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Why and How I Wrote My Academic Book in Plain Text (rice.edu)
228 points by diodorus on Apr 17, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 133 comments

Another huge reason to use plain text that he didn't mention is version control. With plain text, you can check the files into a git repo and diff any two commits. You then get all the advantages of working with version-controlled code, e.g. commenting on diffs.

Word and Google Docs do save revision history, but they slow to a crawl when you have a document with a lot of pages, to the point of being unworkable.

I just logged in to say this. It's an incredibly powerful feature.

In general, plain text is great because it's explicit. In contrast, word processors store some odd chain of objects. The steps to rebuild a document from scratch that leads to the same representation are not totally obvious. Sometimes it's a bit stochastic even!

XML formats improved the situation, but still plain text wins IMHO. With plain text you can have a toolchain where components for version control, edition and transformation can be replaced seamlessly. New stuff can be introduced at will. In e.g. Word you're mostly locked-in, or at least it's far from trivial to break out.

Original author here. Totally agree about version control. When I wrote that post I had not yet learned how to use Git. In a follow-up post I discuss how I now manage all of my notes and citations in plain-text on a Pandoc- and git-powered wiki called Gitit.


I appreciate that you mentioned LaTeX and its potential usefulness for these scenarios. You get the ability to version control, without making things especially difficult to translate your text into a more appealing output. Granted, one has to learn typesetting semantics first, but it seems to be a good middle ground.

wcaleb, this is great, thanks for both posts. It's also very inspiring to see your open notebook workflow and experiments.

There's a very timely HN post discussing a vim implementation on top of emacs: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9394144

As much as I like vi's interface, I think emacs implementation is superior, and org-mode invaluable.

Looks great, just watched the video. Have you considered org-mode?

I tried org-mode for a while, but found it overly complicated. I use Emacs heavily, but developed a couple of Pandoc extensions which give me the org-mode features I need without all of the baggage: http://chriswarbo.net/essays/activecode/index.html

Have looked at, but not really considered. I went down the Vim path pretty early on ...

You can use org-mode with Vim more or less the same as you'd use Markdown if you're planning to compile your doc with Pandoc. You can even use README.org on github in place of README.md, and it will be turned into HTML automagically the same way as Markdown.

Why use org-mode as a format instead of Markdown? Internal cross-references. Org-mode feels just as light weight to me as Markdown for the most part, but it has fewer cases where you can't make things work. Worst case in org-mode, you mix in LaTeX.

org-mode is decent for LaTex markdown substitution. * = Section = SubSection


I think I still prefer to just write it in markdown. Word can't come close to the typesetting ability of LaTex.

Looks great, thanks a lot for sharing your workflow !

Agreed. This is the same reason why some of us are skeptical of the frequent calls for more "visual" programming languages that eschew textual representations of code.

Thinking about block based "IDEs"?

I think the biggest difference there is that a document is "static". It is not supposed to process something else like code is.

Thus what you want to avoid at all costs is "boiler plate" bugs. Bugs that are not caught at compile time because it is semantically correct, but that end up producing wild results once a certain kind of data is introduced.

> In contrast, word processors store some odd chain of objects. The steps to rebuild a document from scratch that leads to the same representation are not totally obvious.

Microsoft Word's binary format (.doc) stored the document's text as a block in the file, making data recovery simple.

I seem to recall older word processors having a "explicit" mode that allowed the editing of markup directly. But i don't know if that is still present, much less used, in the age of "drag and drop".

> Another huge reason to use plain text that he didn't mention is version control.

But version control tools are designed for code, i.e. showing which lines have been edited. With English text one would rather want to see which sentences have been edited. Are there tools for this? (Except MS Word's track changes feature.)

Well, one could write one sentence per one line, but that makes a pretty ugly txt document, when viewed raw.

> Well, one could write one sentence per one line, but that makes a pretty ugly txt document, when viewed raw.

Many of the tech writers I work with advocate exactly this.

In my stuff, I just hard line wrap the text. Diffs do tend to have more spurious whitespace changes because of this than I'd like, but that's still miles better than a completely opaque binary format like Word.

