From the Archive

Distraction-free writing and readable markup

May 19th, 2011 at 10:20 pm ET

This eminently reasonable screed by Kevin Lipe (hat tip to Andrew Hearst) about feature bloat in word processing software makes three important points:

  1. When it comes to writing tools that get out of the way and just let you write, things used to be better.  The golden age was roughly 1991-1994 (which, I note, roughly coincides with the period during which I was doing my first writing for pay, so I can relate).
  2. Contemporary “distraction-free” writing tools are too precious and twee to be of general use. (Merlin Mann’s parodic extreme case submitted for your review.)
  3. The future (which is pretty bright, actually) is in tools that facilitate simple, human-readable markup.

With regard to point 3: I think John Gruber’s Markdown project is absolutely brilliant. In a nutshell, what it does is this: it lets you compose at length in a minimal markup, which any lay reader can understand perfectly well without technical training; then, you press a button and see your markup translated into valid HTML. Gruber has also provided Dingus, a Markdown-enabled web service you can use right now: type your marked-up text in the box, click Convert, and get your valid HTML at the bottom.

If you’ve ever written in wiki markup (which, if you’re geeky enough to still be reading this post, you probably have), odds are you know more than you need to know to begin producing Markdown-valid markup after 30 seconds of trial and error; there’s a reference guide on the right-hand side of the Dingus page if you get stuck.


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