The C-x C-f Writing Method

Sep 17, 2016 | Declarations, Thoughts | 2 comments

(sometimes I use c-x 4 f, too…)

There comes a time in every writer’s life whereupon they must stand atop the nearest soapbox, milkcrate, or indefinite cubic object to declaim how their style of writing is THE BEST . This is rather like pianists and saxophone players arguing about their respective instruments, being that neither is in the category of the other. So too, writers.

I am in the category of pantsers, who have forsaken the art of outlines in favor just writing the freaking book. (YEAH!~)

A technique, as explained by Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing into the Dark, is to detach oneself from the linear flow of the text, and write what one desires at that moment. I have taken to this technique so well it has metamorphosis into a kind of meta-writing.

For instance, I did not even write the previous paragraph, or sentences within, in a single continuous write, but swapped between it and several others at a time.

It was in applying this technique to a novel-length project that difficulty arose. Initially the entire work was in a single document, but as it lengthened, I began relying on LibreOffice’s find feature, until the number of fragments had become unmanageable. Further, they had become unstuck in time, and without the desire to write a surrealist if nihilistic masterpiece I would have to perform increasing work to sort it out, like an algorithm with a non-linear overhead increase.

I finally split the story into pieces, and every plotline or subject had its own file, eventually to be woven into the final draft. Yet this, too, became unmanageable. I would have seven or so files open, all of which appeared identical white files with text to Ubuntu’s program switcher-thing.

It was on another project that I tried what I used for programming, that ancient and most terrible beast known and feared as GNU EMACS. (Scary!)

EMACS is an ur-text editor, from the days before windows were called windows and cutting and pasting was called cutting and pasting. For that matter, I still do not understand EMACS’s clipboard system (ahem, killing and yanking) and have been reduced to using the GUI’s buttons rather using than its incomprehensible shortcuts.

It is such incomprehensible shortcuts–which are, of course, the only practical way to interact with the ancient and most terrible beast–that allow me to write so easily. I can switch between files at any moment without even using the mouse.

Tired of writing a segment? C-x C-f.

Want to write something in another file for a moment, but one sentence? C-x C-f then C-x b.

(This is possible because EMACS does not work with files directly, but with buffers. The net result outside of theoretical technical implementation is that you can have multiple files “open”, in the exact state you left them in, but only have one in a window at a time. There is no need for an individual window for every single file)

Need to look at two files at once? C-x 4 f

Feeling fancy enough to have two windows (I’m sorry, frames) open at once? C-x 5 f

Frantically and compulsively save? C-x C-s

Save all files at once? C-x s.

With great joy now I write, for I do not even need to read what I wrote the previous session. I simply open a new file, named whatever I fancy, write, and doubtlessly open several more files within the same hour. My writing speed now reaches a steady 0.33 Hz. (No, seriously. I’ve done the math.)

The method is not perfect, and thus my soapbox declamation is limited. The project directory for my latest project contained (before I began merging them) eighty-five individual files, the shortest but a sentence. (This has proven little issue to EMACS, which has some sort of modern autocomplete plug-in that selects a file after a few characters in the name.) EMACS is still EMACS, still competing with vi for the title of ineffable old text editors. Nonetheless, it is teh awsums.

“But hey!” I hear the theoretical aggrieved reader (who, like the virtual particle in physics, exists to transmit outrage even without an audience.) “If you’ve been writing so much, how haven’t I heard of anything?”

Soon, oh theoretical aggrieved reader. Soon… (Ominous Ellipses)


  1. Before Windows 95, Emacs was the best user environment there was. It really is an entire user environment, not just an editor. But I had to give it up when my job required working in windows. I just couldn’t train my fingers to switch between the different, inconsistent keyboard layouts.

    • My EMACS theme is black with white, whereas modern editors are usually white with black, so I don’t have too much trouble switching between them. Switching between markdown and everything else has been more of a issue; I keep wanting to put _ around words to italicize.

      You’re right about it being an environment. Technically I could use EMACS even for interacting with git and listing directories, but that’s a step too far for me. I’d rather have the precision of a command line. (Which I also prefer to Ubuntu’s GUI interface for file management..)


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