Not to advocate for word or anything, but technically it's a zip of xml and other stuff (images, etc) that get's pulled in through ... OLE(??). VC + markdown/latex excellent for collaboration or branching drafts.

Once I read "Semantic Linefeeds" (http://rhodesmill.org/brandon/2012/one-sentence-per-line/) I've been experimenting with breaking on punctuation. Yes, it makes the raw text looks a bit odd (check the source on http://boston.conman.org/2015/04/16.1) but I've found it much easier to edit (especially when my girlfriend emails me corrections like spelling errors, typos, incorrect grammar, etc).

For the use case of prose, this is a great alternative to the time investment needed to take up a heavyweight editor (e.g. Emacs or Vim) that can be made to operate on a clause-by-clause, sentence-by-sentence basis, and I recommend it to anyone not interested in taking the plunge into "customization culture" or using the other features those programs provide. My writing, when I don't need to use Word for work (thanks to co-workers who use it for everything), tends to be done in something unobtrusive like nano or sandy[0] and looks much like the source from your second link, minus the HTML.

"Easy to edit," to take a phrase from your first link, is key.

[0]: http://tools.suckless.org/sandy

Not sure what is the right way to do it. But in principle it shouldn't be a problem. An script could make a copy of the files but with one sentence per line. So you could edit the original and then uae the transformed version for version control.

The inquisitive Lt. Function_Seven asked, "How would the script know where one sentence ends and another begins?" as he began typing his query into the Yahoo! Search toolbar.

:) I think you just made the case for bringing back the two spaces after a period rule!

FWIW, basic machine learning approaches to "sentence boundary detection" (as the task is called) get 199 out of 200 of these right (without using the "two space" clue), and have for a while. (e.g., http://sonny.cslu.ohsu.edu/~gormanky/blog/simpler-sentence-b...)

For the purpose of version control, it doesn't even have to be exact. It doesn't matter if the detector inserts an incorrect line break after a certain combination of characters, as long as it does so consistently so that it produces a readable diff.

    Ha.  You might be right.

git diff --word-diff=color

Not exactly sentence-level, but perhaps good enough for some...

This. I still have an svn repository with a bunch of my college history papers in it. I want to think I used line-wrapping in my editor, so each paragraph would end up being a single line. Never had much trouble diffing to check what sentences/phrases I had added between edits.

Probably today I'd want to use Markdown, since I ended up doing something similar anyway to put in my footnotes as I was going. The worst part was always the hour or two of futzing around in Word to format everything for PDF export and printing, since it never came out quite the way it looked on the screen in Word 2003.

convinced my SO to use plain text editor for academic writings with these points:

no crashes

can edit anywhere. even on a dumb phone.

revision control (i provided two scripts to the right click context menu to pull/push)

and the killer one: output to several standards. iso, abnt, eu-whatever... even automatic html formatting for the blog if a smaller article is not accepted anywhere.

though that happened before markdown et al became popular. so latex it is.

> can edit anywhere. even on a dumb phone.

This makes me wonder how old you are ;-)

Word does have some kind of feature like this does it not? I have seen documents with red changes marked at the side. I never worked out how to use it, but then GIT is hardly intuitive either.

Couldn't agree more. I'm very old school, I still prefer troff over latex but I'll take either over word because of version control.

LaTeX is the standard "plain text" [1] format for academic publishing in STEM. For those (like the author) who were unfamiliar with LaTeX or find it daunting, I recommend LyX (http://www.lyx.org/). Lyx gives you the best of both worlds: LaTeX under the hood, but with a GUI interface.

Also... you should look into BibTeX for citation management. This is much easier than the examples given in the article -- especially with Google Scholar citations pre-prepared in BibTeX format.

[1] Considering the definition of "plain text" very loosely, since markdown and LaTeX include rendering cues.

There's also markdown if you want plain text but just a bit of extra formatting. You can even embed LaTeX snippets in markdown that get interpreted when you run it through Pandoc. Then you can use LaTeX without dealing with LaTeX typesetting.

Yeah, I was confused about how he equated "plain text" with "not Word", and was wondering when he would talk about LaTeX.

Really, the idea of writing journal articles in Word brings shivers down my spine!

> Really, the idea of writing journal articles in Word brings shivers down my spine!

