Moving to Linux: Tools for Writers
We writers are pretty easy to please when it comes to computing requirements. Writing can be achieved with the simplest of media: white screen, black text.
As an avid free and open source software (FOSS) advocate, I’ve spent some time over the last few years writing on the Linux platform. I’ve come to discover that it’s still an immature platform for certain folks, such as hardcore gamers or multimedia professionals. But for those who have their fun (or make their living) by putting words on (e-)paper, Linux offers a perfectly usable platform for doing everything a writer needs to do.
I’d like to introduce some of the most basic writing tools available on the Linux platform. Firstly, note that the availability of these tools may depend on your distribution, or the “kind” of Linux you run. Examples of this include Ubuntu (along with its siblings Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and others), Red Hat‘s Fedora, or Novell’s OpenSuSE. The differences between these is far beyond the scope of this (or indeed, most any other single) article. For now, just know that you can pick one, and it will likely have everything you need, but maybe not everything below.
Most writers are accustomed to working in a word processor such as Microsoft Word. But for many types of writing, a program this large is overkill. Text editors are an excellent tool for brainstorming and getting rough drafts out of your head, for two reasons:
- Firstly, many text editors tend to be pretty spartan interface-wise. There are few buttons, toolbars, or other flashing widgets to interrupt your writing. Plus, tell a Linux guru that you love your text editor, and they will respect you.
- Secondly, plain text files are about as portable a format as you are likely to find. This includes both across operating systems (e.g. Windows, Mac, Linux, and others) as well as devices (such as smartphones or Internet devices). If you begin your writing process in plain text, there are very few places you won’t be able to work on it.
There are literally too many text editors to count for the Linux platform. You could spend the next few years sifting through all of the arguments for or against two perennial favorites: emacs, and vi/vim. I’m not going to say that there aren’t many powerful features for writers in either of these programs. But I will assert that these are not the Linux text editors on which you want to cut your teeth. The following are much friendlier to the new Linux user:
- Kate: An editor for the KDE desktop, installed by default on most systems. There are many useful plug-ins you can add as well.
- Gedit: Ditto the above, only for the GNOME desktop.
- nano: An editor for the command line or terminal window, with keyboard shortcuts conveniently listed at the bottom of the screen.
- cooledit: I list this not because it is an especially capable editor, but because it is included with the Midnight Commander, an excellent clone of the old DOS Norton Commander two-pane file manager. It’s very convenient to navigate through directories and quickly modify text files from within a single screen.
Again, there are probably hundreds of these types of editors, but the above are a great start if you’re new to Linux.
If you are a writer, you know what a word processor is, and what it can do. I won’t insult you by re-stating it. Just know that most Linux-compatible word processors will do most anything you need them to do, including working with Microsoft Office formats. Popular word processors on Linux include the following:
- OpenOffice: The Writer component of OpenOffice is every bit as capable a word processor as most people will ever need. On a side note, there is no reason that everyone who owns a PC, Mac, or Linux computer should not have this installed. Go to the web site. Download. Install. Right now. Seriously. . . I’ll wait.
- AbiWord: An excellent, lightweight word processor installed on many GNOME-based desktops. This is a great choice for older systems, as OpenOffice has a reputation as something of a memory hog.
- KWord: Likewise, KWord (part of the KOffice suite from the KDE project, and commonly installed on those desktops) runs extremely light compared to OpenOffice. It has traditionally been a bit raw compared to AbiWord or OpenOffice, but I am a big fan of the KOffice Shell, which allows you to have multiple documents of different types (e.g. spreadsheet, text document, etc…) open within one window. Think of this as an Outlook for office documents.
- Ted: If your system is very old, you still have options. The word processor Ted makes AbiWord look like a sumo wrestler. Yet it still saves files to Rich Text Format (RTF), which any self-respecting, modern word processor can also use.
Did you install OpenOffice yet? I wasn’t kidding about that.
Lastly, the final step for most writing projects is layout/typesetting. This process is largely ruled by proprietary programs such as Adobe’s InDesign (for highly graphical-intensive documents, e.g. marketing materials) or FrameMaker (which excels at technical publications such as software documentation). But the FOSS world has several alternatives, as follows:
- Scribus: This program strives to be a turnkey solution to both of the aforementioned segments. I’ll be introducing Scribus in later installments.
- LyX: This application excels scientific writing with is support for highly-complex equations. LaTeX, the typesetting language around which LyX is built, was once the go-to format for nice printed materials. But other applications have since caught up with support for PDF format and the like.
Finally, to the new or potential Linux user, I should point out one thing. Any of the above applications can likely be downloaded, installed, and used free of charge. In my distribution of choice (Kubuntu), it’s as simple as opening the package manager, selecting a program, and marking it “Request for Install.” It’s called “free software” for a reason.
In the next installment, we’ll examine some tools and tricks for working with plain text in Linux.