The year is 2013 and as far as I can tell, there is no good solution for word processing in Linux—at least according to my modest standards. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that some early Linux FAQs concerning word processors basically suggest that they’re unnecessary nuisances for people unfamiliar with markup languages. And while I’d happily forgo word processors all together, unfortunately, I’d have a hard time getting employers, collaborators, and publishers to agree to the suggestion. And so my search for a good open source word processor is ongoing.
In most contexts and about most things, I am a firm exponent of open source software generally and the Linux ecosystem in particular. But here is one area in which I am flummoxed. All I want are three simple things:
- To open and create MS Word-compatible comments and annotations. I may be willing to work in programs other than Microsoft Word, but I can’t count on my collaborators doing the same. If they mark up a document, or ask me for comments, it’s generally in .doc/.docx format.
- To export in a format acceptable to academic journals in the social sciences. In terms of the text itself, this generally means APA—or occasionally Chicago-style—headings, in-text citations, and references. With regard to filetype, it almost always means .doc or .docx.
- To use Emacs/*nix keybindings. The program should come with the option to use—or I should be able to implement—basic Emacs keybindings without creating horrible conflicts with other keyboard shortcuts.
This last point may seem nitpicky, but part of the joy of Linux for me is the ability to navigate my whole OS nimbly with the keyboard, and Emacs keybindings—along with vim’s—are pretty much as close as Linux comes to universal shortcuts. They’re present, or at least available, in just about every environment where one edits or works with text. And like many people who’ve used programming text editors along the lines of Emacs/vim or spent any length of time on the command line, these efficient keyboard shortcuts have ruined me when it comes to working in a word processor.
Here are the things I have tried, and how they stack up.
Comments + annotations. Until recently, comments and annotations were a bit lousy in LibreOffice, but as of version 4.0 it now has full support for MS Word annotations.
APA formatting. With formatting tools standard to pretty much any word processor and the ability to save in almost every popular document format, formatting for social science journals is no problem for LibreOffice.
Emacs keybindings. Here’s where things get sticky. Marcus Nitzschke has released a configuration file that ostensibly allows you to use simple Emacs keybindings with LibreOffice, but (a) it doesn’t always work as advertised (the CTL-B keybinding for moving back a space doesn’t work for me, even in the latest version of LibreOffice), and (b) there are conflicts all over the place. For example, CTL-A for jumping to the beginning of a line overrides the program’s existing shortcut for “select all,” and CTL-E for end-of-line overrides the program’s default shortcut for centering text. Remapping these other shortcuts only makes matters worse. For example, any alternative key combo that uses the Command/Windows/Super key is likely to conflict with one’s desktop shortcuts, and using the Alt key overrides yet more existing LibreOffice keybindings that have to be remapped in turn. All this gets messy very quickly. I imagine the person who finally and successfully remaps every LibreOffice shortcut to make it compatible with Emacs keybindings will find their online tip jar very full within a matter of hours. Comments + annotations. While it’s on the roadmap, Words sadly does not support MS Word-style comments and annotations.
APA formatting. Like LibreOffice, Words does a fine job when it comes to APA style and the creation of numerous document types.
Emacs keybindings. Admittedly, I haven’t searched very hard, since the annotations problem prevents me from using Words anyhow, but I’ve yet to find a good Emacs keybindings solution for this application. Comments + annotations. AbiWord supports comments, but it has its own unique system for comments and annotations that never seems to play well with MS Word.
APA formatting. Again, AbiWord does a fine job when it comes to APA style and the creation of numerous document types.
Emacs keybindings. Of all the Linux word processors, AbiWord is, surprisingly, the only one I’ve found that has built-in, out-of-the-box support for Emacs keybindings. If its system for comments and annotations were a bit more standard and more compatible with MS Word, I’d happily use it.
Now, you may ask, if I love Emacs so much, why don’t I use it as my word processor? Well, the answer is I’ve tried. Specifically, I’ve tried to use Emacs’ various TeX/LaTeX modes, as well as Org Mode‘s export features. While keybindings obviously cease to be an issue in these scenarios, other annoyances quickly become apparent.
Oh, to be a computer scientist, a mathematician, or a physicist, whose communities happily accept TeX files. Unfortunately, the whole point of TeX appears to be to allow folks who’re comfortable with Emacs and other programming editors to create beautifully typeset documents, while avoiding having to use a word processor altogether. Unfortunately for me, this means that reviewing MS Word comments, or exporting a TeX file to .doc/.docx format is a pain, and—for TeX’s core user base—beside the point. So, even though it’s relatively simple to create an APA-formatted TeX document, it’s hard to commute it into a file format that collaborators or social science journals will accept.
Org Mode is pretty awesome in that it allows you to write entire articles in Emacs and then export them in a format that can be opened in a word processor. It even works with a common citation manager. Unfortunately, it won’t as easily open or allow you to review comments on a document created in a word processor. What’s more, Org Mode’s core function is outlining, and an Org Mode document wants, with all its heart, to be exported in an outline format. It’s theoretically possible to override this behavior by editing the document’s settings, but Org Mode’s word processor compatibility still seems to be in its infancy and I’ve yet to be able to successfully configure a document such that it didn’t need a ton of reformatting after having been exported as a word processor document.
In short, I’m frustrated. If all you’ve ever used is Microsoft Word, you could probably make the jump to LibreOffice without skipping a beat. But once you’re hooked on those damn Emacs/shell keyboard shortcuts, it’s surprisingly hard to live without them.
So what word processor do I use? Sadly, in this one area I’ve forgone Linux and open source. I use Apple’s Pages. Ironically, despite the fact that Apple has gleefully blown up tons of Unix defaults, Pages (and other Apple software) support all the basic Unix keybindings, while open source word processors mostly fail miserably in this area.
If you have the solution here, please let me know. If there’s a Linux word processor that meets my three simple requirements, I’ll be immensely happy to be proven wrong.