I think it is completely normal for several fields, probably more common than using LaTeX.

Killing sharks for their fins is also normal in several countries, that doesn't not make it an abomination.

Latex has some really weird idiosyncrasies and the tooling around it is stuck in the 80s but all is forgiven when you see how pretty everything ends up looking.

The fonts in almost every PDF that I have ever seen created with Latex just look horrible to me. Am struggling to understand why my perception is so much different than most people who seem very happy with the results.

Just googled "latex pdf" and looked at the very first pdf on offer[1], and indeed the fonts look horrible to me, like there is no anti-aliasing applied -- jagged and inconsistent weighting of stems.

Am genuinely confused here, and wish I had an explanation of why my perception of Latex output is so different from the majority.

[1] https://tobi.oetiker.ch/lshort/lshort.pdf

The original TeX fonts are rendered as bitmaps from an outline format that isn't very compatible with PDF (based on pen strokes rather than outlines). Some older toolchains embed these fonts as bitmaps. It doesn't look particularly good in a PDF.

There now are TrueType versions of these fonts, that are default in modern TeX distributions, but not everybody uses them. (Especially older papers.). There are some scripts out there to do substitution in ps files, but not PDF.

Frustratingly, Donald Knuth still uses the bitmap versions; see any of the TAOCP fascicles. I don't mind the appearance that much, but OS X does a terrible job handling files with bitmap fonts.

Unrelated to the rendering technicalities, I agree that Computer Modern (the default) is not a beautiful font. It's the Times New Roman of the LaTex world, saying "I don't give a shit about typography".

But throw on something like Sabon with a proper microtype config, use some nice large chapter/section headings, and LaTeX will give you the paper equivalent of world class latte art.

It's your system. That PDF looks fine on mine (there is definitely antialiasing, for example). This is how it looks on mine: https://imgur.com/qH5Kun0

All the fonts in the linked-to document are Type 1. Looks great on my system (I use Acrobat Reader under Linux).

I don't question the value of Latex but I really don't understand why it should be so huge.

Do you mean why is LaTeX the base tools and library of options so large? Because it supports a number of different document types, languages and formatting options. Do you want a mathematical/scientific journal article? Humanities? Is it a short story that you're submitting for review or do you want it formatted for printing? A poster? A presentation? What language(s) will you need? Different fonts for different effects or preferences. Do you want a modern look? To imitate something from a different time?

The bulk of it is stuff you don't need. Most folks probably don't need anything more than the format for the journal they're submitting to or a couple standard formats for books or articles. But your article format and mine might be different, either by aesthetic preference or technical requirement (maybe I'm publishing something on ancient Greek, and you're publishing a paper on some number theory topic).

However, by using a common language/environment we get things like CTAN which help to spread the features we added or allow us to discover features we want so we don't have to reinvent the wheel (though it still happens). It's also probably so large because it's been around so long. LaTeX dates to 1984, with TeX being released in 1978. So we have 31 and 37 years of community contributions to these tools.

When Don Knuth wrote TeX, the engine underlying LaTeX, he made sure that typesetting was a top priority. This includes all sorts of novel spacing, hyphenation, and other algorithms. See some more examples here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TeX#Typesetting_system

For anyone who appreciates Typography, there are few things out there that can produce aesthetic results as pleasing as LaTeX.

It does have its downsides though, no question, including a steep learning curve, unintuitive error msgs etc.

LaTeX tables drive me crazy. There are tools to help, but for me, it's the least pleasant aspect of using it. Still beats Word masochism, however.

The only thing I like about word is it's actually quite a good table composition tool. Just so long as you ignore the defaults that is.

Org-mode has very good support for plain text tables -- which can be converted into multiple formats.

Org-mode tables are pretty cool, bordering on being a spreadsheet... It's worth watching a demo, even if you never use it.


I've had a go at org mode being a die hard user, but never got past the original hump. Maybe I need something that better reflects my workflow, maybe disorg-mode.

Agreed, but I can't for the life of me figure out how to put tables with first-row headings and ones with first-column headings in the same file. Any ideas?

The great majority of the space is documentation, source, and fonts; see http://tex.stackexchange.com/a/119763/339 .

