Minimal text editors

I think I’m probably pretty late to the party, but recently it seems like there’s been a bit of an explosion in minimalistic, focus-driven text editors, especially on the Mac. The problem they’re trying to solve is a simple one; focus the writer on his or her text and remove almost all other distractions.

They all do it slightly differently but their core approach is the same: interfaces are heavily pared back and very minimal, useless visual clutter on the screen is removed, and text editing features you’re used to are almost all gone — even changing the font is impossible in some of them.

That effectively leaves you with nothing but the text. Does it work? As a seasoned procrastinator who’s prone to distraction, yes, it absolutely does! I’ve been using Byword — one of many, and I’ll list a few at the end of this post — for the last few days to write a number of plain texts. It goes fullscreen, makes the text big and that’s it. There’s nothing else on the screen for me to fiddle with, look at or otherwise waste my time.

The value of that absolutely cannot be understated.

And it’s not to say that the applications are completely featureless and can’t do anything useful with your text. Most support Markdown or MultiMarkDown, and so can format your text as you write and render it at export time. In Byword, formatting happens inline as you type with the Markdown syntax still present.

There are downsides, depending on your perspective and depending on the application. In iA Writer for example, you can’t change the background colour, font or font colour, so if like me you want light-on-dark text authoring, you’re out of luck. Most are terrible code editors in the sense that they don’t have support for language syntax highlighting, completition or other programming niceties you might rely on.

But for the job of getting everything else of your way so you can write, which is the most important function of any text editor, many of these applications are fantastic. If you’re like me and distractions on the screen are roads to productivity ruin, you could do worse than try a few out and see what you think. Be careful though; on the Mac at least, some of the applications have no trial versions and are only available on the App Store, so you’re left with user reviews and videos to figure out if you’ll like it or not, and no simple way to get a refund if it doesn’t work out.