Writing tools ~ learning from techies

The relationship between creators and their tools is an integral part of the creative process, and influences the outcome and creator equally. For the author and artist, learning to use the tools to a point where they become an extension of themselves is magical.

My son is into visual media and we regularly watch the YouTube vlogger Casey Neistat together. The entertainment factor and educational learning experience is top notch, and the style of cinematography is, for me, something unique. One of Casey’s mantras on film making is you use the equipment that will get you the best shot at the time. If you watch his episodes, the camera (whether it is a mobile phone, DSLR, GoPro, or one of his drones) is an extension of himself. He is so closely integrated with his film-making tools that they no longer appear to come between him and the shot.

For me, this is the Holy Grail for publishing: transparency of tools. All too often the tools of publishing come in the way of the publishing process. The popular tool chain used by many publishers is convoluted leaving the authors, copy editors, designers, and marketing department in virtual silos, all using different tools and multiple file formats.

I get that editors and authors have used Word for decades, maybe some remember WordPerfect, and the familiarity of the interface and settings allows them to be more productive and creative. The same goes for designers and typesetters.

At one time Casey was frustrated with his creative process. The conventional wisdom is to take a break, recuperate, reassess, and then come back rejuvenated. But, in true Casey style, he upped his game and challenged himself to do a vlog every day!

And that’s when things changed.

When you become mission critical, your assessment of your tools changes, and you experience your work through new eyes.

I needed to up my productivity when creating and converting ebooks. Dreamweaver was slow, cumbersome, with far too many distracting palettes and thingy-ma-bobs. After trialling and testing other tools, I chose brevity in the form of BBEdit, and once I had only partially mastered the software my productivity skyrocketed. Granted, I also learn’t gazillions about HTML and CSS, but that was also largely due to BBEdit helping me focus on the code.

Same happened with writing every day. I just couldn’t imagine writing in Word or Pages, saving, exporting (or copying and pasting), checking the formatting, etc. So much better to put it straight into Medium — simple, clear, right tools in the right place, publish, share. Done.

Unsurprisingly, the art and science of focused writing is no more entrenched than in software development. Good documentation of the software is vital for the users as well as the development team. When you need to document everything (write user guides, help pages, FAQ pages, and continually update all of these), every single day, you can be sure the techies will find a more efficient way to do it!

I bolded the “documentation”, “team”, and “every single day” because, in essence, this is the core of book production.

So what do techies do and use?

First up, less is more. A coder spends an inordinate amount of time with fingers on the keyboard. Every stroke counts. Taking your fingers off the keyboard to use a mouse to click on something is time not spent typing or editing, and breaks the flow of coding and writing.

Secondly, their content is in open, plain-old-vanilla ascii text format. Ok, I already hear groans about no wysiwig, layout, etc, but bear with me.

Thirdly, they use mature and open systems to work collaboratively. These systems keep track of versions of documents, so you are able to see differences (like track changes).

Fourthly, they automate to minimise mundane and repetitive tasks (e.g. building table of contents, and inserting definitions for glossary items), auto complete common words and phrases, and expand predefined acronyms for long words and phrases.

Lastly, they publish content to various output file formats from the same source document. This includes conditional publishing (you wouldn’t want to include a video in a printed book, but maybe a poster image instead with a caption).

As an example for the first point, look at the Pages interface (Word just takes ages to load) below is point and click to make text bold, change heading levels, etc. You can apply keyboard short cuts for many things but have to go and set them up and options are limited.

What if you could write and format without having to worry about the mouse, or point-and-click, and just could focus on the writing? Enter John Gruber, founder of the open markdown format:

Markdown is intended to be as easy-to-read and easy-to-write as is feasible.
Readability, however, is emphasized above all else. A Markdown-formatted document should be publishable as-is, as plain text, without looking like it’s been marked up with tags or formatting instructions. …
To this end, Markdown’s syntax is comprised entirely of punctuation characters, which punctuation characters have been carefully chosen so as to look like what they mean. E.g., asterisks around a word actually look like *emphasis*. Markdown lists look like, well, lists. Even blockquotes look like quoted passages of text, assuming you’ve ever used email.

An example of a simple markdown document would be:

# Top level heading / Head A / Chap head
A paragraph of text with a **bold** word and an *italic* word. Paragraphs of text are separated by a double line just to keep it clean and easy to read.
## Sub heading
Lists are dead easy to do and follow a similar logic to paragraphs in that the start and end of a list must be separated by an double line space.
1. list item 
2. list item
* bulleted list item
* bulleted list item

There are a number of online markdown editors that you can experiment with. Here is an example in stackedit.io


Remember the philosophy of markdown above: “Readability, however, is emphasized above all else.” Although the above editor has a preview pane, the raw text is still perfectly readable. As you become more proficient the preview pane will fall way and you will focus entirely on the writing.

Just as an aside, a fundamental concept in markdown is that content is separate from how the content looks on screen. The on-screen display of the markdown can be customised.

Over and above online editors there are many standalone apps for your computer and mobile devices which support markdown.

Electric Bookworks have an excellent guide to markdown specifically aimed at book publishing. Check out the “how markdown works” section: http://electricbook.works/guide/text/03-markdown.html#how-markdown-works.

If, or when, at some stage you have to get your content into InDesign (which uses doc, docx or rtf to import text), converting is simple. Here is an example of the very same markdown document run through the amazing open Pandoc software (http://pandoc.org/), all it took was:

$ pandoc sample.md -o sample.docx

and voila:

The sample.md doc converted using Pandoc and then opened in Word.

I am very well aware of the mind shift around the above versus just doing it all in Word. I’ve been there, but being able to fire up a text editor and keep writing is just too good event to think of going back back.

The markdown demonstrated here is one of a few “flavours” or variations of markdown. It is a format that has expanded over the years and has adapted to more and more sophisticated types of content. Markdown is more pervasive than you might imagine. Try typing a message in Whatsapp and put an “*” either side of a word, e.g. *hello*.


Web based publishing tools have adopted markdown in many flavours as the entry authoring format and web tech (HTML and CSS) has become the underlying language for publishing.

Markdown makes the interaction between you and the content. It is beautifully simple and powerful.

Authoring is only one link in the publishing chain and I will explore the rest of the process in future articles. But for now, if you are going to be authoring and editing, the markdown format provides a huge amount of leverage for a very elegant and simple open file format.