At the 2014 TeX conference one speaker gave out a MacTeX distributions (that's based on TeX Live) on a 8GB USB stick. Personally I wonder whether putting a lot of effort into creating stripped-down versions is worthwhile.

Unless things have changed recently, MacTex also provided a minimal distribution which was only a couple hundred MB. I used it for my thesis when I was using a space-constrained SSD. You can use tlmgr (texlive manager) to install packages as needed.

actually, i use LaTeX to write and it doesn't solve one of the issues identified in the linked article, namely the distraction of formatting. I spent way too much time trying to make LaTeX work just right: a bullet here, footnotes there, should that be a chapter or a section?

Just writing plain text would help with that... I was thinking of switching to Markdown because of this, but looking at pandoc again is interesting, because of the footnote support. But it's basically "Pandoc's Markdown", essentially...

Too bad we can't seem to standardize Markdown properly... maybe the IETF will save us there? (rimshot)

Update: I was half-kidding here, but there is actually two markdown standardisation efforts underway. The IETF actually has something going on, but only for mimetypes: https://tools.ietf.org/html/draft-ietf-appsawg-text-markdown...

And then there's Commonmark: http://commonmark.org/

And of course: https://xkcd.com/927/

I really like how this guy clearly knows his way around computers (poke around his site a bit, like the colophon[1]) but his academic interests are in history. It's great to see hacking interests and skills in someone working in a different field; I think it's important that these skills don't remain solely in their usual domain.


Thanks! Important to note that writing my book in Markdown, and having to learn to use the command line for Pandoc, is what started me down the path to learning more programming.

I use plain text editors mainly and agree with the author's premise about cutting the cruft/using a focused tool. The cost complaint doesn't really fly though.

Those times When I need something to be in Doc format, I use libre office - https://www.libreoffice.org/ It used to be called "openoffice". It's free. You can verify the documents look right in the free word viewer provided by Microsoft if you're planning to mail it to someone who will open it in Word.

> It used to be called "openoffice".

OpenOffice.org still officially lives as Apache OpenOffice - http://www.openoffice.org/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LibreOffice#End_of_OpenOffice.... & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apache_OpenOffice

LibreOffice was forked from OpenOffice.org back in 2011.

And there are plenty of articles summarizing their similarities and differences - https://duckduckgo.com/?q=openoffice+vs+libreoffice

Thanks for an informative post. I was under the impression OpenOffice was dead post-fork. Colour me wrong...

Not GP, but LibreOffice is much more actively developed than OpenOffice.org currently. Any more it looks like OO.org is just getting maintenance from a few IBMers [1]. It's rather a shame, with all of the brand recognition that was built up in OpenOffice before being acquired by Oracle.

[1] - https://lwn.net/Articles/637735/

It's only mostly-dead, but that mostly is enough. Basically, LO is where all the action is, and even IBM has effectively given up on AOO. See the LWN article linked by rpcope1.

You're missing several aspects of the cost issue.

First: not all uses of Word can substitute other tools. In particular, if you're writing for business or publication and are working with organizations using a Word-based workflow and tools based around it, you may well find yourself stuck with Word. Charlie Stross has vented spleen on this recently:


Secondly: Microsoft updates its software from time to time. It has also, generally, updated its document formats correspondingly. Old software doesn't work with new formats. Retaining access to both old and new works means stepping onto that upgrade treadmill. And because the software doesn't run on old operating systems or hardware, upgrading your word processor means upgrading your OS and hardware as well.

That does add up.

Oh, and you've got to update all of it. At the same time. Use a desktop, laptiop, and mobile device? That's a threefold hit.

Which adds up even faster.

Contrast with textfile-based tools. Not only are most free, but you don't require your build environment on every platform. Just the editor and whatever bits are necessary to sync.

This author's comment rings true

> One of mine is adjusting the “look” of a word processing document.

I find that editing text in a WYSIWYG word processor distracts me from the content and makes me tinker with the formatting. Like other commenters suggested, I switched to using LaTeX and never looked back. Sadly though LaTeX is not for the faint of heart.

I find that editing text in a WYSIWYG word processor distracts me from the content and makes me tinker with the formatting.

