This Word Processor From The 90s Is Helping Me Write More

Woman standing in front of projector with lines of code on her face

I wrote everything in plain text this month. That’s .txt instead of .docx, or using a basic text editor instead of writing on WordPress.

Don’t ask me why. It’s just another experiment I had to do, because you know I’m always trying to find new ways to write.

This is why I found myself using Vim, a 1991 predecessor to Vi, which was released in 1976. Yeah, Vim definitely gives George RR Martin and his preference for WordStar a run for his money.

Using a programme this old meant that I could focus on what really mattered: the words. Or did it?

Read on to find out.

Why am I doing this?

There are many advantages to .txt that we tend to overlook. The size difference, for one. I’ve been keeping a daily journal in .txt form too, and it has some 800 lines to date. Its size? 24 kB.

That makes .txt highly portable, as I can slot my files into any computer since the Reagan administration and still be able to work on my projects.

Secondly, I wanted to experiment with words. No fancy formatting, no bells and whistles, just words. Plain text allowed me to do that.

Lastly, I got a kick out of this minimalism, which sent me back to Memory Lane during my DOS days. There’s just something about letters on a plain black screen that does it for me.

Why Vim?

To the uninitiated, Vim is basically the unfriendliest text editor that exists today. So many better alternatives exist, such as Notepad or TextEdit, so why was I taking the masochistic route?

The reason lies in its editing capabilities. You see, Vim was built with the power user in mind. And its shortcuts were designed so that you didn’t need to lift your fingers off the home row.

It didn’t make me a faster writer, though. But it did help me become more efficient.

Also, I figured that even if this experiment failed, I’d still emerge on the other end with a new skill under my belt. And that’s how Vim became my primary editor for the entire month.

A man in sunglasses and face mask

Not gonna lie, using Vim got me feeling like Hackerman. Photo: Fabio Lucas

The power of Vim

As I’ve already mentioned, Vim does one thing, and it does it well. It handles words.

Its powers lie in its keystrokes, with all your editing needs accessible through easy shortcuts.

For instance, I can delete this entire sentence and write over it by just pressing these three letters: c, i, s. It doesn’t matter where the cursor is, that line’s getting overwritten.

I could change the command to encompass the entire paragraph, document, or just one word, and it’ll still require only three keypresses.

Compare this to the traditional way of moving my hand to the mouse, clicking and selecting the relevant sentences, moving my hand back, and typing. That’s when you start to see the benefit of these shortcuts, especially when repeated multiple times over one document.

You can look up various tutorials and cheat sheets for Vim if you’re interested, so I won’t go into too much detail here. What I do want to cover, though, is my experience thus far.

A steep learning curve

My first week with Vim was hell. I couldn’t write properly. I couldn’t even focus on the words, since all I was doing was trying to recall shortcuts.

So my mind functioned in analytical mode the entire time, which is not where you want to be when writing, trust me.

It was as if I was writing with my left hand. I couldn’t focus on the words because my brain needed all its processing powers to deal with the unfamiliarity.

It took me an entire week before I felt comfortable enough ditching the mouse or the arrow keys.

Then week two arrived, and I realised I didn’t need to overthink the basic commands. I could hop around in sentences, moving the cursor to the exact character I wanted.

I still needed some time to plan my keystrokes, but I wasn’t lagging so much anymore.

And now that a month has passed, I’ve amassed a set of shortcuts that I personally use often. My methods may not be as elegant as the Vim veterans’, but it does cover what I need.

Move to end of line. To the next paragraph. Throw away this sentence. Delete four words. Replace this letter with a capital letter. I’ve basically committed a writer’s toolbox of shortcuts to muscle memory, and I’m happy with what I have.

I can now write and carry out various edits without lifting my fingers off home row. And that keeps my joints happy.

A woman's face splattered with glow in the dark paint

My face after butchering a ton of words on screen. Photo: H Heyerlein

Why use plain text?

Now, onto file format itself. We’ve already covered how portable plain text files are. I could carry one year’s worth of journalling anywhere, and it’ll take just two seconds to back up.

