How do you edit documents?

This whole week has been a bit of kilter. I am sleep deprived, already falling behind schedule with my lesson plan and generally distracted. Also, I think I will have some new stories for the mostly true category – but they have to age a bit before I write them up. I originally planned to talk more about Deus Ex or write a short post about Magica but those would actually take time and effort. So I’m falling behind on my old trick – instead of me talking, I will ask a question, pepper it with some archive links and hope that the discussion thread will be entertaining.

One of the things I covered in class recently is the WYSIWYG paradigm the way it pertains to modern word processing. This is always a weird thing for me because unlike most people who teach this class, I have very strong opinions about this particular subject. I know, I know – it is a bit silly thing to be opinionated about. But this one of these things I can passionately preach about for hours – go figure. To put it plainly, I really think that WYSIWYG is a blatant lie. What you see is almost never what you get – there is just too much stuff happening behind the scenes. And I’m not talking about abstraction here – I’m talking about invisible markup that you actually have to work around to get your document to look certain way.

I often feel like we took a wrong turn somewhere on our way here. The whole “word processing must be WYSIWYG” attitude is silly. But unfortunately that’s the world we live in now. Most people don’t even realize you do not have to put up with Microsoft Office annoyances because they don’t know anything else exists. Even very internet savvy people fall into this trap, and end up posting long angry blog rants about it. They are being held back by bad habits ingrained into them by software that was designed to put up a user friendly facade, but unable to keep it up when working with complex documents. They lock up their data in proprietary and/or needlessly bloated file formats without even realizing this is not only suboptimal but also harmful.

We built these monumental software stacks with millions of features, and most of the time it is as if their primary function was to get in the way and keep you from actually getting your work done. And for what? Why on earth would we ever need anything other than a text editor to edit text?

Plain text is universal. You do not need special software to open or edit it. It does not take up much space, it can be easily searched, indexed and categorized. It does not suffer from arbitrary limitations and it won’t become bizarrely corrupted. There is a whole cottage industry built around recovering data from corrupted, unreadable or damaged MS Office files. You just don’t have the same problem with text files. At worst you may run into some encoding issues. But we have decades of experience dealing with these, and most editors have built-in tools that effectively resolve them.

There is ultimately nothing that applications such as MS Word can do, that you wouldn’t be able to top using plain text files, and a little bit of markup. It does not really matter what kind of markup you use. If you go with something feature rich and powerful as LaTex you will almost always end up with superior looking documents. But chances are you don’t need that kind of power all the time.

Personally, when I need to jot down personal notes, make outlines and etc I use plain text files with very simple and organic (ie. human readable) Markdown like markup. Which is not to say I am particularly married to that syntax. I just like Markdown “easy to write, easy to read” philosophy of not putting too much cryptic stuff in text. If you don’t use any inline HTML, a Markdown document looks good both before and after you compile and convert it to some presentation format like HTML. Which works out great, because the only time I would actually convert them was if I was about tho share them.

This sort of thing just makes sense to me. My data is saved in a format that will never become obsolete, never go out of style, never tie me to a specific editor. When I need pretty documents I switch to LaTex.

I only use MS Office when I know I will be collaborating with other people, or if I need to throw something together really quickly. Tools like Word work great for fast and dirty memos, one page letters and creating very short manuals with embedded screenshots. Being able to do Alt+PrtScn and Ctr+V directly into MS Word on Windows is great. But I would not use it for something like my masters thesis. Or even something as trivial as the reference notes for that post-singularity short story I have been meaning to write super secret project I’m not gonna talk about because I’m not sure if it will ever see the light of day.

So what is your go-to environment for taking notes, creative writing, personal journals and etc? Are you like me and go for plain text and minimalistic markup? Do you use MS Office/Open Office out of habit and/or because of the convenience? Are you somewhere in between using one of these WYSIWYM type tools?

