The Future of Word Processing
The Victory of the Web Paradigm
I have been searching for the perfect word processor for years, which might seem to be a strange occupation — you have Word, Pages or Libre Writer depending on your budget or philosophy, so why would anyone want anything else? Or even if you do, you have a plethora of alternative takes that may offer less than the full-blown office packs, yet can give you similar results. With the arrival of cloud computing, the list could go on endlessly: sheer abundance of such software awaits their users. Yet, the dwell in the same paradigm that I now realize has haunted my writing during these years of search: tha printed page tradition.
It seems that the rectangular, white page, with the blinking cursor, arranged as if it were a mere simulation of the sheet of paper laid out on a desk has no better alternative for most of the users, while many complain that this is precisely one of the most frightening sight one can possibly endure — how to break the emptiness of the framed object, how to live up to its perfection, its purity? Well, one can always sidestep it in the first place. Why would anyone do that? Perhaps to find one’s own way of writing, without the wieght of expectations as to format and process.
Most of the contemporary word processors are bloated with features that distract attention, and clearly derive from the tradition of the printed page. But as we are moving on to the era when writing, editing, and finally, publishing happens online, it is time we changed our methods of writing itself — it is time for the digital first composition. On the level of the interface it means a simplification of the writing tool; on the level of the logic of working mechanism it means a new paradigm.
Remember when, in a bold move, Google introduced its Documents editor (growing out of Writely by Upstartle) to its users with a completely stripped off, easy to access interface, the page overview came without an end to the page, without any pagination. The idea was that on the web there is no need to constrain the flow of writing as the dynamic display of the web page can always scroll on and on — the writer needs to stop only if s/he is out of ideas or is simply finished. Instead of seeing this the dawn of a new logic to word processing (already in place on the world wide web), the feature was considered to be a bug by most of the users. Google backed down and introduced (i.e. hacked the interface to introduce) pagination so that users be satisfied with the product.
But what is pagination used for? It is a print convention that makes sure segments of a text printed on large sheets of paper will be put in the correct sequence once cut to pages to be bound. In other words, it is help for the printers who arrange the order of the pages so that the flow of the text is preserved. However, we less and less print out texts — and even if we do, our software and printing machines will do the work: we do not need pagination at all. Especially when writing: why focus on the layout when you should work on the content first? (Note: I am not talking about DTP software or layout editing processes — I am concerned with the first stage of writing only.)
So, let us bravely do away with pages in word processing. Out goes everything else connected to it, all the layout options, margins, footers and headers, whatnot. What remains is the toolset for focusing on the text to be written: heading styles, bold, italics, hyperlinks, paragraphs, a couple of fonts to choose from perhaps. That is all we need.
And we also need to make the process of writing as seamless as possible: selecting words, sentences, parts of the text and then clicking on icons to perform styling is completely unnecessary as it breaks the flow of letters and words. It breaks the flow of thoughts. Enter writing techniques that do not require any serious study, can be incorporated in the (hyper)textual universe of the content to be born. One of these easy and comfortable, fast and correct techniques is markdown.
Markdown is a lightweight markup language, originally created by John Gruber with substantial contributions from Aaron Swartz, allowing people “to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML)”. The language takes many cues from existing conventions for marking up plain text in email. In other words, Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool (for web writers).
Its syntax is fairly simple and does not get in the way when brainstorming or letting sentences and paragraphs ooze out of one’s mind. Also, it is definitely web-proof, and as such, one can easily forget about the nauseating problems of version compatibility. If you save a .doc file, when opened in other software (or the same software with different version tag on it), will look different (I am looking at you Microsoft — and the rest as well…), breaking up pagination, styling, formatting occasionally, screwing one’s work within a moment. With markdown, however, your writing, all the styling and formatting it is capable of handling, will remain intact, no matter where you export it. Given the basic hypertextual standard of the web, a correctly formatted markdown document will look the same in all the browsers or markdown editors, come hell or highwater. Isn’t it all a writer can possibly wish for?
As is clear, this is a new paradigm, which in fact feeds on and leads back to a quite old one: it forefronts writing, putting thoughts into words, making sure your text will not be “lost in translation” among the many kinds of word processing forks. Simple, safe, straightforward: the perfect writing tool. As newer and newer cloud interfaces are coming to lure us on the web, as more and more users get fed up with over complicated, bloated distraction vehicles, the new paradigm of the simple web based writing could mean the best archive for posterity. Embrace it now.