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.

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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-05-23

  • Just upgraded my HTC Hero to Cyanogen 6.1 (Android 2.1). Its faster, prettier, less buggy & altogether a better experience #
  • @PMintkenDPT: @mpascoe @timothywflynn what we say and what patients hear are not always the same (I think the same thing about students) #
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  • @rachaellowe I tell all my students about @physiopedia. I really do think it’s a great resource for physiotherapists and students alike #
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