Emacs with Long Lines (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 19 Feb 2007

Emacs with Long Lines

I don't like composing text documents in word processors like Open Office. Call it a quirk if you like, but I find them intrusive: they take up a lot of CPU and memory, they take up a lot of window space for stuff I don't need while I'm writing (all those margins and rulers and toolbars and such) making it hard to compare two documents at once, and they tend to have intrusive focus behavior (like popping windows to the front when I didn't ask for it).

So when I need to write a paper (or a book), I prefer to compose in a text editor like vim or emacs, something that won't get in the way of my train of thought. When it's mostly written and ready to format, then I start up the big heavyweight word processor and import or paste the text into it.

(For those of you who think I'm insane and should just live in Open Office all day, the same problem comes up for people who do a lot of composing for web applications, such as an online blog, gmail, a web forum, or a wiki, and for people who want a choice of editor for their GUI mail app.)

Fine, but that introduces a problem. See, text editors have a fixed line width (typically 80 characters, though of course you can adjust this) and paragraphs are usually separated by blank lines (two newline characters together). Word processors expect each paragraph to be one long line for the whole paragraph, and line breaks are used as paragraph breaks (but you only want one of them, not two). How do you reconcile these two models in order to paste plaintext from an editor into a word processor?

Several years ago when I first encountered this problem, I investigated solutions in both vim and emacs (oddly enough, I'm an editor agnostic and equally happy in either one).

For vim, I never did find a solution to the problem, so that settled the editor choice for me. Perhaps some vim expert can let me know what I missed.

For emacs, I found longlines-mode, a hack which lets long lines appear to be wrapped while you're editing them even though they're really not. Apparently Wikipedia has this issue and some Wikipedia contributors use longlines-mode too. (That page also has brief notes on alternate solutions.)

I used longlines-mode for a long time, and it's more or less functional, but I was never really happy with it. It turns out to have some pretty annoying bugs which I was forever needing to work around, and it doesn't solve the blank-lines problem -- you still need to delete blank lines before or after pasting.

Yesterday I was working on an essay for a class I'm taking and decided I'd had enough of longlines-mode and wanted a better solution. I poked around and chatted with the nice folks on #emacs (hoping that someone had come up with a better solution, but no one knew of one) and based on some ideas they had, I came up with one of my own.

My new method is to edit the text file normally: line breaks where they look good, blank lines to separate paragraphs. When I'm finished writing and ready to paste, I run M-x wp-munge, which calls up a very simple function I wrote and added to my .emacs:

;; For composing in emacs then pasting into a word processor,
;; this un-fills all the paragraphs (i.e. turns each paragraph
;; into one very long line) and removes any blank lines that
;; previously separated paragraphs.
;;
(defun wp-munge () "un-fill paragraphs and remove blank lines" (interactive)
  (let ((save-fill-column fill-column))
    (set-fill-column 1000000)
    (mark-whole-buffer)
    (fill-individual-paragraphs (point-min) (point-max))
    (delete-matching-lines "^$")
    (set-fill-column save-fill-column) ))

So simple! Why didn't I think of doing it that way before?

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[ 20:10 Feb 19, 2007    More linux/editors | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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