Another plus point to plain text is the lack of proprietary formatting. I don’t have to worry about copy-paste compatibilities either. I can just write this piece and dump it into WordPress, and it’ll work every time.

Even longer documents can benefit from the .txt format. I can write an entire novel in plain text and not lose out on any functionality. If George RR Martin can write his tomes in WordStar, I can write my short novels in Vim.

All in all, the benefits are aplenty, but the main selling point is the ability to avoid distractions.

Going back to basics

Try this and tell me you don’t feel more focused: open Notepad or Textedit and simply start drafting your next post.

I’ll admit that it could feel jarring at first, especially if you enjoy tweaking your headings and italics. But you’ll feel empowered once you realise you don’t need formatting to get your point across.

Besides, you can always deal with the publishing details after you’ve finished your story.

Even if I weren’t using Vim, the act of writing in plain text ensures that I have something to say. Because the format ain’t pretty. So you can’t hide behind a fancy editor and feel all good about your work through aesthetics alone.

With plain text, you’re more prone to hating your words. And that’s a good thing.

So, did it make me a better writer?

Here’s the interesting bit. This practice didn’t improve my craft as a writer, but it did transport me to my old days, when I didn’t constantly scroll through twenty open tabs while writing.

And that has given me some clarity by association.

If you had the luxury to experience life pre-internet, you’ll probably remember the days of longer attention spans. I’m reclaiming this mindset thanks to the spartan environment of Vim.

And what I used to think of as a gimmick (meaning the ‘distraction-free’ editors) now seems much more useful in my eyes. Because there’s something to be said about using a plain editor.

So while I haven’t improved in the craft, I’m glad I rediscovered what it feels like to go back to basics.

A screenshot of the Vim editor

This has been my word processor for the month. Photo: Stuart Danker

Should you write in plain text?

Now that I’ve sold plain text files as the next miracle cure for writing, you might be wondering if it’s the thing for you. And I say, give it a go before anything else.

But just in case you need a quick comparison, here’s a short list. Try plain text if you:

  • Want a portable backup of your entire life’s worth of writing
  • Are curious if it’ll affect your output
  • Are interested in other tools such as Vim and Markdown
  • Have the minimalist bug inside you
  • Write across different platforms and devices

But maybe don’t force yourself if you:

  • Are visually oriented and need to see the shape of your work
  • Don’t enjoy organising all your .txt files (or sections within files)
  • Collaborate a lot with other people using Microsoft Word or Google Docs
  • Don’t like being reminded that you suck at words
  • You’re a tweaker (I don’t mean meth addict, though the effects are the same) and you can’t stop editing macros, scripts, and shortcuts exactly the way you want them

Will I continue using Vim?

So it’s been an interesting month, and I’ve learned so much from this experiment. I’ve enjoyed my learnings so much that yes, I may just continue writing in plain text.

And if there’s one major takeaway I took from this experience, it’s that most times, it pays to be simple.


I even write my newsletters in plain text, so do make sure you join the hundreds of readers that are currently receiving exclusive content in their inbox. You’ll also get a free guide on how to grow your WordPress audience, so don’t miss out!

71 thoughts on “This Word Processor From The 90s Is Helping Me Write More

    • Oh yeah. I’m definitely the king of switching things up. Maybe that’s why I’m a hobby collector and don’t really excel in one thing, lol. I do miss the pre-internet days sometimes too. Then I order books online and am grateful for that too.

      Like

  1. I totally understand and are so with you about going back to basics.
    After trying a view different apps for my planning, I stopped at Workflowy and I love the plain style, but you can search in it too.
    maybe you’ll give it a try?

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    • Workflowy does look interesting indeed, and I might give it a try someday. Right now I’m checking out Obsidian and seeing what it can offer me. The plus point is that it has a Vim plug-in, lol. Thanks for sharing, and for visiting!

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      • Yeah, there’s a plug-in for Obsidian where it simplifies everything (takes away the menus), and the Vim plug-in allows me to treat it like Vim, but also enjoy the modern features of linking and having quick search :P

        It’s hard to write without any Vim-like shortcuts now, since I prefer not moving my hand to the mouse so much.

