One text editor to rule them all

I ended my post on BBEdit finding with this line:

Serious text editors have a depth that rewards their users.

Of course, to collect those rewards you need to use the editor enough to understand its ways. This is what Jeff Hunsberger has decided to do with Sublime Text, forgoing the special-purpose editors he’s been using for this or that and concentrating on one that can do this and that.

Once upon a time, text editors and word processors typically had their own complicated editing commands, commands that weren’t shared with other editors. Switching between editors was hard, and to achieve any kind of efficiency, you had to choose one and stick with it. If possible, you did all your writing in that one program. In the Unix world, the EDITOR and VISUAL environment variables allowed users to choose the editor that would be launched when a command required the entry of more than just a word or two. Email clients like elm and pine came with their own builtin editors but also allowed users to choose whatever they liked—typically vi or Emacs.

This changed in the 80s as operating systems began to impose standards of consistency in text handling. On the Mac, dragging, double-clicking, and shift-clicking worked the same in every program, as did the holy trinity of ⌘X, ⌘C, and ⌘V. Windows followed suit, but with the Control key instead of Command. X Windows, with its three-button mouse, used middle and right mouse clicks to cut, copy, and paste.

This made it easy to switch between text editors because the basics were the same in every one. The muscle memory developed in one program worked just as well in all the others. And for a lot of people, the basics were all that mattered. The consistency the Mac and Windows brought to computing made it accessible to an awful lot of people.

But if you do a lot of writing, or a lot of manipulation of textual data, you’ll want to move beyond the basics, and that requires a text editor with depth, an editor you can shape to your own particular needs. And once you’ve decided to dive deep, you’ll want to focus on one editor so you can learn it well. It’s true that external utilities like Services in OS X (and whatever is the equivalent in Windows) can provide simple text editors with something like the control you can get with a serious editor, but it’s just not the same. There are still good reasons for doing what Jeff Hunsberger is doing: choosing a powerful text editor, learning it well, and doing all your writing in it.

Which editor should be your one text editor? I couldn’t possibly tell you. Every one has its strengths, and every one has its proselytizers. You’ll have to try a few on for size and see which is the best fit.

By the way, if you’ve been wondering how I could put an LOTR-esque title on a post about text editors and not link to this spectacular article by Kieran Healy, you can stop wondering now.