Org-mode for writers
09 March, 2016 • Viktor Bengtsson • 8 minutes to read
A few years back I decided to take my writing more seriously. I had always written by hand, and had felt that my slow left-hand complemented my overactive mind, resulting in better sentences.1 But now I wanted to write more, and my slow-left hand was holding me back. I needed a software.
I couldn't settle for any old software. I was replacing a solid love for quality paper and heavy reservoir pens with something ephemeral. And while I was ready to take the step into the digital writing world, I was not ready to give up on the presence of quality in my writing life. Microsoft Word was out of the question for much the same reason that a diet which replaces fois gras with skimmed milk is doomed to fail.
Word, quite apart from being a horrid user experience, forces visual presentation into a writing process that should only be about textual content. At least in a first draft. But that wasn't my real beef with the bane of my corporate career. Word simply lacked quality2.
Luckily, George R.R. Martin was still dragging his feet on "The Winds of Winter". While checking up on his latest excuse for taking too damn long to write his books, I stumbled across an interview where he talked about his writing setup. Martin famously does all of his writing in Wordstar on an old MS-DOS computer. A wheezing setup that he has enjoyed for many(!) years. For someone picking a writing software today, this is a highly questionable option with a considerable risk of disastrous loss of work3, but the idea certainly has a particular quality.
I liked that it was nerdy. I liked the idea of a writing application that occupied all of my screen real estate. I liked the complete absence of presentation (fonts, spacing and other properties). Most of all, I liked the idea of working in plain text.4 So my search for an equivalent to Wordstar began, and ended 15 minutes later on the website of author Tony Ballantyne.
Ballantyne described his writing setup in an editor called Emacs (which I knew as a programming tool used by unwashed open-source developers) and how he used a mystical "mode" called org mode. I Googled "org-mode" and arrived on the community website. The title read: "Org mode for Emacs -- Your Life in Plain Text".
I was home.
Emacs and org-mode
Emacs was first released in 1976, and ever since it has had large user base in the programming and open-source community. The application is still in active development, with the latest major version being number 24.55. There is a graphical, "point & click" version, and an old-school version that runs in the terminal and only displays monospaced text.
What sets Emacs apart from other editors is that it is highly extensible. It is virtually a small operating system and has it's own programming language. Anyone can write apps6 to run in Emacs. Many have, but few have created a more useful tool than Carsten Dominik who created org mode in 2003.
I can think of few descriptions more succinct than the one that heads the org mode website. "Org mode is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system."
Actually, here is a more succinct description: org mode does everything.
- You can keep all work related to a project in a single file (and simply fold away the sections you don't want to see at the moment).
- Org mode is an LML (Lightweight Markup Language) and you can make your text bold, italics, insert links, make nested bullet and numbered lists, and write footnotes7 right in the text. None of these edits require clicking or moving your cursor even an inch, just write everything out in the flow of your text.
- You can capture random thoughts, errands, and snippets with a quick "Ctrl-c c", and then snap right back into your work a second later. Having one distracting thought less, and no distracting apps for remembering stuff.
- For technical writers, you can write executable code examples right in your technical documents.
- For content creators in general, org mode exports easily to Markdown.
- You can export your plain text documents directly to HTML, Word files (or OpenOffice files which can be opened in Word), PDF files (typeset with LaTeX).
- You can write presentations, and export to PDF (via Beamer).
- It is the ideal tool for implementing David Allen's GTD system.
- There is an agenda for keeping dates and appointments, automatically updated from your list of TODO's and similar notes.
- You can keep track of your habits (good or bad), ticking them off each day.
- You can do spreadsheets, with formulas, all in plain text.
- You can carry org mode in your pocket, since there are now several org mode apps (I use Orgzly).
- Emacs and org mode are both free. I like buying things, but I abhor the necessity to start any new project by making a purchase. One of the joys of writing as a creative pursuit is that it doesn't require a lot of equipment. You don't have to buy 50 pounds of clay, tubs of paint, or set up your own smithy. You really just need some paper or perhaps a cave wall.
- Plain text. If I decide to switch operating system, or if future me decides to review some old 2016 work, or if all the developers of Emacs decide to destroy the software, my files will survive. They are readable in any editor, on any computer, and in any operating system.
