2006-06-05 1020 Linux Writing: Linux for Writers

Linux for Writers

Ask any writer about the frustrating experiences they’ve had, and close to the top of the list (after rejection letters) will be their computer. There’s something deeply distressing about seeing all your hard work go down the drain after a marathon typing session. Usually it’s after going for five hours without a save and you’ve written the best piece of work in your life.

Yes, we’ve all been there, I know. That’s the point when the temptation to take hold of the little evil box and throw it out of the highest window takes over, when white knuckles are clasped around the screen. I’ve even seen teethmarks on keyboards. It’s not pretty.

There is a solution so this malaise however, and it’s one that brings a lot of other great writing tools within reach too.

I’m talking about switching your Operating System and moving over to Linux. While it won’t stop those annoying middle-of-the-night power cuts, it will dramatically improve the stability of the computer itself. If power is an issue use a laptop or buy a UPS. Otherwise a change to Linux will kiss your lost work woes goodbye.

The most important requirement for a writer is a stable computer system. Linux gives you that, and much more. There’s no Microsoft Word, which means no Word Viruses and corrupt .doc or .dat files. It also means you can’t spend an hour playing with fonts and layout while pretending to write. I find Word more of an inhibitor to writing than anything. Maybe that’s just me. If you feel more comfortable when surrounded by tempting icons, fonts and widgets then Open Office is an excellent free alternative.

I suggest using a pure text editor though. Spend some time learning vim or emacs and the investment will be paid back in spades. Both of these editors make editing a breeze. The latest version of vim even puts squiggly red lines under spelling errors, if that’s your bag. Other than that, you’ve got an empty screen where your work is all important rather than it be sidelined and pushed down the page by a plethora of toolbars. Both of these editors make moving, marking and jumping between paragraphs a doddle. It’s possible to mark certain points in your work so it’s easy to flick between sections. The editors are controlled by the keyboard rather than the mouse, so less time is spent switching from one tool to the other; that’s one less reason o lose your focus while writing.

Writing in plain text rather than trusting some proprietary file format is essential. This means your all important words can be read anywhere, anyhow, without needed some filter or third party application that’s pretty much guaranteed to mangle your precious layout. Use a simple markup such as txt2tags and you can use the same text file to produce HTML, PDF, print-ready Postscript and a host of all other formats as and when needed. Try doing that with a Word document and be confident of the output!

For any long project, I recommend using CVS to store your work. This is a Version Control system that’s usually used for programming projects though there’s no reason why it cannot be applied to writing too. Every change to the files is logged so it’s possible to revert back steps and tag any chapters for release. This makes it easy to review and revert back a whole days’ work if you’re not happy with the output, or to hold back a chapter or two that don’t quite fit into the flow of the story. It also means that you’re never working on the original, but a copy, so if something bad does happen you’ve not lost the whole thing. If the CVS server is accessible to the outside world you can also give your proofreaders access so they can review your work as it’s ongoing. This can boost your productivity and motivation no end!

One area where some writers struggle is with character names. I use a small program called rig, the Random Identity Generator. type ‘rig’ at the command line and it spits out a random name and accurate US address and phone number. Re-run it until a name pops out that suits my need, and in it goes. That’s how most of the modern-day character names for The Grey Scribe and Tales from the Twisted Underground came about.

Add in Linux’s excellent multi-tasking and great networking and internet capabilities and you’ve got a powerhouse for writers and authors anywhere. Why not give it a try and banish those lost work frustrations for good?

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