a terminal or the windows command line and running:

pandoc file.md -o file.docx

For more information I recommend checking the pandoc website.

Beyond the Builtin editor

Of course, you needn't stick with your built-in test editor. If you are writing in markdown a lot or for long documents, getting a better text editor or a dedicated markdown editor is a good idea. Notepad++ is a good start for windows users.

In conclusion

Writing in plaintext is a simpler, quicker, and more distraction-free way to write than using a word processor. Markdown is an elegant way to write in plaintext but still keep the ability to format documents, and pandoc can be used to convert it into all the formats anyone would expect you to use.

If I missed anything or you just want to shout at me, please leave a comment.

1

I don't have a source for this aside from watching a lot of people using Microsoft Word everyday.

2

Well, every device anyone still seriously uses in 2019.



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