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  2. Very Fascinating and good topic here Stuart. I enjoyed reading this to the tee and the way you write actually inspires someone who overlooks writing to definitely start seeing writing with a different eye. I am glad that even though these writing tools from the 90s didn’t make you a great writer but you did at least emerge with a new skill under the belt. You know technology has made writing easy with its thousand digital applications but the old ways of writing are still as useful even today, I also like how you talked of experimenting the simpler ways of writing which is very interesting to say the least!!! 🔥🔥🔥👏

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    • Oh yeah, Vim is a pretty useful skill to have (for me), since apps like Obsidian offer Vim plug-ins too. I don’t regret slowing down for a month to learn it, since now I’ve sped up once more thanks to the new knowledge. Will be using Vim-like software for the near future for all my writing.

      Always appreciate your support, and I love your enthusiasm in this comment!

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  3. Yasss!
    I used Notepad in 2020 and 2021 when I wanted to just let out words without any distractions, and it felt kinda nostalgic seeing my write-ups in that font.

    It didn’t have shortcuts like your Vim, but then, it felt good.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds a little complicated, is VIM free? The writing world of different tools is so vast; I never even heard of this. Reading how there are shortcuts reminds me of how I inputted grades today. My school district experienced a cyber attack and our usual grading system is down. I had to learn to input grades in an “older” way that did not have an “edit all” button. So, I had to come up with my own system of what keys to press first to make it faster for me 😮‍💨😆

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes, Vim is free. But if you’re looking for more modern alternative text editors, you can check out Obsidian or Bear, which are free as well.

      Lol ya. Life is about finding our own shortcuts to the things we do often. But I do hope that you never have to do things one by one again. I can imagine the tediousness!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Good golly! And here I thought I’m a dinosaur for remembering software like WordStar and WordPerfect! You’re practically ancient Stu for knowing (and using) Vim (which I never heard of!). And to think you’re nearly half my age LOL!! While I don’t think I’ll dare venture there, having barely made it learning how to use WordPress, I appreciate the reminder that simplicity is bliss. So your point’s definitely taken. Maybe I’ll resume lugging a physical notepad and pen around henceforth as my ultimate way to return to basics and rely less on fancy-schmancy editing tools. Thanks once again for teaching us stuff with every post. Little wonder we keep returning each week for more!

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    • Paper and pen is the ultimate no-distraction writing tool! I still use them when my eyes are tired from staring at a screen. The slower writing pace is a non-issue for sure. So you should try drafting everything with pen and paper for a month!

      Haha yeah. I grew up with a 286 PC, and because there were very few games at the time, I grew very familiar with DOS programmes, lol.

      Thank you for always being around!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Razz and I both do all our writing in Notepad and have since day 1. We find it serves the purpose and since we aren’t always on the same computer it travels well and always opens just the way we saved it. We keep our work on memory sticks so the .txt files don’t take up alot of space.

    I suppose we are all about the words. Formatting is done later in WordPress. We will copy our work and throw it in an office program to do our basic spell-checking and get a word count but that’s about it. I find all the toolbars and buttons distracting and don’t see the point in any formatting as I write.

    I’ve honestly never heard of Vim but it sounds like you got it figured out pretty quickly. Good luck in your continuation of writing with it. Thanks for a great post!
    Roze

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    • Yes! A fellow plain text writer! You’re the first here so far, and it’s great to hear your side of the story. ‘Travels well’ and low space requirements are amazing features of writing in .txt. I imagine that even if I were to journal detailed accounts of my day-to-day, I’d probably only use a couple MBs of space after a few years, lol.

      Thanks so much for sharing your process. What’s your editor of choice? There have been newer apps that edit plain text files like Bear and Obsidian, and they do add some pretty interesting quality-of-life features to the process.

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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      • We exclusively use Notepad for all our blog writing on all our Windows systems from 7 – 10 but you’ve got me curious now. I like the simplicity of Notepad with its zero bells and whistles but I’ll have to check out some of these others you’ve mentioned.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Definitely give them a try. They’re both free, and there are tons of tutorials on YouTube if you want to use the more advanced features. Else you could just treat them like Notepad.

