Plain is Sexy

An earlier iteration of my blog featured a “tool of the week” bit that I abandoned after cracking under the pressure of coming up with one every single week. But I loved writing those posts and have never given up my fondness for tools, so I figure I’ll keep doing them sporadically here. If for no other reason than that all posts can’t be as navel-gazey as the last one.

So I’ll lighten the mood a little and bore you instead by talking about writing workflows and software. Six of you will care, but this is where I spend most of my day, and I feel like talking about it.

Still around? Hokay.

I’m rapidly becoming convinced that John Gruber’s excellent Markdown syntax is one of the greatest things that ever happened to writing on computers. He developed it as an easier way of writing and reading HTML documents by stripping out all the tags and extra cruft and replacing them with simple symbols. Write up a simplified plain-text document, run it through a script to convert it to HTML, and blammo, web page made with considerably less work.

John’s a very smart guy, but I’m not sure he realized what he’d done there, not at first. By abstracting the details of writing HTML, he hadn’t just created a shorthand. He’d damn near created a meta-language, something that could be run through any number of different programs to create any number of different types of documents. With the right set of tools, you could easily turn a Markdown document into an RTF document, a PDF, theoretically anything.

Enter Fletcher Penney and MultiMarkdown, which has utterly changed the way I do business. It takes Gruber’s original syntax and adds very little (I believe Penney only added syntax for creating tables and footnotes), but allows you to process it into a number of formats: HTML, LaTeX (and thence to PDF), OPML, and Open Document Format (which from there can be converted to RTF, Word, or Pages formats).

Gruber’s creation kicked off a minor revolution in writing and developing for the web, and it’s now leaking into offices and writer’s workflows as well. An pornographic amount of software has sprung up around it, particularly for OS X, but really everywhere.

Why use it? Well, partly because you hate Microsoft Office. Yes, you do.

I’m what some might term a “power user” of Office, as I’ve gone so far as to create Excel spreadsheets embedded with hand-written VBA code that creates and emails Word documents on the fly. I’ll be the first to praise Office’s power, as it is indeed as powerful as Satan’s own broccoli farts, but actually using it is about as pleasant as inhaling said farts. It’s the word processing equivalent of going to Walmart.

So there’s that. There’s also the question of portability. I’m writing this right now in Markdown on an iPad, but I could open it on any computer from any decade since punch cards went out. You don’t have to worry about what happens if your favorite software dies out or starts sucking. You don’t have to worry about operating systems or versions.

So on. I’d be willing to bet a lot of you are nerdy enough to be familiar, so I won’t go on. But I love it. I take all my meeting and conference notes in Markdown. I write up reports and quality control plans in Markdown. I rub Markdown all over my chest before bedtime every night. It gets out of my way and lets me work.

But the most amusing effect of Markdown’s growing adoption is seeing a surge in popularity of that nerdiest of tools: the humble text editor.

No frills, no buttons (well, hopefully not), no “ribbon”, no bullshit. A window, a blinking cursor, and what you want to write. Like Markdown itself, a good text editor gets out of your way.

Me, I started with Emacs, the (almost literal) 800-pound gorilla of text editors. I got into it partly for efficiency, partly for nerd cred, but also partly for the glorious wonderment that is org-mode. I left org and Emacs only with a great wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Why? Early signs of repetitive strain injury. Emacs relies on key combinations that require a certain amount of manual acrobatics, and they took their toll on my forearms. So I left for the dark side and learned Vim.

I quickly learned that I loved Vim’s commands, but loathed Vim itself. I began to despair. I found a way to use Emacs with vim’s keybindings, but that was starting to feel like a Rube Goldberg contraption, so I reached out to my fellow nerds. They introduced me to Sublime Text.

Hoo boy, is it aptly named. Runs on all three major operating systems, is easily configurable, and it can even be set up to use (some) vim keybindings. For a guy like me, this is like being given a bisexual Christina Hendricks covered in heroin and bearing a large bag of cash. And then learning that the Star Wars prequels never happened. Something something LEGO.

That’s where I’ve been ever since, Markdowning my happy ass away in Sublime (and Nebulous Notes on my iPad). I could probably count how many times I use Word each month without having to take my shoes off. And let me tell you, brethren and sisteren, that is when you can stop farting around and start building giant killer robots.

Is it for everyone? No. Converting to your preferred document format isn’t hard, but it was built for nerds. If you don’t get a product with built-in MultiMarkdown support, you either need to be able to use a command line without panicking or have a nerd on hand to simplify using it. So there’s a learning curve, but it’s worth it. The reward is the sheer simplicity of writing and formatting text.

So to Mr. Gruber and Mr. Penney, you have my eternal gratitude. You’ve made how I work so much better.

Apps with Markdown/MultiMarkdown Support