7 Sept 2015

The Machinations of a Writer, Part I

First in a Three Part Series on Software

This post has been bumped up, owing to extra detail; the follow-up post is located here.

As detailed previously, I am endeavouring to detail to you the many machinations of the publishing industry; and, specifically for today, the tricky matter that causes many a writer many a headache: software.

Text Editors, or Word Processors: Which Will it Be?

The default reaction of young, foolish writers—when confronted with the matter of recording their (no doubt) genius musings—is to run to their word processor: and that, usually, means Microsoft Word. And it seems a natural enough response, after all; for word processors are capable, often-times advanced pieces of software that are quite able to generate, say, an essay, or some other short piece of text.

The trouble with word processors, however, is not so much to do with their ability to handle large documents—a feat which they accomplish with but minor misshap—but rather, with the fickle heart of a writer.

Allow me to illustrate:

‘Alex!’ you cry; ‘whatever is this? It wouldn’t be... your book?’ Well, dear reader, that is in fact correct; what you see is the Necromancer, as it appears in paperback form. But I would draw your attention to something altogether different: LibreOffice writer, my word processor of choice.

Do you notice the formatting options—be it bold, italic, underline, superscript, and many more? Do you notice the plethora of formatting styles; the litany of sidebars, icons and menus? And now imagine, dear reader, how inherently distracting this mode of editing must be; how easily a curious soul such as I may become engrossed in the numerous minutiae of formatting (fonts, weights, leading, indents, footer or header page numeration, footer placement—dear God, I spent far too long on that—heading styles...) and become altogether diverted from that central quest. Which is, quite simply, to write.

This is not to pose a criticism of Writer; indeed, the program is merely fulfilling its role as a word processor: namely, to provide complex WISYWIG editing. But though word processors are in fact a necessary step of the process—as I shall explain—the first, vital stage of writing does not fall within their remit.

For that, one must look to an ostensibly similar piece of software—the text editor.

The Humble Text Editor

Aside from the evident distractions and complexities of a word processor, text editors bear another, more subtle advantage: that of reliability.

It is no secret—word processors, as an inevitable consequence of their abilities, are more prone to all manner of disastrous failures. Random freezes? Check. Input lag? Ditto. (That, I must confess, is particularly infurating.) And that’s not even going into other potential pitfalls, namely: incompatibility across formats (every tried sharing Word documents?), obsolete formats—imagine trying to open a document written twenty years ago (you can’t)—along with other, invisible syntax-level complexities, e.g. direct formatting preservation.

The alternative to this, of course, is plain text. In this, there is no ‘hidden realm’ concealed within the formatted appearance of a document; rather, plain text is the simplest human-readable syntax in existence. What is you see is, really, what you get:

Plain text has some rather significant disadvantages, however. In particular, plain text doesn’t support formating; a limitation that renders it useless for writing even this humble blog post, let alone the epics of Narnia.

‘But Alex!’ you observe; ‘Are you not using plain text at this very instance?’ I am indeed... but this not ordinary plain text. Rather, it is the creation of a wonderful man (whose name eludes my memory, sadly) and goes by the name ‘Markdown’. What distinguishes this ‘Markdown’ from mere plain text is that of markup formatting: italics may be denoted by asterisks on either side; likewise bold, through double asterisks; and even paragraph styles can be incorporated, using direct HTML.

Thus, I am able to include my precious formatting. Markdown is of course an intermediate format, in that the asterisks don’t create actual italics; however, it may easily be converted to HTML—a format that is easy to manipulate and further convert—through the ingenious markdown script.

Gedit—my text editor of choice—appears deceptively simple, but conceals many a feature. One of this is the ability to run scripts (such as markdown...) and to employ them in ingenious ways. For example:

Through this, I am able to convert this Markdown into HTML—all via a few clicks. Unfortunately, this particular feature only works in Linux, and Macintosh systems; Windows users are left out in the cold. This is not due to Gedit so much as Windows’ less than stellar ability to handle scripts. It is one of the many reasons why I recommend the so-called ‘alternative operating systems’.

