There is a whole world beyond Word

After two decades of writing on a computer I am pretty much sure that Word and similar text processing tools are the worst choice for writers. Are you able to open a 20 years old Word file? No. So you may want to hear about the world beyond Word.

11.1.2011

Jan Ulrich Hasecke

Plain text rules!

If you wrote your first poems in the late 80s with a simple texteditor, you are lucky. Take the file, fire up any decent text editor, load the file and be ashamed of ever having written such stuff. Maybe you’ll encounter some encoding problems, when you did not use ASCII-encoding, some special characters might look strange. But this is fixed in minutes with ›find‹ and ›replace‹. It is really simple. Plain text files are still readable. For any other file in a special format, you need either the original program or converters. So if you want posterity to read your files – stick to plain text.

Plain text does not mean without format

I am sure you want to have big headlines in your text and emphasized text. If you are a scientific writer, you also need footnotes. All this is possible with a plain text file format. You can use the typesetting program LaTeX to produce a nice looking output. LaTeX may remind you of a programming language, which is true in some sense. In fact it is a markup language, where you mark your text. This is the markup for a chapter headline:

\chapter{Alice Meets the Tiny Alien}

LaTeX is rock stable, you can rely on it. You can use LaTeX together with a version control system, because a LaTeX-file is just plain text.

I admit, you have to learn it, but the typographical results are worth the effort. So I will propose an other solution, where the effort to learn the right markup is much smaller.

Sphinx a new tool for writers

Sphinx is a tool for software documentation. It is written by programmers for programmers and programmers are lazy. So if you are lazy too and don’t want to learn the whole syntax of LaTeX you should give Sphinx a chance.

Sphinx is a tool which takes a simple text file as input and produces webpages (HTML), a nice looking PDF file (in fact via LaTeX) and – if you want – an ebook (epub). This sounds great because many writer today publishes their work on the web. With Sphinx you can create webpages and perfect typesetted documents on the fly. So you get all advantages in one system:

  1. You can use Sphinx together with a version control system
  2. You can produce different output formats
  3. You don’t have to learn a difficult markup

While the first two advantages are obviously, the third advantage needs a deeper look, because you won’t use Sphinx without learning a simplified markup language called restructured text.

How does Restructured text look like?

Restructured text is easy to learn. Look at this example:

Alice Meets the Tiny Alien
==========================

Alice opened the door and saw into the blue eyes of something green and slimy.

"Hello World", said the strange thing.

This is rather straight forward. If you want to mark a headline, underline it. If you want to emphasize a word, just mark it like this:

The tiny alien *smiled* in a way.

If you want to use all bells and whistles like footnotes, citations, figures and an index, you will have to learn some more things, but it is much easier to learn than LaTeX.

Sphinx is used as a tool for software documentation, but it is as well suitable for fiction writers or scientists, especially if you plan to write an ebook. I use it for a scientific text about the polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Do you want something more comfortable?

I must admit that I don’t use Sphinx alone. There is a terrific tool for writers, called Scrivener, which I use for several projects including a novel. Scrivener has a kind of versioning built in. It isn’t a real version control system but you can take snapshots of your files and name them. I call it the IDE for writers.