Do any of you extensively use cloud solutions like Google Docs? Being a plain text guy I don’t have that much use for it. I do use a cloud to sync up a lot of my work throughout all my machines – it’s just that my poison of choice happens to be Dropbox. That said, I have been sort of fascinated by services like ScribTex – essentially Google Docs for LaTex, with server side compiling into PDF. I haven’t really used it that extensively, but it is very neat – it lets you tweak and recompile your documents from any machine in the world without having to install a pile of software to get Tex working on Windows.

What’s your favorite editor – not for coding, but for writing prose?

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11 Responses to How do you edit documents?

  1. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Actually, I don’t have to write a lot of documents, these days. The only things I write are simple notes (where my phone text editor is good enough) and wiki entries (where I always keep the WYSIWYG option deactivated because it usually messes up with my links). I haven’t used Word in ages, except if you count the sub-version of it present in Outlook (at work).

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  2. icebrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    For simple notes, I tend to use the ultimate editor: > file (as in, redirect stdin to file). No formatting except maybe hyphens for lists.

    For longer texts but which don’t need LaTeX typesetting, I’ll usually write them in HTML; I know the language well and it’s pretty portable and open. It’s more verbose than Markdown, but I like the extra semantics you gain by using it.

    Nowadays for certain types of documents (TODO lists, simple logs, etc), I try to use YAML syntax, because it’s easier to read by scripts so I can import/convert them without losing structure.

    For everything (including LaTeX) except the first case I always use VIM, it’s ingrained ;)

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  3. fundamental UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    When writing minimally formatted documents, I usually stick with either plain text or a very basic markup. Asciidoc seems to map to my shorthand well. Textile is used for information on my own website.

    When it comes to editing the documents, vim works great, but IMHO it does not matter what is used for the initial composition, provided that it is not too distracting. When composing something, most of the time is spent typing out thoughts, not formatting/editing.

    When it comes to the topic of MS office, I avoid it and other WYSIWYG editors when possible. I do not like the contamination of the document with hidden formatting. I technically have one copy of it, but it does not function as one might expect. It will create new documents, but as soon as you open an existing one it dies.

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  4. Thomas Ba GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Most stuff I do in plain text. Stuff for University I write in LaTeX, because that way I can type equations and other stuff like that easy.
    My Text-Editor of choice is Vim.

    For some formated Lists I’m using Libreoffice calc. So I can edit the List and export it as PDF in an easy way :-)
    Ohm, whats Word? :-D

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  5. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Quick notes, planning, diagrams, etc I must confess… I use a WYSIWYG solution. It’s called a ‘notebook.’ It’s pretty fantastic because I always have it with me, there is absolutely no fighting with markup of any kind to get the layout I want, and I’m garanteed that it will remain readable for decades without special software.

    Ok ok, I know what you mean. If I need to collaborate with someone I’ll use whatever their using but I’ll use Emacs for any writing which I have control over. I usually don’t bother with markup of any kind unless it’s for my blog or website in which case I’ll use markdown or html respectively. I do use flyspell-mode and org-mode, plus when I do creative writing, I use some extensions I wrote to keep track of my word usage.

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  6. reacocard UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    I use (g)vim for plain text or LaTeX documents specific to me, often synced via dropbox, and Google Docs for when I need to actively collaborate with other people on the same document, because its way easier for non-techies to use and has built-in chat. In general I’ve found Google Docs to be much less bad about ‘hidden markup’ than Word/Openoffice are, though not immune.

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  7. Chris Wellons UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    If you remember, I’m totally with you on hating WYSIWYG. For me, any solution I like is going to be built on top of Emacs — with the resulting document equally accessible to other editors. I’ve invested literally thousands of hours into using this tool, so it makes sense for me to use it wherever I can.

    At home, I just use plain text for just about everything. My ~ and ~/doc/ are littered with short plain text notes. I did recently write two letters and typeset an article with groff (the mom package). It produces professional looking documents. If your needs are light, it’s a nice tool, but as soon as you need something beyond the simple capabilities, you’re deep into complicated macro land. It’s also not really markup, per se, since the macros are so heavyweight. There is support for in-line macros, but it’s pretty nasty. I think I’ll continue to use it for some small things, but I’ll stick with LaTeX for fancier documents.