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  7. It is 2244 right now, and thanks for sharing about Vim.

    I did check and it is an alternative to Notepad. I never tried it but it did trigger a memory.

    I mean, I used to like using Notepad because it is quite simple. I remember using Notepad a lot because it is quite simple and it does not have many functions…kinda like, no distractions. Ya know, like when we only need one thing, but we have many other things that we don’t need…they’re like distractions, and when they’re not around, it is much easier to focus.

    I remember one reason I stopped using it, because with Notepad, I cannot ‘Undo’ an action many times. So, if I made a regrettable mistake…I would lose more data.

    Then, I did use a similiar application…but I lost the application when my hard disk got corrupted by virus. I could not even remember the name of the application, but I know that it was better than Notepad.

    I use LibreOffice these days. For one, it is an Open Source…which means it is 100% free (an alternative to Microsoft Office, which is not free). I don’t put in pictures and stuff, but just words.

    How is my day today?
    It was fine, although I was in for a double shift because a colleague was on MC. It was unexpected, though.

    The significant thing that I remember…for me, was a few times earlier in the evening when I laughed…and a colleague of mine kept saying to the others that it was exactly like The Joker. I did not laugh uncontrollably, but it was cool. It felt like it, and at the moment…I prefer to laugh like that. Ya know, like a ‘Signature Laugh’.

    I mean, I heard people saying that this person laughs like a banshee or something…comments like that. I guess that for me to receive such compliment that I laugh like The Joker…personally, like an honour.

    Other than that, I bought a few of the Flamingo Ice Cream from 7-Eleven Cafe. Ya know, there is a new flavour…a mix of Chili Sauce and Chocolate. The spiciness is there…but no one, not my family nor myself, actually enjoyed it. I mean, ice-creams are usually sweet…not spicy. I was quite curious, but now…I think it’s not worth it.

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    • I would imagine that poets would enjoy using plain text editors, since it’s so much easier to format the sentences as is, instead of having them weirdly spaced out in more ‘advanced’ programmes.

      I’m all about that free software (except Scrivener). In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever paid for .docx word processing for years, since MacOS has Pages, and there’s always Google Docs. Not open source though.

      Haha, chilli sauce and chocolate does sound… exotic indeed. I am curious though, but suspect I wouldn’t like it. Pulling a double shift is always a tiring ordeal, especially if it’s by surprise. But great that you went through it easy!

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  8. I do find processes interesting. How they differ so much between individuals, of course. But also how we evolve and adjust our own, as you have done. My writing path is between Instagram and WordPress. Different worlds really but I’m finding that they both suit me for different reasons. As I get more in touch with ‘the writer within’ (yes, she’s in there for sure 😉), I’m sure things – and processes – will change. That in itself is good. Standing still, never changing, never gets you anywhere 😁😊

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    • So true! Even when we regress from change, we’re still getting valuable data that we can use in the future to steer ourselves right. I’ve always been interested in how different writers tackle the same craft in their own way too. And I love reading about other people’s creative processes. Such an intriguing topic. Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Like

  9. One of the qualities I like most about writing is the many ways people use to get from point A to point B. I’m probably not as flexible as I used to be, but I hope I never become one of those nostalgic old fools who insist things were far better in their day. It’s fun to try something new, even if it’s really something old.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! I love reading about other writers’ creative processes because I find it so interesting how people take different routes to the same destination. And you really killed it with that last sentence, Pete.

      ‘Better to try something new, even if it’s really something old.’ That’s Lao Tzu material right there. Thanks for your lovely comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I appreciate you doing these experiments so that others can learn from them. While I can apprecaite the simplicity of using a text editor, at this point I find Word fairly simple to use and I don’t have the ambition to learn a nother way to string words together. I’m glad you found it beneficial!

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    • Oh yes. I always love trying new ways to approach the craft. That’s when I learn that it doesn’t matter how I do it, as long as I just do it.

      When it comes to digital journalling though, I’d appreciate something as robust as .txt, since I can open those with any software, instead of being locked in to a proprietary format.

