Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Vim a la Mode

Thanks to Tom Chandler, I now know that I am not crazy, just a little late to the game. It turns out that the terrific text editor Vim does an awful lot of what I have in mind for Wred, but best of all, Vim has been around for almost a quarter-century and has a dedicated and innovative user community to support it. I feel like the prodigal copywriter who has just been shown the way home. Thanks, Tom!

I am going to try using Vim as my text editor of first resort for a while, and hopefully I will be able to develop a basic competency in its editorial commands. I will try to be realistic; there’s a lot to learn. But I think that with a few months of daily use I can get familiar enough with it to know whether it is allowing me to write and edit in a more fluid fashion that suits my style — the whole reason for proposing Wred in the first place. If Tom’s experience with Emacs is any indication, I can expect good things.

The two philosophical goals behind Wred, however, remain:

  1. Modeless writing and editing
  2. Universal application

In Vim, you have to toggle between writing and editing modes. Granted, it’s a single keystroke each way, and I’m guessing that after a while that probably becomes pretty invisible. So that’s probably a minor issue at best.

But it’s the second point that is the nirvana of the Wred approach. I’m looking for something that lets me use these commands in whatever app I’m using, whether it’s composing an e-mail or writing a blog post or banging something out in Word or Nisus Writer Pro. The model here, as I’ve said before, is TextExpander. It’s always running in the background, allowing me to type my shortcuts no matter what app I’m using. That means that I’m always thinking in TextExpander-speak. I have a pretty big TE shorthand vocabulary that I use for regular writing, and because of TE’s ubiquity, that shorthand has become my default “language” when writing digitally. I’d like to have the same thing happen to my editing vocabulary. Being able to use Vim’s command-mode key bindings everywhere would let me get there much more quickly than if I am only able to practice them in the Vim app itself.

Vim can handle many file types, of course, but that requires you to open the file in Vim in order to use its command-mode editing features. That kind of stovepiping is so 1997. We don’t live in a world where we have to make the content go to the app anymore. We can now make the apps go to where the content is. Here’s a none-too-hypothetical example of why I need that:

Our hero Paul is working on a complex layout in Word that requires footnotes and section breaks and field codes and all that good stuff. The text — which, of course, was composed in Vim because Paul is a super-stud — is all locked down (because in this alternate reality, Paul’s client understands that you always, always lock down the text before you move into to the formatting and layout). Now, Paul is almost done with the layout, but then suddenly the product specs change and the client comes back to Paul — groveling apologetically and begging his indulgence — with some last-minute substantive revisions to the text.

If this was 1997, Paul would have to yank the text into Vim, do the edits, paste it back into Word, and reapply all the Word formatting. But since we’re in modern-day-amazeballs-world, Paul simply command-modes the heck out of it right there in Word, thereby saving the client money and himself precious, precious time, and everybody ends up happy, the client makes Paul the President of Spacetime, and The End.

So the Wred strategy at this point involves learning Vim and getting comfortable with it, while trying to convince people of the benefits of an app that would let people use Vim commands anywhere.

Unless someone’s already got that covered, too. I wouldn’t be surprised; like simultaneous writing and editing, it’s a really good idea for people who work that way.

Categorised as: Wred

Comments are disabled on this post


  1. I’ll take the credit now, but I don’t want the blame later when you wake up high in a tree, laptop propped on the branches, the ground beneath you littered with fruit pits and fecal matter.

    Programmer’s text editors can do that to you.

    Your quest for universal access to an editor isn’t new. It’s why many people manage their email (and newsgroups, and web browsing, and Twitter, and to-do lists, and…) within Emacs.

    Vim isn’t quite the operating system Emacs is, but it sure edits text nicely. Even sci-fi novelist Charlie Stross can’t quite free himself from Vim (and he’d love to use Vim’s editing power within Scrivener)

    Of course, writing and editing is one thing. Putting the words into a usable format (for clients, publishers, editors, etc.) is another. I ended up using Markdown and converting it via Pandoc (a command line conversion tool) to get whatever format I needed.

    Good luck with this one. You’re going to need it.

  2. sottovoce says:

    Day Six: I’m making slow but steady progress on learning Vim. The neighbors still don’t suspect that I’ve moved into their tree.

    I like Vim in principle and ever more so in practice. Though I know that I’ll never use about 90% of its power for my piddly little text-editing needs, that’s OK with me.

    I found a fairly expensive ($99) Vim emulator for Word called ViEmu (Windows-only, unfortunately for me). Should I ever get to that point, I may try it. But even so, I’d hate to have to buy a plugin for every writing app that I use. The more I use Vim, the more sensible the idea of Vigor* (my hypothetical universal Vim utility) becomes. At least to this aspiring tree-dweller.

    * = Vi Global Operator Resource

    • Sublime Text and Atom editors both offer a Vim “emulation” mode, which might moderate the learning curve a little.

      Between Emacs, Pandoc and the Firemacs plugin for Firefox, I’m using Emacs editing keybindings a good 90% of the time.

      It’s that last 10% that rankles. Most of that time is spent in LibreOffice (my MS Word stunt double) editing documents returned from clients.

      Which is why I’m looking hard at services like Draft. Draft forces a new interface on clients (which doesn’t make them happy), but offers the benefit of the online-friendly Markdown language and a One True Source Of The Truth document model that is a lot easier on the writer than multiple MS Word docs.

      In other words, I’m trying to force my narrowly defined editing perspective on the world at large. I’m sure it’s going to work out perfectly for me.