Where Have All the Good Text Editors Gone?

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It seems that it’s ever my nature to be willfully disobedient. I know Mark said that there’s no room for new text editors, and I know how much respect I – and most of the folks I know – have for Mark, so it should have been fairly cut and dry: stick with the text editor I had. Gedit, that would be, in case you’re scoring at home.

Now in truth, there’s nothing terribly wrong with gedit. It’s relatively lightweight, it supports syntax highlighting for the few languages I’m likely to use, has a respectable plugin architecture, and does everything you’d expect a text editor to do. But in truth, there’s nothing terribly right with gedit, at least as far as my usage is concerned.

In case some of its fans run across this, let me reiterate: gedit is a fine editor. It’s just not something I enjoyed using. Not something I felt about the way that the Mac folks do about TextMate (which as near as I can determine, will never be ported to a non Mac platform). It didn’t have that je ne sais quoi, that I don’t know what.

So over the past few months, I’ve been slowly examining my alternatives. SciTE was ok, but didn’t wow me. Eclipse got DQ’d because it’s overkill for the vast majority of my text authoring tasks; I don’t need to fire it up, for example, just to create this entry. Emacs, which I’ve never known well but used sporadically in the past, actually had the inside track because a host of folks that I know and respect from Edward to Tim swear by it. And, of course, one of my all time favorite authors is a big fan.

But here’s the problem: I’m lazy. Like, seriously lazy. The few times that I’ve tried reacquire even the modest emacs skills I’d once possessed I quickly found myself looking for other unpleasant tasks to divert my attention – not a good sign. So much as I might want to cut back over to emacs, it really wasn’t in the cards in the immediate future. Particularly since I can’t cut and paste from the client.

If I listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, this would probably be the time for me to love the text editor I was with, given that I couldn’t be with (or find, whatever) the text editor I loved. But in addition to being willfully disobedient, I’m not one to settle. So I kept looking, hoping against hope that I’d find an editor that was right for me.

A couple of days ago, I hit paydirt. Over on the TextMate blog, in a discussion concerning TextMate alternatives for non OS X platforms, someone happened to mention Scribes.

Initially, I was underwhelmed. It seemed like just (yet) another text editor – even more basic than gedit. But after a couple of days using it, I might be sold. Sold enough that I spent time last night and this morning plugging in text for Scribes’ autocomplete feature (mainly blog links and so forth, along with some Q&A shortcuts).

There’s nothing the product does that knocks you over. It’s certainly not pretty like TextMate or feature-rich like Eclipse. But it consistently does the little things that make me more productive – and more importantly – happy. The autocomplete being exhibit a: finding out how to extend that was a snap. Or the autosave, which frees me from having to name and save every file on startup lest I lose something I author. Or the fact that it eschews the traditional top menus in favor of a dozen or so simple buttons. Or the fact that the preferences page is one menu, no tabs. Aggressively simple, Scribes is. And it shows: Scribes is lighter in weight even than gedit.

Interestingly, it’s also – in the finest 37Signals tradition – a very opinionated piece of software. It rejects, for example, the traditional file management convention – tabs. While I was skeptical of this approach at first, the document switcher notion is growing on me – and Alex assures me that it’s a model that can work well. We’ll see, but that’s not a deal-breaker for me in any event.

Is Scribes the best editor available? Of course not, because that’s a very personal decision. All I know is that it’s the best I’ve found for Linux. Now if only someone would take the Scribes’ “rethink everything” approach with a mail and calendaring client, I’d be all set. In the meantime, at least I can write longer emails in Scribes.


  1. Scribes sounds cool, but if you ever find yourself “looking for other unpleasant tasks” to divert your attention, go to the command line and type ‘vimtutor’ (on a machine that has vim installed). If pure editing bliss is what you seek, nothing matches vim.

    It’s cool for the same reason GMail and Google Reader are cool, and to an even larger extent: you don’t have to leave the home row, and you can do anything you want to do ridiculously fast. It’s also eminently hackable and extendable, and vim 7 supports autocomplete.

  2. I’m going to side with Neil, Tim, and Edward (along with countless others) …


    Then again, I’ve been a user for 23 years (ouch) so perhaps, I have gotten over the majority of its learning curve.

  3. I’d kill to have something like Scribes that does rich text editing and is style-based. I like Scribes, but I very rarely do plain text anymore.

    (Tangentially, it seems odd that Scribes is in many ways code/plain-text centric: it seems like trying to convince coders to switch their tools to something else is quixotic anyway, as the almost-to-self-parodying-to-be-true vi/emacs comments above attest to.)

  4. I’ve been using Scribes for a while now and loving it – not sure why I didn’t mention it at Linuxworld.

  5. Greg: not sure i can do that. i had to use vim when i used to work on an old RISC box, and i’m even less fond of it than i am of emacs. maybe the tutor will change my mind.

    Glen: have been hearing much the same since this went live 😉

    Luis: understandable, since you’re at school. i actually do very little rich text editing anymore, with most output intended for the web.

    Paul: shame on you for not mentioning it 😉

  6. jEdit is the best editor I have tried. It is GPL editor: http://www.jedit.org

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