Emacs for Prose

Urpo Lankinen over at the Avarthrel Blog has a post about coming home to Emacs for writing prose—specifically novels. Although he's a longtime Emacs user, he's long been wandering in the wilderness looking for a good writer's editor. Emacs was not a contender because it lacked soft word wrapping (visual-line-mode) and didn't have a full screen “distractionless” mode. Now that Emacs 23 has these and has fixed a few other things that annoyed him, Lankinen is using Emacs for all his writing.

I'm always happy to have someone (re)discover the power of Emacs and I especially enjoyed his raving about Org mode and how it solves so many problems for him but I am a bit puzzled. I don't write novels but I know of lots of people who do and who use Emacs or Vim to do it. My books have lots of straight prose in them and I got along just fine without soft word wrap. I don't have it turned on right now and that's not because I have some ideological objection to it but simply because I don't feel the need for it.

Because I typeset my non-web writing with Troff, I put a hard break after each sentence and don't otherwise worry very much about where line breaks occur. Perhaps it's the fact that I use a markup language for typesetting rather than something like LibreOffice that makes this a non-issue for me.

I know fiction writers usually have to submit their manuscript as a .doc file so Emacs/Vim users import their text into Word or one of its siblings as a last step. Is visual-line-mode an issue for them? What do you do?

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  • Chris

    I use emacs for writing but importing into Word for publication is an issue. I generally find Word's AutoFormat feature useful in this regard. It is an issue if you have to exchange docs in Word format. Most nobody in the real world knows what to do with a plain text file. Fortunately I don't have that requirement, so can continue to write in Emacs and publish if necessary.

    • jcs

      Happily, I don't have the problem either but I know many fiction writers such as Charlie Stross, Cory Doctorow, and Neil Stephenson do their writing in Vim or Emacs and then import the result into Word. I don't know what special steps they have to take to do that.

      • Chris

        Yes, as I said they probably use AutoFormat. It's like magic, removes most hard line-breaks and tries to guess heading layout. Not perfect, but it's good enough for 90% of cases. It's features like AutoFormat that deter me from using OOffice. By comparison OOffice is just a text-editor with fancy fonts, and kind of beside the point. Emacs and Word complement each other on the other hand.

        • Actually, EMACS Org-Mode now exports to OOffice format. OOffice also has autoformat and it works quite work. So I would say that EMACS and OOffice (or LibreOffice) complement each other extremely well.

          Not wanting to get into the Libre vs MS Office wars here ... just pointing out that the alternative is most viable. If you are an MS Office fan, I'm not trying to convert you.