In Defense of the Simple Text Editor

by: Scott Nesbitt | 18 June 2019

I regularly get emails from readers of The Plain Text Project suggesting one code editor or another to write about. Some of those editors are pretty hardcore, too.

Believe me: I appreciate the feedback and suggestions. I tend to not heed those suggestions. Why? With this site, I’m trying to show that plain text is for everyone. That you don’t need complex tools to work in plain text.

The irony? Even though I have no technical skills, I use an rather techie editor called Emacs. Yeah, I know …

Over the life of this site, I’ve heard from a couple or three people who more or less stated that if you’re not using an editor like Emacs or Vim or Atom or Visual Code Studio, you’re not doing plain text properly. One or two even intimated that if you don’t use those editors, you shouldn’t bother working in plain text at all.

That’s classic gatekeeping and the power user fallacy on full display there. Thankfully, that attitude is rare. At least in these parts.

That said, you can’t discount the basic, barebones text editor. For many, it’s the ideal tool for working in plain text. Here’s why:

Simplicity. Some people don’t need a lot of features. Some are very focused on what they do and only need a space in which to type. Back in the mid-1990s, I was working at financial software company. When I started, we were transitioning our documentation to HTML. One of the writers I worked with preferred coding HTML by hand in Windows Notepad. He did it quickly, smoothly, and with few (if any) errors. It was a sight to behold to be honest.

Lightweight. Some people don’t need all that many features in a text editor. They don’t want to wait for it to start up or load components. They just want to fire up an editor and start typing.

It’s all they have. That’s especially true in some corporate environments. Years ago, I was a contractor at a major stock exchange where everyone’s workstation was tightly locked down. The IT department could install software, but you had to go through a long process to get permission to install what you needed. That didn’t always happen, and getting updates and upgrades was a pain.

It’s all they need. Not everyone feels the need to indulge in a bit (or more than a bit) of tool fetishism. They’re not interested test driving every editor they read or hear about to try to find the perfect one. And let’s be honest: indulging in tool fetishism never increases your productivity. Using the text editor that comes with your computer — whether it’s Gedit, TextEdit, Notepad, or something else — is more than good enough for most tasks.

As I keep stressing, plain text should be simple. How simple is up to you. It doesn’t matter whether you use a basic text editor or something more powerful. What matters is that you’re embracing the simplicity and flexibility that plain text offers.