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Hi. All my current writing is over at Audacious Fox, and I'd love to show you around. Thanks for reading.

Writing Like A Hacker

Abstract: From history to English, I write all my school papers like a hacker. Using text editors without support for spell checking or formatting, I create a frictionless creative flow which allows me get my ideas out faster.

I’ve been writing for a long time, even though I’m not the best at it. Nevertheless, ever since I was a little kid, I would sit down and write stories and journal away my life. Today, however, instead of crayons and pens on paper, I type.

When most people I see sit down to write, they fire up Microsoft Word and begin typing. However, they rarely get more than a few lines before they stop. They move the cursor back a couple steps and then right-click on a bright, red underlined misspelled word. After clicking the correctly spelled version, they continue on, only to stop a couple of lines later. Without even have a paragraph’s worth of content and they are editing.

This completely kills the creative flow a writing process allows them to enter. Stopping every couple lines to fix something that has no impact on what they meant only wastes their time. It also can violently kick them out of a creative state of mind.

It’s not their fault, it’s the tool they are using. Microsoft Word is a word processor, meaning that it’s job is to alert you to every misspelling, grammatical error and let you format your final document. This is all great for when you need to format your document, but when you’re starting out with ideas, it can crush them because you get caught up in all those other things.

Hackers do it differently

Computer “hackers” aren’t all malicious individuals trying to grab your VISA digits off the local Starbucks wifi. Most of them are just like me: enthusiastic about computers and the tools we use to interact with them. Most of our tools are simple. They do one or two things, but they do them phenomenally well. While the toolsets can vary greatly between individuals, the one tool every hacker has is a text editor.

The beauty of text editors is that they are practically ubiquitous with computers themselves. Pre-installed on almost every operating system, a text editor’s default file format is the .txt (text) file extension, one of the most compatible format in the world. Working with text files, I’ve never run into the problem of not being able to open my documents on a computer other than my own.

A text editor is exactly what it sounds like and rarely anything more. It edits text and lets you do it quickly. The list of what it doesn’t do is strict:

Just text. The reason hackers love this is that it removes distraction. When I’m sitting down to write code, I want to focus on code. The color and font are irrelevant. This makes writing code incredibly straightforward - just write code. Why can’t english writers have the same benefit?

My writing process

Taking this bare-bones approach to writing code, I decided that I wanted to apply the same principle to English writing. Almost 90% of my time spent writing looks something like this:

  1. Open up iA Writer - a super-simple text editor. One font, one size, no options.
  2. Start dumping my thoughts into the page. My goal isn’t to have a nicely formatted paper, it’s to get all my ideas out and into words. My application doesn’t point out misspellings, so often I don’t even notice any of them until much later when I review.
  3. Once I’ve gotten all my ideas out, and expanded the new ones that came while I was writing, I do basic editing. Paragraph breaks, content flow and overall structure.
  4. I read the entire document a couple times, refining it each time and adding, or moving, thoughts and sentences.

When I’m done, the paper is almost done. I haven’t wasted a second being pulled backwards into my text to fix glowing red errors, or changing the font. For the entirety of my time, I’ve been writing. Once I’m done, I copy and paste the text into something like Microsoft Word to do the final touchup and spell checking. I print out the final product and I’m done.

Writing in a bare-bones text editor is like writing on pen and paper again. When I was little and, in my opinion, at my most creative, little red lines didn’t show up under misspellings in my journal. I was free to write and get out my ideas. Bringing the new digital medium back to that level allows a writer to do what they’ve been trying to do: write.

Monday, 5 March 2012