EDIT: concerning Markdown, a new Gedit plugin has recently been released; it allows something called syntax highlighting, along with easily previewing your markdown document as it would appear in HTML. Here is an example:

A Question of Operating Systems

My OS (to use the acronym; brevity, I adore thee) is one Ubuntu Linux. Writers, of course, use many operating systems; some adore their Macs, whereas others hold fast to Windows. Ubuntu, however, is likely the best candidate for the task of creating tales. For one: it is really quite beautiful.

The value of beauty is not to be underestimated. It can bequeath to a writer that sense of phantasmagoria, that view into the unseen realm; and, furthermore—who likes ugly screens?

But there are also numerous more—how shall we say?—practical considerations involved. Take non-ASCII characters; or, to translate from jargonese, pretty much anything that’s not on your keyboard. How does one write smart quotations? Or dashes? What about diacritics; ‘Deriën,’ as I like to point out, isn’t the same thing as ‘Derien’—there’s a distinct lengthening of the /ɪ/, for one.

It is true that word processors can ‘autocorrect’ formatting, in many cases (albeit with limitations; try writing ’Tis). But writing non-ASCII characters involves long, tedious forays into the character map, otherwise; and, as I’ve mentioned previously: word processors are distracting, and dubious of reliability.

Ubuntu (and all distributions that employ the Gnome DE) have a solution: the compose key. This, simply, is a user-configurable key—right super in my case—that, once pressed, results in the OS absorbing inputs and creating new inputs based on set patterns. For example: writing compose, then hyphen three times creates an em dash. Genius, n’est-ce pas? Of course, one has to learn these key combinations... but they are remarkably intuitive. Quotations, for example, employ the simple flat apostrophe, preceded either by < (for the left starter quote) or >.

Another advantage—there are others, though too minor and numerous to save poor brevity in their mention—is the matter of font rendering. This affects Windows—Mac users, thankfully, are saved from this particular idiocy of MS. In any case: Windows employs what is known as ‘hinting’ to render fonts. This is a complex, technical process, but detailed simply: it forces pixels on the outer edges of a glyph into set squares, that match the physical configuration of pixels on a monitor. This removes the bluriness present on the edges of a glyph, allowing them to appear ‘sharper’.

Here: a demonstration.

As you can see, my wonderful Necromancer—formatted in the elegant Linux Libertine—appears suitably gorgeous unhinted; but when hinting is applied... horror ensues. This is due to the fact that Libertine is a font that isn’t specifically designed to be hinted; if it were, it would appear more like MS Calibri. Sharpened, slightly distorted, but overall enhanced.

The trouble is, hinting a font is a difficult and time consuming process. Invariably, many font designers would rather create beautiful fonts. Many of which, incidentally, are indeed beautiful; and which cannot be used to display text in Windows, or even to create printed documents—you can’t tell how the font is meant to look.

OSX does not apply any significant hinting; Linux—being wiser than either—allows you to choose. The default is the same as OSX.

(Incidentally, it is possible to disable Window’s font hinting using a third-party hack; but I’m not certain if the program even has an English version maintained anymore, and nor is it as capable.)

The Tricky Matter of Editing

‘Okay, Alex,’ you say; ‘suppose we’ve written our masterpiece, but now want to send it to the editor—what do we do?’ This question is more difficult than it first appears, for what Markdown cannot yet do—or may ever be able to do—is track changes. This is a valuable editing tool, and indeed you’d be hard-pressed to work without it.

Markdown, however, is flexible; and so, your manuscrupt a-written, you may proceed to convert it to your format of choice. This can be done via a number of means; I recommend pandoc, a flexible, able and simple converter. You will have to learn to use the command-line in order to peruse it... but it’s worth it.

Finishing Off

I have spoken at great length on this matter—even more than I may wish—but then, software can prove surprisingly troublesome without a suitable dose of expertise. I shall write more, in future—this is only part one, after all—on such topics as eBook creation, publishing formats, and more. Until then, keep following. I’ve poetry, news, and an essay on socialism a-coming...

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