Open Source Musings The thoughts, ideas, and opinions of an open source guy

Using Atom, from a non-developer's perspective

Atom text editor logo

I’ve used a number of text editors over the years, on multiple operating systems and for many, many purposes. While I’ve been mainlining gedit and Emacs for the last several years, I’ve also been test driving some editors of a more recent vintage. It’s not that I’m obsessed with finding the perfect text editor — I know it doesn’t exist. It’s just that some editors have caught my eye or have been recommended by people whose opinions I value.

The one I’m finding very useful at the moment is Atom. Developed by the folks at GitHub, Atom is a text editor that’s modern, approachable, yet hackable to the core. Being from the forges of GitHub, Atom is designed for developers. That’s pretty obvious from the moment you start it up. And you might be wondering why does a writer like a coder’s editor so much? Atom is a very flexible and useful tool for writers.

Here are my thoughts about Atom after using it for close to a year.

Focusing on writing

As I mentioned earlier, Atom packs a lot of features for coders. Since my primary use for Atom is writing — articles, blog posts, draft chapters of books, and the like — I ignore anything that doesn’t help me do what I need to do. I just fire up Atom and use it to write. OK, I do use Atom to occasionally write a Python or shell script, or do some work with HTML or PHP. But that’s no my main reason for using the editor.

Sure, you can write using any text editor no matter how simple or complex it is. Atom, though, does have a few features writers will find useful, especially if those writers work in Markdown. The first of those is a built-in Markdown previewer. Just press CTRL+Shift+M to open a preview tab.

Atom's Markdown preview

The built-in spelling checker underlines mis-spelled words. To correct them, press CTRL-Shift-: to pop up a list of corrections.

Choosing a correction for a mis-spelled word

That’s all pretty basic stuff. But what makes Atom really useful to writers? Its packages

The power of the packages

Packages are Atom’s plugins. They extend the editor’s capabilities. Atom has close to 3,000 of them. Obviously, you won’t be using them all. Or even a fraction of them. Here are the ones that I find most useful when writing:

  • nvAtom, a note-taking tool based on Notational Velocity (a popular Mac application)
  • Typewriter, which turns Atom into a distraction-free writing tool
  • Clean2, another distraction-free plugin
  • wordcount, which displays the number of words and characters in a document in the bottom left of the Atom window
  • markdown-writer, a suite of commands that makes working with Markdown (and Jekyll) easier
  • latex-plus, which lets me compile LaTeX files with a couple of keystrokes

To install a package, select Edit > Preferences and then click Install on the Settings tab.

Installing a new package

Type the name of the package you want to install, or some keywords, in the search box and press Enter. When you find the package, click Install. Atom does a ll the work for you. You might have to restart the editor to get a package to work.

Is Atom for everyone?

Of course it isn’t. If you expect it to be and are disappointed, then the problem lies with you and not Atom (or anything else). I know writers who won’t be interested in it. I know software developers who aren’t huge fans of it, either. But that’s OK. No one says you have to use, or like, everything that you come across.

Atom has grown on me. I’ve adapted to it, and found a good rhythm when I use it. Atom does what I need it to do. That’s really all that matters.

Thoughts? Let's start a conversation on Twitter.

Did you enjoy this post or find it useful? Then please consider supporting this blog with a micropayment via Liberapay. Thanks!