I still end up doing this in LaTeX, only now there's a time lag.

I wrote my Master's Thesis in Word, and I wholeheartedly agree that it is a terrible, terrible idea. There are so many great options out there today that academics should have no problem finding something else. Plain text is certainly an option. Had I been a little more resourceful back in my day, I would have given it a try. Nowadays though, if I'm writing something big, I prefer Scrivener. Small, powerful, and cheap:


I'll add this about Scrivener: It is a tool that needs to be learned to understand it's inherent usefulness. You're are ultimately writing in plain text, Scrivener is there to help organise, categorise, and to go full screen for distraction free writing.

Plain text is great. There's so much you can do with it that you can't in word or even latex. I'll write all my coursework assignments in sublime with a double column layout so I can have my notes in one window and my draft in the other. I can then check it all into my git server, run stats against my writing, and see more text without the need for scrolling. I can also search the entirety of my coursework or work notes much faster which is great to find all the references I made to a specific author. I still often have to copy text into word or latex formats but if you have the templating and styles set up that can be pretty quick work. It's nice having the raw text and formatted work seperate.

I've been writing a book for many years and my set up has always been this: Sublime text with 2 columns: notes on the right, text on the left.

When I write notes, or a blog post, or an essay, etc... I use Sublime and markdown. I can easily convert that to LaTeX with pandoc. For more complex rapport I have a script that do the translation from several .md files to one .tex file.

If I write a technical paper I just use LaTeX.

I will only use word for a quick and dirty rapport.

Thanks much for writing this up! At some point, I hope to get to it, too ;-) Until then, I thought I'd share my approach on how I wrote my entire PhD Thesis using AsciiDoc here. In my field of High Energy Nuclear Physics, data analyses usually are accompanied by so-called "Analysis WebPages" which I generate from the same AsciiDoc source files using Wordpress and Stuart Rackham's blogpost [1,2]. Images and other binary files I organize and version-control at a central location using git-annex [3,4] which also allows me to easily backup and share figures with my collaborators online. Bibliographies I auto-generate from the usual bibtex file via asciidoc-bib [5]. I've developed a Makefile [6] that does all of the above "automagically", triggered by simple commands like `make thesis` (generate full PDF), `make hp` (push AsciiDoc source to corresponding Wordpress page), and `make tag` (generate a new thesis version based on git tag and upload to webpage). Unfortunately, my thesis isn't publicly available, yet, but will be soon along with the sources and git history (I hope). In the meantime, the HN readers with STAR privileges [7] can feel free to explore a full working example at [8-10].

[1] https://github.com/tschaume/wp-pdf [2] https://srackham.wordpress.com/blogpost-readme/ [3] https://git-annex.branchable.com/ [4] http://downloads.the-huck.com/README/ [5] https://github.com/petercrlane/asciidoc-bib [6] https://gist.github.com/tschaume/a28fdf3522b81a7a4674 [7] http://www.star.bnl.gov/ [8] http://cgit.the-huck.com/phdthesis/tree/ [9] http://star.the-huck.com/ [10] http://star.the-huck.com/download/

Cool. I'm going to look into this :D

I am going to write my Master Thesis in AsciiDoc. It's about modular work-space awareness features in single page applications. The proof of concept app is a online AsciiDoc editor with live-preview and eBook/PDF generation, where I want to write my thesis in.

Very nice! Since writing a thesis is a very special task I think it'd be great to have such a app be geared towards that purpose. In addition to the features I now know I needed, I feel like I've gathered quite some experience on how to achieve control, reproducibility and flexibility using AsciiDoc but I didn't have the chance to get it out of my head and written down :-) There are a few pitfalls with the asciidoc and dblatex chain which you only learn to navigate when you're in the middle of writing the thesis (floating images, word count, bibliography, organization etc.). The framework/workflow I've set up considers most of them already and has been a huge timesaver and ease of mind for me. You can see some of the underlying ideas went into the Makefile I shared and you could recycle/use them to get a head start on your thesis/project. I'd definitely be happy to collaborate with you and share all my (MIT-licensed) experience :-) Feel free to shoot me an e-mail, I'm certain you'll find me through a quick google inquiry [1] ;-)

[1] http://lmgtfy.com/?q=lbnl+huck

One word of caution: Plain text (or Markdown et al.) are great if you are a one-man operation or your collaborators share your love of plain text. However, if any of your collaborators, proofreaders, or editors use Word to mark up changes, it is incredibly painful to manually go through through the marked-up Word document, and go back and manually backport every change.

