Tech basics: An introduction to text editors

Autocorrect: the maker or breaker of an awkward situation. As smart device users, we’re certainly au fait with the ways in which software like spell checkers can protect against common (and costly) linguistic mistakes. In our technological age, most of our digital practice involves using platforms built on text editors – but, if a conversation on coding still leaves you in a cold sweat, read on.

What is a text editor?

A text editor refers to any form of computer program that enables users to create, change, edit, open and view plain text files. They come already installed on most operating systems but their dominant application has evolved from notetaking and creating documents to crafting complex code. Today, text editors are a core part of a developer’s toolbox and are most commonly used to create computer programmes, edit hypertext markup language (HTML), and build and design web pages.

Examples of commonly used text editors include:

  • Android Studio
  • Atom
  • Notepad++
  • Sublime Text
  • VS Code

Text editors typically fall into two distinct categories: line editors and screen oriented editors. The latter allows more advanced flexibility for making modifications.

What’s the difference between a text editor and a word processor?

Text editors deal in plain text, which exclusively consists of character representation. Each character is represented by a fixed-length sequence of one, two, or four bytes, in accordance with specific character encoding conventions (such as ASCII, ISO/IEC 2022, UTF-8, and Unicode). These conventions define many printable characters, as well as non-printing characters that control the flow of the text, such as space, line break, and page break. 

Text editors should not be confused with word processors – such as Microsoft Office – which enable users to edit rich plain text too. Rich plain text is more complex, consisting of metadata such as character formatting data (typeface, size and style), paragraph formatting data (indentation and alignment commands) and page specification data (margins). Word processors are what we use to produce streamlined, formatted documents such as letters, essays or articles.

Features and functions of a text editor

Basic features of a text editor include the ability to cut, paste and copy text, find and replace words or characters, create bulleted lists, line-wrap text, and undo or redo a last command. They’re also equipped to open very large files (too big for a computer’s main memory to process) and read them at speed. Whether you’re coding with Linux or text editing with a Windows PC or a Mac device, the software should be functional, reliable and easy to use.

Other platforms (preferred by software developers) offer advanced features for more complex source code editing, including:

Syntax highlighting

Reading through endless reams of code can be overwhelming and time-consuming not to mention messy. This feature allows users to colour code text based on the programming or markup language it is written in (such as HTML and Javascript) for ease of reference.

Intelligent code completion

A context-aware software that speeds up the coding process by reducing typos, correcting common mistakes and offering auto-completion suggestions for syntax errors.


An essential feature that enables users to quickly substitute longer pieces of content or code with a shortcut phrase which is great for creating forms, formatting articles or replicating chunks of information that you’re likely to repeat in your day-to-day workload.

Code folding

Also called expand and collapse, the code folding feature hides or displays certain sections of code or text, allowing for a streamlined and decluttered display – great for if you’re working on a long document.

Vertical selection editing

A useful tool that enables users to select, edit or add to multiple lines of code simultaneously, which is great for making repeat small changes (such as adding the same character to the end of every line, or deleting recurring errors).

Where and how are text editors used?

Most of us use text editors unconsciously. Almost everyone has a text and code editor built into their workflow, as they’re the engine that drive businesses all over the world. 

Developers and user experience (UX) designers use text editors to customise and enhance company web pages, ensuring they meet the needs of customers and clients. IT departments and other site administrations utilise this form of tech to keep internal systems fluent and functioning, while editors and creators use these applications to produce programs and content to funnel out to their global audience.

Going mobile: text editors and smartphones

So, where does autocorrect come in? Text editors appeal to the needs of the average tech user too, with forms of the software built into our iPhone and Android devices. 

The autocorrect feature (a checker and suggestion tool for misspelt words) is a prime example, combining machine-learning algorithms and a built-in dynamic dictionary to correct typos and offer replacement words in texts and Google searches.

A sophisticated mode of artificial intelligence, the autocorrect algorithm computes a considerable number of factors every time you type a singular character from the placement of your fingers on the keyboard to the grammar of other words in the sentence, while also accounting for phrases you currently use. The machine-learning algorithms absorb and relay back to what is documented on the internet.

Or perhaps not. To side-step the well-cited irritations of predictive text, you may have found yourself scrabbling with your settings, creating your own shortcuts and abbreviations for words commonly used in your communications. If that’s the case, congratulations. You may be more familiar with text editors than you first thought as you’ve accidentally tapped into an intelligent code completion tool!

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