Tools for writing

I’m always on the lookout for new tools that might help me with my writing and I like to experiment with new platforms and processes that could be useful, or even just fun. Up until now I’ve used LibreOffice as my main writing platform, although I’ve also experimented with Abiword, Calligra, Lyx and of course, Word. Of all of them, LibreOffice is what makes me happiest. However, even with LibreOffice, I still find myself getting distracted with the formatting options, rather than using my time to simply write. Lyx is the document processor that is probably best for keeping you focused on writing because it abstracts out all of the formatting options but I always felt like it was a bit like trying to kill a mosquito with a canon. A bit too much power for my needs.

This is why I’m attracted to writing in plain text, which has always appealed to me for a number of reasons, the chief one being that .txt will never go away. It will never be deprecated and operating systems will never drop support for it. There are also other reasons for liking the idea of writing in plain text, including cross-platform functionality, meaning that I’d be able to edit my work on iOS, Windows, Android, OSX or Linux. For a while, I tried Springpad but never felt comfortable with it as a writing platform (I still use it for notes, a task for which it works very well).

Recently however, I’ve come across Markdown and MultiMarkDown (MMD), which allow you to write in plain text but export to a variety of formats (primarily HTML, but with support for PDF and OpenDocument). MultiMarkDown has additional support for writers, including footnotes and tables, which are not included in the feature set of Markdown. The idea is that you write in plain text and therefore avoid the distractions that come with having the formatting options available. It’s enough to specify that a piece of text is a 1st, 2nd or 3rd level heading, or that it should be emphasised in bold or italic text, or that it is an item in an ordered or unordered list. You shouldn’t have to worry if your bullet is a circle or a square, or how far it should be indented, or what font size the heading should be. Markdown allows you to just write, and to leave the formatting up to the programme.

When I learned about Markdown I started exploring the options for clients that support it and was quite surprised to find quite a few, including some online platforms (Authorea, Editorially and Draft). I decided against exploring the online editors in any detail since one of my criteria is that I need to be able to write when I’m offline. Of course, one of the benefits of the online editors is that they are built for collaborative work, which is more complicated to do with an offline editor (you can, using Dropbox or another syncing service, but then you run into problems with versioning, etc.). I do use Google Drive extensively in my work with students and colleagues but with the understanding that when I’m working with those groups I’m always online.

I recently came across UberWriter, an open source app written for Ubuntu, which I’ve been using for a few days now and I have to say that I’m really enjoying writing with it. Not only is it “distraction free” in the sense of removing the formatting options but I’ve found that the complete lack of preferences has meant that I haven’t had to spend any time configuring it. I usually spend a lot of time configuring things so that it looks right. The user interface is minimalist and clean, making me actually want to write. I also really like the Focus mode, which greys out all of the text except the sentence I’m working on, which may not sound like much but really does help me to focus. UberWriter just works. Note: I also looked at ReText but decided that, for me anyway, UberWriter just had a qualitatively better “feel” to it.


So, my plan for now is to use UberWriter and MarkDown to create the first few drafts of my work and then export to ODT when it’s ready for final formatting and submission to journals. If they want the submission in Word, then it’s a simple process of saving to .doc.

Update: Also check out this podcast from In Beta on tools for writing. Some of the tools from this post are covered in more detail.


Lyx: separating content and style through document processing

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, mainly because I haven’t read anything interesting in that time, which is mainly because we’ve spent the past month or so gearing up for undergraduate exams.  Now that exams are effectively over, we’re marking…sigh.  Together with the exams, our department is on a writing workshop in the hope that by the end of the year we’ll each have a peer-reviewed article ready for publication.  While this is a great way to bite the bullet and get something out, it does take away time from the more interesting task of finding and blogging about cool stuff.

So it’s the weekend, I have a huge pile of scripts to mark and an article to complete for review on Monday…and here I am, working on this post.  But it’s work-related, so I don’t feel bad.  The reason it’s work-related is because I’ve recently started using a document processor for writing articles, called LyX.  A document processor differs from a word processor (like OpenOffice) in that it attempts to separate the process of writing from the process of typesetting, or formatting.

This separation of content and style is hardly a new concept but has been increasingly evident in the whole Web 2.0 hype that makes use of the idea that content wrapped in meaningful XML tags can be syndicated in almost any form and presented in almost any format.  In the early days of the web, it was also being addressed in the argument against HTML tags that described the formattin of content, rather than it’s structure.  CSS is what allowed that separation to take place, but not to the degree that XML does.  While this isn’t really the place for that discussion, I just wanted to highlight the point that the separation of content and formatting has been an issue since we started using computers to write documents (here’s a great video by Michael Wesch that demonstrates this idea really well).

The earliest word processors gave everyone the power to format content, which could be argued is a good thing because choice is important, right?  While the ability to decide text colour, font size, page margins and the thousand other options present in a word processor may be great for that letter to your mom, it’s almost meaningless when it comes to academic writing, the formatting of which is already determined by either your institution or publisher.  So when I write, why should I have to bother with formatting?

This is where LyX comes in.  By separating the writing process from the typesetting process, Lyx gives the writer the ability to concentrate on writing, rather than mucking about with trying to figure out how to insert and keep track of in-text citations and all the other soul-destroying aspects of computer-based academic writing.  It also allows you to output your document in any of the major formats you require.  For example, my institution uses the APA style of document formatting, so when I’m done writing, I literally press a button that outputs my work to a PDF document, already formatted for publication.

This post has gotten incredibly long, so I’ll end with a few links to more information if you’re interested in checking it out.  A word of warning though, if you’re not used to the idea that content and style are fundamentally different, there’s a steep learning curve when switching to something like Lyx.