Tightly Controlled Textareas β€” Building solid plain text editors in React

If you have done React for a while, there is a slim chance that you would have missed the concept of Controlled Components.

🍹 A Controlled Components' Refresher

As a refresher to what they are, let's take a look at a controlled textarea component. The source of the truth for the state of the content is managed by the parent component of the textarea.

As such, the code looks something like below:

import React, { Component } from 'react';

class ControlledTextarea extends Component {
  constructor(props) {
    super(props)
    this.state = { content: '' }
  }

  onChange = (event) => this.setState(
    { content: this.textarea.value },
  );

  render() {
    return (
      <textarea
        ref={c => { this.textarea = c; }}
        value={this.state.content}
        onChange={this.onChange}
      />
    );
  }
}

Simple, right? This serves us well when all we care about is the text content. But can the above textarea component, be used to serve as the backbone for a good/solid text editor?

πŸ€” The case for the need of a better model

Imagine that we are building a plain text editor for writing markdown. Imagine that we have an operation which can turn a selected string of characters (Hello in the following screenshot) into bold text.

That would mean wrapping the selection with **! So if we perform the said operation β€” turning selected characters to be bold β€” successfully, then the result would look like the following!

If we were to implement this with the above ControlledTextarea component, without changing the component itself; what we would have is a very smelly implementation of a plain-text markdown editor β€” manually calculating the selection offsets from the DOM, and then updating them back to reflect the new editor state...

We definitely need something better!

πŸ‘Œ Defining the model for a solid text editor

In 2014, Nick Santos, an ex Medium engineer, has written a brilliant article on why the native contenteditable is a terrible framework for building rich text editors!

Among other things in the article he leaves us with a model for building solid rich text editors β€” which could be summarised in the following three statements!

  1. We should be able to represent the entire editor state through a data model.
  2. The data model should have a well defined set of edit operations.
  3. The data model should have a one-on-one map to the DOM.

This is in context of a rich text editor, but I say it can also be applied for building plain text editors! Let's see how!

Statement 1

We should be able to represent the entire editor state through a data model; which includes selection state.

This is simple, we will just add an extra property to the state object.

this.state = {
  content: '',
  selection: { startOffset: 0, endOffset: 0 }
};

Statement 2

The data model should have a well defined set of edit operations.

This is also easy, we just update the state whenever there's a new { content, selection } object.

Imagine that we have a string of characters all selected β€” Hello β€”, and we want to turn them to bold:

The state for the above representation of the editor would be:

{
    content: "Hello",
    selection: { startOffset: 0, endOffset: 5 }
}

Now all we have to do is pass a corresponding new object reflecting that bold has been added to the selected characters:

{
    content: "**Hello**",
    selection: { startOffset: 2, endOffset: 7 }
}

Imagine that there is a utility function called boldTokenAdder which does this for us, then our setState call would look simply like below:

const newState = boldTokenAdder({ oldContent, oldSelection });
this.setState(newState);

...which would be represented in the editor as:

Statement 3

The data model should have a one-on-one map to the DOM.

This is a bit tricky, not tricky per se, but there's a bunch of code that needs to be written, to make this seamless.

The content part is easy; but we also have to substantiate the claim that our state as the source of truth for selection is actually a truth.

For achieving this, first we need to make sure that every mouse click, every keystroke, all selection events, and all focus events account for a change in selection; and the following is the code which does just that using corresponding event listeners, when the component mounts!

constructor(props) {
  super(props);
  this.state = {
    content: '',
    selection: { startOffset: 0, endOffset: 0 }
  };
  this.selectionUpdateEvents = [
    'select',
    'click',
    'focus',
    'keyup'
  ];
}

selectionUpdateListener = () => this.setState(
  { selection: this.getSelection(this.textarea) }
);

componentDidMount() {
  const addEventListeners = () => this.selectionUpdateEvents.forEach(
    eventType => this.textarea.addEventListener(
      eventType,
      this.selectionUpdateListener
    )
  );
  addEventListeners();
}

componentWillUnmount() {
  const removeEventListeners = () => this.selectionUpdateEvents.forEach(
    eventType => this.textarea.removeEventListener(
      eventType,
      this.selectionUpdateListener
    )
  );
  removeEventListeners();
}

We will also have a dedicated update function β€” updateTextarea β€” which ensures selection state is updated, along with the content, when changes are made to the editor.

