The way you write

As the first post of 2016 on this blog I was wondering what I would be writing about. Not that I am lacking ideas but I was tinkering with a post about those never-happening new year resolutions. I ended up dropping this idea in favor of a question that is somewhat disturbing to me. Here it is:

I do promote and contribute to the LibreOffice project, the FOSS office suite. And yet it’s been two years I’m also talking about my use of Emacs in various ways. I quickly came to the realization that I was doing more and more things with Emacs that I could have done with LibreOffice. And yet I have not lost interest in the latter, quite the contrary. Is LibreOffice, or any office suite, not as effective as Emacs or other text editors?

The following is the personal point of view of someone who is not a developer even though I do edit CSS, html, php or javascript files from time to time.

The fundamental difference between a word processor and a text editor is not a matter of complexity or generation. Word processors simply do things differently than text editors, and both have existed side by side happily since the mid eighties. Whether they do things better is a completely different question, and perhaps a moot one, as a the different approaches serve different purposes. So let’s take the case where I need to write a fully detailed report about a given matter. The report will be roughly ten pages long, well formatted and with a rather strict constraint to use a predefined template. That template is usually not made with LaTeX but with a word processor. How would I go about creating this document, assuming I don’t know LaTex but use both a text editor and a word processor?

Let’s reason in a more simple way first. If I only use a word processor (which is the case of about 99% people out there) I do not really need to worry: I will go about using the same tool I’ve always been using and I may only hope that the word processor will handle the template well and that it won’t put too much formal constraint on what I can do in terms of formatting myself. If I only use a text editor, I need to see how I can work with the document template and see how I can add the text itself to that template so that at the end and actual document will be created.

These two different approaches do not necessarily highlight the superiority of the word processor; after all one could imagine an html template instead of one in OpenDocument Format or proprietary one. What it shows, however, is that a word processor deals with documents in a visual way. A text editor sticks pretty much to the text itself. The rest can be dealt with in other ways, either externally or in a programmatic method (with LaTex for instance). My point here is to stress that the two kind of tools rely on broadly different approaches.

Coming back to my previous example, here’s how I would go about writing the document using both tools. I would first organize my thoughts via the text editor, Emacs in my case, using mostly org-mode; perhaps if I needed to work on it in a more collaborative fashion (with friends or colleagues) I would need to bring portions of it on a wiki or a pad; I could use something like markdown-mode, or even good old html or text. Then I would insert the text into a new document, with LibreOffice for instance, and then I would finish editing both the text and the document. In my scenario, LibreOffice Writer is in charge of creating the actual document both in terms of design and content, while the genesis and perhaps the very rough content is handled by the text editor.

The big difference is the final output of both tools. It is a bit hard, unless one uses complex LaTeX macros (and I’m not even sure it’s possible) to create a document sticking to word processors’ templates. Sure, you can design beautiful documents in text editors using LaTeX but you need to learn how to programmatically design the document and you are still not integrating document templates from the outside. What’s more, mastering LaTeX to that level require quite some training and time to learn. While people can type anything in bold, italic or underlined with a word processor, the mastering of complex styles in it will require a rather small fraction of that time and energy.

There’s a beauty in using a word processor, especially if one knows how to use it well. There is a beauty in using a text editor, albeit of a quite different kind. The two philosophies may conflict at times but are from being mutually exclusive.

I hope I’ve shed some light on this question, at least for people who wonder why there are people still using text editors out there. What about you? How do you write?

Happy New Year everyone!

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