Writing about the software that I use to write

Note: I started writing this post more than a year ago and have regularly pushed it back in the queue. It began as a list of text editing software that I thought might be useful for people who are stuck using MS Word but has since grown beyond a simple list.

I like to think that I write a lot. I’m not nearly as prolific as I’d like to be but I think I do a decent job of getting words onto the page, either here on the blog, journal articles, research proposals, lengthy emails to students, conference presentations, or notes in workshops I attend. I thought I’d give an overview of the different places I write because I know that many of my colleagues think that Microsoft Word is the only option, which makes me sad.

Web-based editors

There is a certain appeal to the idea of writing tools that are web-based. They’re always up-to-date, you don’t have to worry about backing up or even saving, and they don’t burden you with too many features that you’ll never use. By and large, they get out of the way and let you write. Of course, the downside is that you have to be online to use them, which isn’t always possible.

The first service I tried was Draft. It has some amazing features (great for productivity, rather than power), is regularly updated and has a really nice UI that gets out of the way when it’s not needed. My only concern is that the offline access isn’t entirely intuitive and is still under development. I tend to use Draft to get the ideas out of my head and onto a “page”. It has a really minimalist interface, and with the browser in full screen mode, I can just write without any distractions. Once I’ve put as much as I can into Draft, I export the document as a plain text file and either move it into a desktop editor or something like Google Drive (if it’s something I’m going to share with others).

Draft aims to not only provide you with a writing service, but to help make your writing better.
Draft aims to not only provide you with a writing service, but to help make your writing better.

I should probably also mention the Google Drive app, which runs on Android and iOS devices, as well as through the browser. While Google has made enormous improvements in the file management features of Drive and the new Docs has done a lot for offline access, native editing of Word documents and collaborative writing, it sometimes feel like it’s trying to kill a mosquito with a cannon. However, if you need your writing editor to do heavy lifting, then Drive and Docs may be good choices for you.

I use Google Docs / Drive regularly as part of various collaborative research projects I’m involved in, as well as some classes that we team teach. While I think it’s probably best in class when it comes to collaborative writing and editing because of the range of services (Docs, Sheets, Forms and Slides), the online requirement can be problematic. The early versions of the Docs app on iOS and Android were also a bit clumsy. However, Drive is constantly getting better and it is now a service that I really can’t live without.

Google-Drive

Desktop editors

I also do a lot of more formal writing for research projects and for that I have always used a combination of LibreOffice and Dropbox to sync between machines. However, there’s a growing movement among academics who are switching from writing in Microsoft Word (or LibreOffice) and simply using markdown and plain text editors. If you’re thinking that, as an academic, Word has features that you absolutely must have, it seems that with a little bit of thought, you can avoid it completely.

I’ve also worked with Focuswriter, Gedit, and ReText on Linux, and MarkdownPad on Windows. They’re great text editors (as opposed to word processors) that I use almost solely for the initial stages of my academic writing and I’ve switched almost entirely to text-only editors for the original drafting of my work. One of the huge advantages of using text only is that I can edit any document on any device. Dropbox keeps them all in sync and every device can edit text. I do however, still use LibreOffice for the final editing of documents.

As you can see, Gedit is a very simple text editor.
As you can see, Gedit is a very simple text editor.

I should also note that I recently moved all of my note-taking to Evernote. What I really like about Evernote is that it has native desktop and mobile clients, as well as being browser-based, which means I can use it anywhere to capture almost anything.

Mobile editors

On mobile devices it’s a bit more complicated because there are literally hundreds of options. Also, the tools that are available for mobile are often not cross-platform, which means you really do have to go with text editors. I wanted something that integrated with Dropbox – which is where I keep all of my writing – and that allowed me to edit in plain text. Without going into the details of all the writing apps I’ve installed (and subsequently uninstalled), I finally settled on Plaintext on the iPad and Jotterpad X on my Nexus 7 and HTC One X. They’ve got the right balance between useful features that make writing easier and light enough that I can just write and not get distracted with features.

JotterpPad X running on an Android tablet.
JotterpPad X running on an Android tablet.

Something that has become very clear to me while writing this post is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between a desktop, web-based or mobile writing app. Services like Drive (with it’s associated Docs, Sheets and Slides) are easily accessible across all three, and with the offline access available in Chrome and on mobile, it’s hard not to think seriously about moving there altogether.

Microsoft ignoring standards?

It seems as if the beta release of MS Outlook 2010 has stirred up some controversy around it’s decision to continue using Word’s rendering engine to display HTML emails.  This hasn’t gone down too well in some parts of the community, with some groups of people struggling to accept the fact that MS doesn’t care about standards or their customers.

I hope that MS continues this trend for as long as possible, because the more people who understand that an open and transparent ecosystem benefits everyone, the less likely they are to use proprietary software.