- Zero clutter I write in terminal Emacs. There are no buttons, no blinking notifications, no insipid dancing paperclip. There is a collection of words, my words, and nothing else.
- Focus on text If you are an illustrator children's books then I can't help you. (In fact you shouldn't even be reading this post.) But my chosen medium is text, and working in a tool that focuses solely on text helps me do the same.
- Seamless organization I love the fact that all my organizational hacks are inside Emacs, but tucked away, out of sight when I'm writing. I track my time, count my words, organize my tasks, keep birthdays and read email, all in Emacs org mode.
- Works everywhere Soon my current laptop will celebrate its third and last birthday. I have yet to own a laptop that survives into it's fourth year. I sleep easy at night knowing that whatever operating system I choose next, Emacs will run there, org mode will organize there, and my plain text words will be just as plain as ever.
- Emacs keeps my hands on the keyboard Emacs is both famous and infamous for the fact that all commands are executed with keyboard shortcuts (some of them quite long). But not having to go to the touchpad or mouse every time I want to do something has been helpful to me. I want to write, and therefore my hands belong on the keyboard.
For all the bliss that will descend into your bleak existence once you convert to the religion of Emacs (of course there is a religion!) it cannot be denied that any new user is faced with some obstacles. Emacs has a bit of a learning curve, in fact it's more of a learning cliff... with a slight overhang.
So before you set out to integrate Emacs into your own life, please consider the following advice
- If you don't enjoy tinkering, researching, and learning new tech, then Emacs isn't for you.8
- Start small: just editing, opening, and saving files. Then move on to learning about the structure of org-mode text files. I'm still learning about, and adopting new functionality. It's a great way to scratch the tinkering-itch, to head over to the org-mode documentation and learn about some feature that will help make your work even more effective.
- Leave the customization until later in the game. There are attempts to make customizing Emacs more user-friendly, but they are really just that: attempts. In reality, customization requires writing (simple) Elisp code.
Emacs is not for everyone, but for those who make the ascent up the learning curve, it is a fantastic piece of software. For me it is both writing tool and writer's fetish all wrapped up in one. I can't imagine working in any other application.
If you decide to give it a go, drop me a line to rant or rave about your experience. And don't forget to make a donation to the Orphans and Widows Fund of the Church of Emacs. Every little helps.
Finally, if there are any Emacs/elisp developers reading this, thanks for doing a great job! But please create an org-mode feature for producing word count reports along the lines of the clock tables. I have started the project myself many times, but after half an hour trying to grasp that atrocious programming language I invariably remember that I should be writing instead. Just send me an email and I'll describe what I want.
Oh, and by the way...9
I still wonder if I would write better first drafts if I went back to writing by hand. I probably would. But I would also write fewer first drafts, and I firmly believe that to advance in a craft you have to practice in volume. I'm not saying that quantity trumps quality or any such foolish thing. But when it comes to practice, quantity definitely has its place. ↩
Snobbery you say? Yes, of course it is. I'm a nerd, and all nerds are really just new versions of old snobs. Just replace the words "wines", "cigars", and "paintings", with "axes", "spells", and "magical birds" and you'll see that your 16-year old, World of Warcraft-playing son is just a newly hatched snob. I could go on about hipsters, but you get the point. ↩
Dropbox have sadly not put resources into developing an MS DOS version of their application. ↩
Being blessed with a healthy dose of self-importance, I naturally assume that my writing will be interesting to future generations. And when the archaeologists of the 2300's dig through the ruins of San Francisco (the city met a tragic end during the 5th term of President Trump) to unearth the old servers of Dropbox, they'll be able to read my plain text files just fine, while being completely stumped by your writing simply because you saved it in a complicated proprietary format. Posterity here I come! ↩
As of 2016-03-09. ↩
Not the correct term, but essentially true. ↩
Hello there! ↩
You sound like a Windows user. Have you considered Notepad.exe? ↩
This post was not written in org mode. I feel really guilty about this, and I'm attempting to relieve my guilt by tucking away this admission in a footnote to a meek line right at the end. You see I recently switched from Wordpress to a static site generated with Jekyll, which takes takes content in the form of Markdown files and makes them into beautiful HTML/CSS documents. I experimented with writing in org-mode, and exporting the files for Jekyll, but in the end it just made more sense to write Markdown directly in Emacs using Markdown mode. Sorry about that. I use org mode for everything else though! ↩