It's easy to want it all from your word processor. To want encouragement and spell-checking, Comic Sans and Times New Roman and Adobe Garamond Pro. To want the blank page to feel like a window into endless opportunity instead of overwhelming emptiness. To have page layout options to mess with.
And that's just it: It's all too easy to be drawn to distraction and the ability to procrastinate by changing type size and margins while blocking out the Twitter window underneath. Of course the words won't write themselves, but word processors and other self-styled 'productivity' programs can make it feel like they just might, leaving you to fiddle with settings while you wait for it to happen.
But take heart: This is not the only way to write. And I don’t mean Google Docs. I mean TextEdit or Notepad, or any other simple text editor that prioritizes the text you write over the illusion of a virtual page. These programs, often favored by programmers, deal with text in a purer form: as characters stored as bytes of data with no formatting, no page size. After all, this is text that's meant for elsewhere, maybe it's the code that makes a website run, maybe it's the bones of a blog post. But whatever you're writing, the same logic applies: It doesn't matter how things look while you're typing it out because text only comes to life when it is read.
Let the text flow
The obvious, practical reasons for using a text editor are straightforward, but important. Because the Mac TextEdit and Windows Notepad windows have few of the trappings of full-blown word processors, the text itself can remain front and center, unglamorous and largely unformatted, which lets you focus on what it is as opposed to how it looks. TextEdit does have some substantial formatting tools, but you'll only notice them if you look for them, so do yourself a favor and don't.
This simplicity gives text editors just the right amount of distracting power. They let the process of writing distract you from whatever social media catnip that might keep you from writing, but don't distract you from the text you're actually trying to write. There are no buttons to push or squiggles reprimanding your bad grammar while you are in the zone.
That these text editors let the text flow with minimal friction is a good thing, but it doesn't mean that you want to let it flow beyond your own screen right away. Online options like Google Docs make it easy to share docs, but maybe a little too easy. Sure, sharing is ultimately the goal, but isn’t first step to make sure you've written something worth sharing?
Of course, eventually, the time will come, and working in TextEdit makes it easy to transfer your text to its final destination. With no fancy formatting or other bells and whistles, you can copy and paste the plain text with ease, ready to be massaged into whatever shape its end purpose demands. And even if the text goes nowhere but the hard drive or cloud storage folder, plain text files are forever.
Set the text free
Another underrated advantage of more spartan text editors is that they are not letter-size.
They are not the size of anything but themselves, no implied page. The default dimensions—usually, just a portion of the screen—suggest jotted notes more than outlined tome. And, after all, it’s unlikely that content will end up on actual sheets of paper, so why let the shape of a page be the prison you write inside?
A text editor's malleability doesn't just give you freedom of mind, but a more practical freedom as well. Word processors with their letter-size mock-up almost demand to be used full screen. Sure, it's theoretically helpful to block out our hellscape politics and our hellscape climate by blotting out Twitter and Facebook with Microsoft Word maximized to full screen. But when I'm staring at the page and nothing but, it's all to easy to just give up entirely.
So why let there be a white-space void to confront in the first place? Minimize the white space, and you minimize the expectation—but not the possibility.
And enjoy yourself
Those merits are all well and good, but if I’m to be honest, my loyalty to TextEdit really stems from nostalgia. I first used a text editor in the days of SimpleText, when you could tell the program to sing what you’d written in a dirge or airy sing song using voices like , the voice in Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier." The joy of the program was getting it do do what computers weren’t yet terribly good at: talking. The joy of its successors like TextEdit, is the same, but inverted: instructing it to do less.
I did not write this in a text editor. I did not, at first, write it any computer program at all. I wrote it by hand, which I won’t try to convince you is ideal. But like handwriting, the text in TextEdit must ultimately go elsewhere to end up in front of an audience, whether that's in a photo to upload to Instagram or a series of Tweets.
In the end, my loyalty is not to these programs but to the text they contain, which will take on its full meaning elsewhere. And if that sounds a little romantic, so be it. Maybe that's how writing should be.