Document Formats and Authoring Tools

23:56 Sun 11 Mar 2007. Updated: 13:35 08 Apr 2007
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I usually write documents in one of three formats: text/blog/wiki (yes, that’s one format), HTML, or RTF. What I write in each is different, and I’m mainly happy with them. But I’m least happy with RTF, and I keep trying to find a replacement for it.

RTF is written in OpenOffice or, usually when I’m using my laptop, AbiWord. RTF doesn’t have markup, but does understand things like italics, curly quotation marks, etc.

HTML is written in jEdit but can be written in any text editor.

Text/blog/wiki is written in jEdit, or in TiddlyWiki nodes, or directly into the WordPress admin screen (although this last is rare). “text/blog/wiki” is a primarily plaintext format that understands HTML and has certain shortcuts for common HTML elements, like * for <li>. Email is more or less written in this format (tending towards plain text), and I use Thunderbird for that.

Here are the kinds of things I work on fairly often:

* blog posts (text/blog/wiki)
* morning pages (RTF)
* novels (RTF)
* short stories (RTF)
* microfiction (RTF and/or text/blog/wiki)
* documentation (HTML)
* email (text/blog/wiki)
* notes/lists (text/blog/wiki)

For quick things, I really like the text/blog/wiki format, especially since I can put whatever HTML I need into it. For longer-term creative things, I really like something that feels/acts like a word processor—that is, something that displays italics and bold, that deals with curly quotation marks, and that have good word count tools.

For documentation, I prefer HTML. In fact, I think that structural and semantic markup is invaluable for any document that requires moderate structure (anything beyond a lengthy blog post, essentially).

I also like HTML and text/blog/wiki because they have clean code. RTF, on the other hand, while technically plain text and not binary, isn’t easily readable at all. Furthermore, if you use tools to tell the difference between files, those tools don’t do too good a job with RTF.

RTF doesn’t provide much structure. I’ve been looking at something like the DocBook format, and at LaTeX, but the problem with them is that their authoring tools aren’t what I like to do creative writing in. I thought that LyX might be the answer, and it’s close, but it’s not quite what I want. What I really want is something that behaves just like AbiWord and/or OpenOffice, but which allows for some structural markup and which outputs something like LaTeX or DocBook XML. And, of course, I want to be able to customize that output.

If I could customize the way those tools output HTML, then that might be worth looking into. I think they produce HTML, but it’s generally burdened with too much focus on how the output will look. I don’t care about how the output’s going to look, I care that it’s cleanly and correctly marked up. And I also care about what it looks like while I’m working on it—not to the degree that I want absolute control over margins and justification and so on (although I don’t see why I couldn’t have that), but so that I can work in white-on-black, so that I can decide what font I edit in, so that I see the result of italicization rather than markup for it, so that it handles quotation marks intelligently and displays curly quotes, and so that the markup is hidden from the word count.

It doesn’t seem like those are such onerous requirements to me… separation of form from content, but with one view of the authoring tool displaying presentation as defined by the user. LyX is close, but they don’t seem to care that much about letting the user control their view, or about things like displaying proper curly quotes, and so on.

I could write conversion scripts to go from some XML or HTML format that AbiWord or OpenOffice output to a cleaner markup, but then when I open those files, the document will probably render oddly. Conversion scripts going both ways for whenever I have to edit seems like too much. For the moment, I guess I’m stuck with RTF. Any readers have suggestions for tools/document formats I should try out?

6 Responses to “Document Formats and Authoring Tools”

  1. NiallM Says:

    I wrote a 100K word book in LaTeX, and the lack of direct visual formatting was a sizable asset. I didn’t spend time changing fonts, indentatation blah blah blah. All you need is vi and latex.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Well, I agree with some of that. I don’t spend much time on visual formatting while composing my documents. Nevertheless, I am very used to a certain style (sans-serif fonts, white on black, curly quotes, italics, etc.) and find it hard to write fiction or personal stuff in other environments. And there’s the word-count issue, which is rather important when writing to precise limits.

    I’ve tried writing in text editors and, apart from technical writing and documentation, I tend not to like it much. Hence my search for this ideal authoring tool…

  3. dave2010 Says:

    An interesting post. I’m currently investigating the possibility of getting decent word counts into TiddlyWiki. Some code has already been written, though not by me – see http://www.firstclown.us/?p=151 What I’d like to see is TW code which counts the characters/words etc in each tiddler, and is capable of producing a summary. The summary could include one or all of the following:

    • The total number of words/characters
    • The total number of words/characters in tiddlers with specified tags
    • The number of words/characters in each tiddler
    • The number of words/characters in tiddlers with specified tags.
    • The number of tiddlers with specified tags (useful for finding the number of sections in an article)

    I don’t know if this will really help, but currently I find that writing in TiddlyWiki I have no idea how much text I have written, so this could be useful. I find that TW can be tricky, though on my machine works well enough in Firefox. In other environments it doesn’t always work.

    Regarding other tools, I have been strongly recommended TextMate – though it’s Mac only I think.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    Dave: thanks for the link to the TiddlyWiki word count plugin, that looks like it could be quite useful. I’d like to see something with those functionas as well, and it seems that it might not be too hard—maybe I’ll find time to extend that plugin myself.

    I’ve heard good things about TextMate, but am unlikely to leave jEdit, which I really like.

  5. Loren Says:

    I’ve been searching for something similar… Might want to check out virtub.com…

  6. Tadhg Says:

    Loren: Thanks for the link, that looks like it’ll be pretty good, and they’ve got a bunch of the features I like—sadly, though, it’s a Flash app, and it looks closed-source. I’m trying to stay away from any further dependence on closed-source applications, so I’ll have to keep looking.

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