      Thanks as always for stopping by, Jim!

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  11. At first I thought, “Oh no. He’s talking tech and it’ll be like he’s speaking Klingon to me.” But I actually understood what you were talking about. Unfortunately, I’m a technophobe with no desire to experiment. The fact that I can get what I need from WordPress is a miracle in and of itself. I don’t even know how to use spreadsheets! And only the pandemic forced me to get over my total hatred of the Google Suite. I would literally use WordPress and Microsoft Word and nothing more for the rest of my life. That’s me and tech. Ergo, I probably won’t be trying Vim, but thanks for widening my brain a bit!

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    • Better Klingon than Vogon poetry, is what I always say :P

      Interestingly enough, I think plain text is as bare bones as it gets when it comes to technology, so maybe try drafting with Notepad someday.

      Though I suspect you don’t need as much novelty as I do to coax yourself into writing. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, by the way!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. This post of yours brought back memories of my Dad, who was a fan of WordStar back then! He used it mainly to draft legal documents needed for his profession as a lawyer. It was only around the mid-90s when he discovered Microsoft Office, and he hasn’t turned his back on it since.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. How interesting! I had never heard of Vim before and I had no idea people actually used the Notepad (or similar apps) to actually write things (I know, that’s very naive of me ahah)! Even though I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to write things on Vim like you – for starters because I would get discouraged by the steep learning curve and because I am very “visual” in my work – I could definitely benefit from the minimalism of it all, and not having any other distractions.
    When reading your post I was wondering if you also sometimes write things on paper by hand? I know it helps me a lot but some people hate it!

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    • Oh yeah, I definitely change things up. I love pencil and paper when I want to just curl up in a corner and not stare at a screen. Especially if there’s a lot of thinking to do.

      Yeah, if you’re visual, you’re better off using an editor that shows the formatting in real time. Tools like Obsidian or Bear come to mind. They deal with .txt with a few extra bells and whistles.

      Anyway, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Not sure I can go back to plain text. I’ve developed a think for tabs, paragraph spacing, etc. However I hear you about creating a space of no distractions. Plenty of time I have to close all windows, put the headphones on, and just write.

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    • Yeah, the formatting bit is definitely fun, and can be a reason for using more ‘commercial’ editors, but at the same time, I’ve started reserving things like spacing for the final phases of writing. Pretty interesting how different tools can change your workflow. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

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  15. LOL. Hot-Keys. LOL. Since I was working on my degree during the Reagan administration Hot-Keys were a fave of mine. I use them now during product demos. It is great fun listening to the users ask “wow, how did you do that without touching the mouse?” I do 99.9% of my writing in Notepad, Scrivener, or an iPad app called “Journal.”

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  16. I don’t see myself using something like Vim, I think it would take me out of the flow of thought. I don’t really like keyboard shortcuts except for cut/copy/paste. I might try giving Notepad a shot, although I have tried it in the past and get very distracted with where and when words carry to the next line. Somehow the very absence of distractions distracts me. I can see that it would force someone to improve their spelling and general typing abilities! I used to be very good at spelling and now I’ve gotten sloppy because of autocorrect. I’m gonna give it another try but I suspect I’ll always be a Microsoft Word aficionado. I don’t have to think about anything except what I’m writing when I use Word because I’m just so used to it and it hasn’t changed dramatically.

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    • I grew up on Word and have used it my entire career, so there’ll always be a place for it in my life. Also, most companies still use Word for work, so there’s no escaping it. Always great to be familiar with popular software.

      My only gripe is that Word (and other similar programmes) add a layer of formatting over it, so the words aren’t easily ported around.

      And don’t force yourself to go plain text if it’s not up your alley. We all have different things that work for us, eh?

      Always great seeing you around, Hetty!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I get it, Stuart. But why give up the bells and whistle in Scrivener when the app offers a distraction free writing editor in dark mode?

    I can pop out of the distraction free mode and enjoy all the app’s conveniences once I’ve completed the heavy lifting of writing. Also, I can’t do without on the database built into Scrivener, which gives me a running list of all posts for the blog, and for novels, it provides the scene-by-scene structure format. And with terabytes of space available, I no longer worry about kilobytes except for the speed of post images.