    I haven’t used LaTeX in awhile. No need to write anything that fancy lately.

    For my blog, I write posts in either HTML or Markdown (both supported by Jekyll). Luke, I think I know why you have come to like Markdown, probably for the same reason as me: reddit. Am I right?

    At work I recently got away with writing an official document in plain text! And this is a place where a LaTeX memo can be difficult to push through the official process, a profess which strongly favors Word documents. It started out as a README file a project’s repository. It grew and grew until it became a brief user’s guide.

    I found that the biggest difficulty my co-workers had with editing it was the line wrapping. Emacs makes it trivial to keep plain text wrapped to 72 columns (M-q, or the auto wrapping mode). They either didn’t use an editor capable of it, or didn’t know how to make their editor do it, so they spent lots of time fixing up their paragraphs. I think this makes a lot of people dislike plain text; they’re not making an editor do the tedious stuff for them. I also had to rename the file to README.txt, because some of them didn’t know what to do with it otherwise. (This goes along with the confusion most of them emit when I open strange files in Emacs, to figure out what to do with them. If it has a unrecognized or missing filename extension, they just don’t know what to do with it.)

    I said I want to use Emacs, so I’m not a fan of any of those web solutions. Let me edit a plain text document (with markup or not) with source control for collaboration/synchronization, please. No need to get the web involved in this!

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  8. Eric GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I am using Darkroom for writing. Basically it is a simple fullscreen plaintext editor with some extras. What I like most, it opens the last edited file as ‘untitled’ and asks upon closing what name you like to give it. So I am invited to use versioning calling my files book1, book2, book…
    If for some reasons the computer freezes or whatever, the last edited file is normally pretty at the current level. As ‘Markup’, which I need rarely I use / / or * * around the words I want to put in italics or bold later…

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  9. ST/op DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    I’ve been using plain text files most of the time since the good old Atari ST days in the late 80′, just because of the need for being cross-platform compatible (Macs & PCs at work). I still have files from that period on my server!
    I still do that today, but also use LibreOffice and Google Docs to some extent at work.
    Writing and editing on the company website’s CMS backend is never done WYSIWYG. Instead, I use the “It’s all text” extension and my text editor.
    I prefer Scintilla-based editors: Scite or Geany on Linux, Notepad2 or Notepad++ on Windows. I do know the basics of Vim, which I use when stuck on a console, but I’m not proficient enough to use it extensively…

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  10. Morten DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I’m in the happy position of having a document workflow constisting almost entirely of plain text and PDF (with some postscript thrown in there). If I need to write something down quickly I either use plain text or write in hand, for everything else there’s LaTeX. I’ll sometimes use emacs org-mode for note taking, which is just plain text with some basic markup allowing emacs to fold around headlines and such. I think it’s quite capable if you learn to use it, but when I tried using it to export to LaTeX I found just using plain LaTeX was just as easy, so I’ve never really bothered with other minimalistic markup systems.

    I think the time required to set up a LaTeX document is greatly exagerrated. Sure, it’s very powerful and flexible, but in reality you almost never unleash all this power. Setting up a basic documents with a headline, some prose and maybe some math takes ~1 minute. It’s only when you get very specific with the layout or try doing something new, that you’ll need to study a manual and debug your copy-pasted code.

    For editing LaTeX I use emacs + AUCTeX. Always. For editing other plain-text files I use whatever is handy; emacs, vim, redirecting standard input to a file, or whatever graphical editor is available.

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  11. copperfish Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    I seldom write text documents. My job requires me to work with presentations and spreadsheets, not the most “plain text” friendly of documents. So it’s a mix of LibreOffice, Microsoft Office and Google Docs. Even some Thinkfree Office on my Android devices thrown into the mix.

    Microsoft Office on my work laptop.
    LibreOffice on my home laptop.
    Google Docs and Dropbox for syncing between the lot.

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