We will also hook our original onChange function to use updateTextarea.

updateTextarea = ({ content, selection }) => {
  const updatedContent = content || this.textarea.value;
  const updatedSelection = selection || this.getSelection(this.textarea);
  this.setState(
    { content: updatedContent, selection: updatedSelection },
    () => this.setSelectionToDOM(this.textarea, updatedSelection)
  );
}

onChange = (event) => this.updateTextarea({
  content: this.textarea.value,
  selection: this.getSelection(this.textarea)
});

this.textarea in the above piece of code is a ref to the corresponding textarea component instance!

<textarea
  ref={c => { this.textarea = c; }}
  value={this.state.content}
  onChange={this.onChange}
/>

getSelection (from textarea in the DOM), and setSelectionToDOM are helper functions that ensure a sync between what our state reports, and what the actual DOM has to say about the textarea's selection.

getSelection = (textareaRef) => ({
  startOffset: textareaRef.selectionStart,
  endOffset: textareaRef.selectionEnd,
});

setSelectionToDOM = (textareaRef, selection) => {
  textareaRef.selectionStart = selection.startOffset;
  textareaRef.selectionEnd = selection.endOffset;
}

As you can see, if we don't pass either of the content, or the selection to updateTextarea; the corresponding values are derived from the DOM.

const updatedContent = content || this.textarea.value
const updatedSelection = selection || this.getSelection(this.textarea);

That's it! Lo and behold, we have a tightly controlled textarea!

πŸ’” Problems ? Yes β€” Broken Undo

Undo/Redo would be broken when we solely use updateTextarea function to update the text editor; because we are not updating the textarea through a onChange's event.

But fret not, since the entire source of truth is managed as a state, we can put the state of the component through a super lightweight undo manager like this β€” github.com/fatman-/easy-undo β€” and have corresponding key bindings (Ctrl+Z | Cmd+Z / Ctrl+Shift+Z | Cmd+Shift+Z) in the text editor to use the said undo manager for undo/redo, instead of the native undo/redo!

❀️ Complete Code

The following could be further optimised, but as PoC the following works! Note that the following implementation doesn't (yet) have the custom undo manager!

import React, { Component } from 'react';

class TightlyControlledTextarea extends Component {
    constructor(props) {
        super(props);
        this.state = {
            content: '',
            selection: { startOffset: 0, endOffset: 0 }
        };
        this.selectionUpdateEvents = [
            'select',
            'click',
            'focus',
            'keyup'
        ];
    }

    selectionUpdateListener = () => this.setState(
        { selection: this.getSelection(this.textarea) }
    );

    getSelection = (textareaRef) => ({
        startOffset: textareaRef.selectionStart,
        endOffset: textareaRef.selectionEnd,
    });

    setSelectionToDOM = (textareaRef, selection) => {
        textareaRef.selectionStart = selection.startOffset;
        textareaRef.selectionEnd = selection.endOffset;
    }

    componentDidMount() {
        const addEventListeners = () => this.selectionUpdateEvents.forEach(
            eventType => this.textarea.addEventListener(
                eventType,
                this.selectionUpdateListener
            )
        );
        addEventListeners();
    }

    componentWillUnmount() {
        const removeEventListeners = () => this.selectionUpdateEvents.forEach(
            eventType => this.textarea.removeEventListener(
                eventType,
                this.selectionUpdateListener
            )
        );
        removeEventListeners();
    }

    onChange = () => this.updateTextarea({
        content: this.textarea.value,
        selection: this.getSelection(this.textarea)
    });


    updateTextarea = ({ content, selection }) => {
        const updatedContent = content || this.textarea.value;
        const updatedSelection = selection || this.getSelection(this.textarea);
        this.setState(
            {
                content: updatedContent,
                selection: updatedSelection
            },
            () => this.setSelectionToDOM(
                this.textarea,
                updatedSelection
            )
        );
    }

    render() {
        return (
            <textarea
                ref={c => { this.textarea = c; }}
                value={this.state.content}
                onChange={this.onChange}
            />
        );
    }
}
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