    Last but not least, I appreciate your experiment with Vim. Kudos! However, I don’t want to lose out on the dividends from my years of learning investment into Scrivener.

    BTW: Akin to your efforts, I’m conducting an experiment to see if Notion is a replacement for Apple Notes. For now, it’s like my 6th grade experience — the toughest three years of my life. 😅 Either way, my writer’s database will benefit from the experiment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been loving Apple Notes lately. I actually ported over from Notion due to Notes’s ease of use, especially if you’re already in the Apple ecosystem.

      Scrivener is great, but now I’m starting to see the value in having non-proprietary file formats. It annoys me that the .scriv files aren’t easily opened by other programmes.

      Also, I’ve stumbled across Obsidian, which offers a GUI close enough to Scrivener, but operates in plain text. Also, it has a Vim plug-in. I might switch over to that soon. I sometimes think I focus too much on the tools and not the actual writing, lol. Thanks so much for sharing your process!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m using Notion to prototype Rapid Character Development. Then I’ll port the process to Scrivener, MS Word, and Pages. Like you, though, Apple Notes is hard to beat because it synchs with all my devices and is simple to use.

        Ah, those shiny tools. It’s fun testing new apps until those side trips impede the goal. Thus, I too have to watch out and not major in the minors!

        Liked by 1 person

  18. So interesting- I got an advert the idea for a word processor, the sort of thing that was in the offices in the 1990s – and I think you might be on to something. I switch the Internet off or write in pen at times but that’s just one thing to make myself more indistractable but this is a whole level up.

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    • Pen and paper is the bomb, actually! It’s a good substitute for distraction-less writing when my eyes are tired from screens. The only downside is that transcribing from paper to computer can be an iffy process sometimes. Thanks so much for your lovely comment!

      Like

  19. First, Vim is not outdated, it is still getting updates. Second, it is heavily used in the programming world, especially in the Linux inclined people. Third, I’m trying Common Lisp language, and I have tried emacs. That didn’t work with my screen reader, mostly because I screwed up the setup process, so I’m thinking of switching to vim. fourth, there is a war going on among emacs and vim users, and I probably would be branded as a traitor by the emacs users. Fifth, there is a reason why when you get to the file handling part of learning programming, you are taught to deal with .txt format first. It opens without a fuss, your program can write and append data to it, and voila! You are a genius!

    Whereas binary formats like docx or other formats cannot be dealt with so trivially.

    I would like to use more markdown to be honest, I’m using that in my other technical blog, and I love the process of using in my documents, copy and paste that to my blog editor, and everything just working. But I think wordpress doesn’t support markdown. I haven’t tried using markdown here, but I have not gotten any signal that it is supported here.

    Thanks for this wonderful article, Stuart! text files are great. You can have thousands of lines of code in them, and they still won’t take more space than a few hundred kilobytes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha. I somehow had you in mind when writing this, because I was wondering what a programmer would’ve thought of using plain text to write prose.

      I have never gotten into Emacs, even though I’ve always heard about it. Am pretty happy with Vim since it comes with most Unix systems though.

      WordPress works perfectly with Markdown but here’s the catch. You have to copy-paste directly into the WordPress editor for it to translate. If you straight up type Markdown in the WP editor (or if you edit and try to add more elements), then it doesn’t work. So the work you’re copying from your text editor has to be the final-final version.

      Thanks for your wonderful comment. Am glad to hear your thoughts on this!

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  20. A very interesting idea Stuart. I remember typing on a typewriter (not that I’m advocating a return to pre-computer) but I can appreciate where you’re coming from. I guess I just see the computer (with all its bells and whistles) as a tool. I type up my words and can stay focused on that without being distracted by the editability. I’m not sure if I’d change operating system, but it does sound as though its been a productive experiment for you. :)

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    • I used to think that all these ‘focus’ features were bull until I started using a minimalist programme. Really felt the difference there! Or maybe my focus has just been too compromised lately that this has become an issue, lol. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

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