As much as I love plain text and LaTeX and its wonderful typesetting (especially with the Microtype package, XeLaTeX, and pro fonts), I stick to Word because it is the status quo in the publishing toolchain: doing otherwise is swimming upstream.

I would welcome to hear about solutions to this conundrum.

I agree, while wincing and trying to deny same.

What if you kept the source in plain text, then did reviewing in a WYSIWYG program with any collaborators, proofreaders, and editors that require a WYSIWYG program?

After consensus is reached, convert WYSIWYG versions back to plain text, then use a tool to diff+merge changes back into your source. Using source control, you could track coarse or fine changes as desired. I use Pandoc, Vimdiff, and Git in this manner. Vim automates much of the "back porting" pain (never mind the pain of actually learning Vim, which I've already endured).

If all your documents were in a GitHub repository, you could teach people to comment on specific lines, view diffs, etc.

However, that's probably still too much for the majority of academic writers and editors, and you can't blame them because they're too busy specializing in other fields.

The homotopy type theory book was managed over github :


Git seems too much for many programmers unless it is forced upon them, I don't see it gaining traction outside of its intended field. Maybe there is a market for a simple to use equivalent.

This whole articles seems to presuppose that the only alternative to plain text is Microsoft Word.

Also by his definition 'plain text' seems to include other markup, including LaTeX. Many academic books and articles are written this way.

Am I missing something?

> This whole articles seems to presuppose that the only alternative to plain text is Microsoft Word.

The article addresses a particular area in which Microsoft Word is the dominant status quo choice, and lays out why the author thinks that "plain text" is a desirable alternative.

It does not, either explicitly or implicitly, suggest that Microsoft Word is the only alternative to plain text, or vice versa.

> Also by his definition 'plain text' seems to include other markup, including LaTeX.

I think its reasonable to describe a format where what you see if you load the file in a text editor is the same as the text you actually work with as an author as a "plain text" format.

> Many academic books and articles are written this way.

The author doesn't claim that it is unique, though he does suggest that there is resistance, particularly in his field.

> Am I missing something?

I would say it seems like two things:

1. The explicitly stated point of the article ("I want to focus on the specific, idiosyncratic reasons why I wanted (and still want) to write this way, using nothing more than a text editor and Pandoc."), and

2. the implicit target audience of the article (academics in history and similar fields).

The author is an assistant professor in history. I'm guessing LaTeX is not very popular in this field.

Original author here. Yes, I'm mainly assuming my reader is a humanities person less familiar with LaTeX. Though there's increasing interest in Markdown and LaTeX among historians since I wrote this post. See, for example:


Asciidoc might be an interesting thing to consider, as well, in this vein.

Just pointing out the two of the arguments against Word: iPad\iPhone support and price, are not really valid since MS has official Office for iPad\iPhone for free. http://www.theverge.com/2014/11/6/7163789/microsoft-office-f... It might not be as feature rich as the full desktop version but it sure is more feature rich that plain text.

I write all my articles as plaintext. One reason the author didn't mention is longevity - I don't have to worry about .txt files becoming unreadable. As long as computers exist, they'll be able to read .txt files.

I then mark up with ddoc, and the result works just fine in [github](https://github.com/D-Programming-Language/dlang.org).

Pandoc is great. I'm writing my book in markdown and using some Lua scripts and a latex style file with Pandoc to produce a nicely formatted pdf. (It's also one of the more prominent Haskell products but you wouldn't even know because it just works!)

I'm looking forward to increasing support for things like figure labelling (Automatically linking figure numbers and labels e.g. see figure 1.2) at the moment I handle this manually.

In the late 80's when I was in computer classes at school (UK school, not University) I always remember my teacher citing a study where people using PC's (probably on DOS at the time) produced better work than people using Macs. At the time Macs were way ahead with their GUI's and so students would mess about with formatting and making it look pretty, while the PC users focused on content.

