Bill Bennett


Less is more with back-to-basics text processing

Text editors appeal because they are a lowest common denominator.

Plain text always travels smoothly between applications, operating systems and devices. The same can’t be said for Word documents.

Text is compact and efficient. It is quicker to search and easier to manage than word processor documents.

Geeks already spend large parts of their working life dealing with plain text. Text is widely used for settings and configuration files. Geeks write small programs to merge, sort and otherwise process text files.

Plain text simpler than word processors

Text editors are simpler than word processors. Many have been around for 30 years or more with roots in pre-graphical-user-interface computing.

They use keyboard commands — writing memos and other notes this way may look scary to non-technical types, but it isn’t much of a stretch if you’ve used the same tools to handle your everyday technical tasks for a decade or more.

There’s an added bonus to text editing; the applications can bypass the computer mouse. Given mouse movements are one of the most troublesome sources of strain injury, switching to keyboard-oriented writing tools makes sense for  technical types who spend hours hunched over their machines.


Similar ergonomic concerns explain why some professional writers turn their backs on conventional word processors. This group has another problem: modern word processors are busy-looking. It is hard to concentrate on writing when there are so many distractions.

It is tricky, but the old Dos favourite WordPerfect 5.1 can be shoehorned into working with Windows XP. Making it work with Vista is more of a challenge. A small but vibrant user community at WP Universe provides tips and even drivers to make the software work with modern operating systems and hardware.

You’d need to buy WordPerfect. Two recently developed applications channel its spirit for free. Darkroom and Q10 are both stripped down text editors designed to offer distraction-free writing.

Darkroom fussily requires Microsoft .Net 2.0, a deal breaker for some, while Q10 mainly gets on with the job, but I did detect some beta-software strangeness with both programs. Perhaps for now, this is a trend to watch and not follow.