Coffee and Plain Text

by Neil Fein

Every so often, in my job as an editor, I receive a manuscript that uses multiple fonts. This may seem like a small thing. Using a different font for chapter headings, or setting a computer’s error message in Courier isn’t that much of a big deal. I haven’t seen a manuscript in comic sans, or one printed in four colors. But it’s apparent that some writers like to spend time on the visual presentation of their words, despite being warned many times to stick to one of the several versions of standard manuscript format, which requires writers use Times or Courier throughout.

In the 90′s, I tried to learn to program and failed. I wanted to be a guy who conjured up genius programs out of my head and into the then-fledging internet. I wanted to stay up until 2am, drinking black coffee while my fingers typed out lines of code. I bought tutorial books, a copy of the student edition of Code Warrior, the current Big Kahuna of development tools. I gave that up after a few years of not being able to wrap my head around the kind of analytical thinking good code monkeys need; but there’s one holdover of that era. I prefer writing in BBEdit, a programmers’ text editor that has no option for formatting or even changing the size of the text.

It is very nice that BBEdit is HTML-savvy, and this comes in handy when I’m marking up text up for the web. BBEdit also understands JavaScript, multiple flavors of C, Python… the company maintains a laundry list of computer languages the program understands and can display in a more pleasing and easily-readable manner. Using BBEdit to write a blog post is like buying a Steinway piano to play Chopsticks, but it makes me happy.


BBEdit, with source code highlighting turned on.

It’s not a new thought that word processors have more features than a writer needs. I always thought writers formatting their manuscripts to look more book-like were spending too much time fantasizing about holding the book in their hands, and not enough time thinking about words, characters, and stories. I’ve softened that attitude a little, although I still strongly advise clients to stick to standard formatting.
On some level of my mind where I’m still in my twenties, I’m a frustrated programmer. When I’m not getting anywhere with my work, one way to distract myself from cruising the net is to go and make some good coffee. Maybe I’m reaching, but I sometimes wonder if my coffee habit is related to my become-a-programmer experiment when I was younger.

(In its defense, BBEdit counts words as I type, the find-and-replace is second to none, and alerts me when I forget to close an HTML tag.) Freeing myself of the temptations of Microsoft Word’s formatting features is remarkably freeing.

Given that my affection for a programmer’s tool certainly is a holdover from those days, I find it hard to be too critical of new writers who set their chapter headings in a tasteful sans-serif font. They, too, know how they want their words to look: In their case, they should look like a well-designed book.

But I think that some writers might consider trying and failing to learn how to program.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He also plays acoustic guitar in the bands Baroque & Hungry, and The Trouvères.

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4 Comments to “Coffee and Plain Text”

  1. I write everything in Microsoft’s Notepad. It’s strictly an ASCII editor. NO bells. NO whistles. Just you and words. It will do a search and replace, and word wrap, but that’s about it. You CAN save text as. hmtl files, but I like it just because there’s no temptation to organize ANYTHING. Just you and words, and after all what you really need to do as a writer is get words on paper. So to speak. :)

  2. I love helvetica.

  3. I’m not trying to be impertinent or superior or some sort of grammar nazi but I wanted to point out a sentence in the blurb that didn’t make sense to me. “If you’re written a manuscript or are close to finishing…” have I misunderstood something? Should this say “if you’ve”? Sorry. I just thought. Well. Since it’s editing. Please don’t take this the wrong way.

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