A few years late studying my Batchelors in Molecular Biology, we got access to a room full of computers, mainly Macs. Most of the students found this fairly novel and typed up essays spending ages in the process. We were told that 5% of the mark would be given for presentation. At the time I found Word really frustrating (Trying to type 1 / 2 which was part of my address would always reformat it to a single character half). I gave up quite early on and went back to focusing on content. To this day I avoid Word, or fancy markup in favour of text when I can.

I think everyone should have a shortcut icon to a temp.txt file on their smartphone homescreen. Sometimes you just want to write something quickly without worrying about what category or what app to open, or where to store it. You want one tap and start typing immediately, saving and syncing as you go. I use Note Everything on my Galaxy phone as the text editor. It's fast and good and stays out of the way. Way better than stock text editors.

On another note, just found this web text editor via an old comment on linked article. I like it, seems like it's been around for awhile... https://writer.bighugelabs.com/

It just still feels weird to me, using apps that output files, in a web browser. I'm a developer so shouldn't feel strange, but web browsers just seem inappropriate to run even a text editor, regardless of the strength of the web app. I need to get over this mindset.

I write my books (5 published so far through Elsevier and others) in Markdown.

It seems the OP uses markdown too. I wondered how he did footnotes in plain text, he just uses a markdown-style syntax.

It is an excellent approach with benefits over LaTeX. It has better separation of appearance and content, the content tends to have less visual clutter, and there are pleasant tools for distraction free writing, which I personally like. I wrote my thesis and academic papers in LaTeX, so I have used it a lot.

The downside (for both LaTeX and markdown) is dealing with proofing at a publisher. This is minor the first time, but getting a corrected manuscript back from the editor when you need to work on a second edition can prove very cumbersome.

I was quite (pleasantly) surprised that the O'Reilly workflow is Markdown based.

Like George R.R. Martin that uses WordStar 4.0 on DOS to write his books.

I personally use gedit (gnome) and markdown to write my tutorials and articles. Less distractions, content focused.

I don't know anyone in computer science that writes academic documents in Microsoft Word. The standard is LaTeX. It seems the author may be well behind. All markup (in any markup language) is simply text (as opposed to WSIWYG), which is the main thing the author seems to find alluring. However, .txt files by themselves give you no way to manage special characters, references, footnotes, or any other typesetting functionality.

The author isn't from computer science nor have a computer science background. Outside computer science most people moved from typewriters to WSIWYG editors, which is the natural transition if you are unfamiliar with how to use a computer.

Nowadays, when most people being digital natives or being accustomed to use a computer, it makes more sense for people to move away from analog metaphors to proper computer-designed tools.

WritingOutliner (http://writingoutliner.com), is a Word addin that tries to help professional writers, including academic writers to write large scale documents, the main concept is splitting long documents into smaller trunks. The screenshots there will tell a lot.

Disclaimer: I'm the author :)

Same thing with notes. I used to use fancy formatting in OneNote...then Microsoft screwed me with an update that shifted, moved & changed everything.

Kick that crap to the curb and swore never to use anything more than bold/underline/italic for notes again. Plus checked export options on everything...

I bought a book a long time ago that appears to have been printed on a standard IBM 1401 line printer.

Title Compiler construction for digital computers Author David Gries Edition illustrated Publisher Wiley, 1971 Original from the University of California

(I had that book for years, when it first came out. Also my first compiler book.)

Yes, but note that he was using the special upper AND lower-case chain on the 1401, which made it at least vaguely readable.

For my thesis, I would write paragraphs in a plain text editor, and then insert them into a word document. No distractions while writing, and then all of the formatting / footnoting features when I needed them.

I agree with most of what he said. With plain text markdown files it is easy to write using leanpub on my android phone or iPad.

That said, the Office 365 apps run very well on my mobile devices but I only use them ocasionally.

One reason not to use plain text is that you usually need to manually add newlines inside a paragraph. This makes me furious when I have to edit something.

Some text editor programs do this for you, either automatically or with a key-stroke.

I'm writing "Learning Akka" for Packt publishing in Emacs Org Mode with Pandoc.

I am partial to notepad++. I agree that formatting is a major buzz kill to creativity.

