Learning to Edit Plain Text
by Lindsay McLeary
What is Plain Text?
When you write a document in Microsoft Word – or some other word processors – you are editing formatted text – text which contains bold, underline and italics. Although you can’t see it, documents like these actually contain hidden information (code) that is processed by your word processing program – which determines how text is displayed.
Plaintext files don’t have all that hidden code. (Well, technically, they have a little bit of formatting code – but very little.) Plain text files require very little processing in order to display the text encoded in the file. For this reason, text files can be displayed by almost any text editor or word processor.
Plain text files are almost universal in programming; a source code file containing instructions in a programming language is almost always a plain text file. Plain text is also commonly used for configuration files, which are read for saved settings at the startup of a program.
Plain text is the original and ever popular method of conveying e-mail. HTML formatted e-mail messages often include an automatically-generated plain text copy as well, for compatibility reasons.
Text editors are programs specifically designed for editing plain text. Although you could edit a text file on a word processor (e.g. Microsoft Word or, OpenOffice or Mac’s Pages), the text editors employed by programmers and web designers have specific features which are extremely useful in organizing and manipulating the data (text) contained in a plain text file.
These features include optional line wrap, syntax highlighting, auto-indentation and advanced search/find/replace. Some html editors offer the option of viewing a work in progress on a built-in web browser. Source code (programming) editors can often text your code as you write it and warn you if you’ve made a mistake that would cause your program to fail.
Choosing a Text Editor for Mac
Extremely powerful text editors (those with a lot of features) can be expensive; they can cost upwards of $50. Luckily, a beginning programmer/coder doesn’t really need a complicated/powerful text editor. In fact, complicated text editors can really confuse beginners, since they contain features that beginners (and even some pros) never use.
It is best to start off with a relatively simple text editor and work your way up.
TextEdit can open and edit formatted text files, such as Microsoft’s DOC format, rich text files and OpenOffice XML. However, it can also be configured to edit plain text files – see a tutorial here. Also, it comes for free with Mac OSX (awesome.)
Smultron is the best text editor for beginners. It has a really simple and uncomplicated design. Nevertheless, it has the ability to preview html files in a built-in web-browser, syntax highlighting, and tabs. The version linked here is free; however, it is a bit old and doesn’t have any supporting documents from the person who initially developed it. The newest version of Smultron is only five bucks, and is well-worth it if you’re really serious about learning to code.
Lot’s of people like Text Wrangler. I gotta admit, it’s pretty hardcore for a free application. Plus it’s got lots of support from the people who make it. However, I remember that it was a bit too complicated for me when I first started writing code.
Coda is an awesome application for building websites. It caters to old pros and ambitious n00bs who want a powerful text editor and still want to write html ‘by hand’. It uploads files, displays website previews, supports css editing, and allows access to the terminal. Unfortunately, it’s also a hundred bucks.
TextMate is a powerful but slightly expensive ($50) text editor that is highly configurable. Most of it’s totally rad features, however, will not be of benefit to noobs. I only mention it here because it’s the text editor that I use (and have come to love).
If you own a mac and are serious about learning to code, just cough up the five bucks to buy the newest version of Smultron.