I wrote my thesis in 1976 on IBM punch cards. I hired a typist to add the equations.

My main problem with using text files instead of word, is the lack of spellcheck...

The html text are I am typing this into includes a spell checker.

Any decent plain text editor includes spellcheck.

try GNU Aspell.

Which markup format does pandoc use by default for a .txt extension?

Can you imagine this guy's reaction when he learns about TeX?

Yes, his reaction will probably be something like: "Mmh, well it is plain text, which is nice, but it (1) tempts me to waste time adjusting the typesetting, and (2) TeX or LaTeX source code is much uglier to look at than Markdown".

It's pretty obvious that he knows about most of the plaintext formats. From what I can gather, the premise is that TeX-based writing is almost as distracting as a doc based system, and markdown simplifies that, especially in his domain (history).

"formatted pdf" doesn't load

i keep getting:

Not Found

The requested URL /bitstream/handle/1911/64493/mcdaniel-shear2012.pdf was not found on this server.

Even better: use org-mode.


It's amazing how I had to watch 20 seconds into a crappy, unskippable video before I could even get a glimpse at what Desk actually is

You know you can scroll right by the video right?

> exclusively for OS X

Flagged as spam.

Why not write with a pencil and paper, I can think of no more distracting thing than a computer.

Or better yet, a quill and parchment, to totally withdraw from the confines and entrapments of modern technology.

I've tried writing with a pencil and paper. I finally had to give up, because whenever I'd make a mistake I'd be reaching for the non-existent Esc key to get back into normal mode. Man, talk about a distraction.

I actually write my first drafts in paper, because its slower than typing and I get to think the sentence, paragraph and overall structure better. Of course, I also strike down and rewrite parts, but using pen and paper helps me think a lot more about what I want to write and how to write it.

RSI? I can get through maybe a page of handwritten text before my hand hurts too much to think, while I basically always run out of things to say before typing enough to need a physical break.

It sounds like you probably have too tight a grip and write more from than the wrist and fingers than the shoulder and forearm. This was a solved problem more than a hundred years ago, when it had to be; in the U.S. it's famously associated with the Palmer Method[0], although Palmer didn't originate it by a long shot.

(While these books, of course, are written for use with dip pens, and frequently taken up by users of fountain pens today, the methods described do work with ballpoints, rollerballs, gel pens, pencils of not too hard a lead, nearly whatever you have lying about.)

Of course, retooling is almost certainly not worth it for you, unless you're dying for a break from computer screens (the only reason I ever write by hand anymore). But I'll leave the link in case anyone is curious, either for their own work or just to know what people used to do with a pen, and why writer's cramp was not as serious a problem before typewriters and computers as we might suppose it was, by how frequently we tend to induce cramp on ourselves.

[0]: https://archive.org/details/PalmerMethod1935

It's true, I have no reason to learn a different method as I have no reason to write anything by hand, but thank you for sharing the information. I suppose I had just assumed it was something people got used to, or that regular practice would build up hand strength in such a way that it would no longer hurt.

I do write (draw, doodle, sketch, diagram) with pencil/paper as an initial stage in most pieces of work that I produce. I don't just 'write a lot of words in a row' (quoting Schneier's setup page). Nothing fancy, just HB pencils on A4 photocopying paper on a clipboard.

Once I have an idea of the structure, I can decide which tool to use. Often markdown but equally often LibreOffice. Sometimes Inkscape.

Yes: I also use a fountain pen (I haven't used a goose feather for some decades now, but we did have dipping pens at primary school).

With the new Android text input recognition tool, I am seriously considering the purchase of a cheap tablet and stylus.

Neal Stephenson wrote three 700 page books with a fountain pen about 12 years ago.

It's stupid to use plain text for something that demands rich formatting and where you expect others to read, like a research paper or book, especially when there are great alternatives out there. Why not use Markdown, which can be written and read in a text editor, and compiles as a PDF or HTML and reads as easily as any Word doc. Or even learning LaTeX, which gives you even richer formatting than Word yet allows you all the benefits of writing plain text.

Looks like you didn't read the article.

You should read the article. Your definition of plain text isn't the same as the author's.

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