Plain Text Writing Lesson Seven: Markdown Resources and Editors

The first six lessons in my series on plain-text writing should be enough to get anyone–even the least techy–started with a complete plain-text writing workflow, using Gedit, markdown syntax, and Pandoc.

typora

Editing Markdown in Typora, an elegant editor for Linux, Windows, and MacOS

But I’m not done with the series look for more to come on editors, operating systems (and why you should seriously consider Linux), more advanced editing and markup with the amazing text editor emacs and orgmode, keeping a plain-text note system, and even ways to ditch the computer altogether but still take advantage of digital technologies in your writing. Also look for posts on other, more fun things you can do, like creating a whole-house music server with an old laptop, creating a writing computer you can take into direct sunlight using an old netbook and e-ink Kindle, the joys of the command line and terminal, and lots of other geeky fun tailored to the non-computer-geek user and writer. My goal is to make this incredibly useful technology accessible to everyone, especially those who don’t always feel comfortable with the kind of documentation that’s usually found online.

In the meantime, here are a few sets of additional resources: a breakdown of my own series so far, some important general resources for Markdown, and some recommendations for exploring the wide range of editors out there to find the one that’s perfect for how you work.

My Articles:

Here’s a complete index to my complete series so far on plain-text writing:

  • Lesson One: Writing in Plain Text: A Tutorial for the Non-Techy Writer: A general introduction to plain-text and explanation of its potential benefits for writers, especially over and above the traditional word processor.
  • Lesson Two: The Editor: How to download, install, and use a good all-around text editor called “Gedit”
  • Lesson Three: Markdown Elegance: An introduction to using Markdown syntax, geared toward the total beginner.
  • Lesson Four: Pandoc Magic: An introduction to Pandoc, a tool that allows you to convert your plain-text, markdown-enhanced documents to any other file format you want (Word, LibreOffice, PDF, html, etc.)
  • Lesson Five: Detangling Your Footnotes: How to create footnotes within a Markdown document, and why doing so makes them easier to manage than with a traditional word processor.
  • Lesson Six: Citation Wizardry: For the harder-core academics, this lesson covers how to do more complex citation and documentation management, pairing your markdown text with a citation manager such as Zotero, RefWorks, or Endnote. Most importantly, the lesson explains why and how managing citations this way can get rid of a lot of common citation headaches.

Markdown Resources:

  • The definitive resource on Markdown syntax, from its creator. A little more techy than my explanation, but important as the font from which springeth all things Markdown.
  • A very handy Markdown cheatsheet on github. Especially useful for beginners, for reference until you get used to the syntax you use most often (which won’t take long at all), and too keep handy for those times when you need to look up something that you don’t use as often. Put it in a text file you can pull up in your editor, or have a printout on your desk for reference. You’ll find that you don’t really need it after only a few writing sessions.
  • A nice little interactive markdown tutorial: Another very beginner-friendly tutorial that lets you try things out right in the browser as you go. If you’re still nervous about learning Markdown, start here.

Some Good Text Editors

Taste in text editors varies between writers and coders like taste in flavors of ice cream. There are a lot of choices out there, making it worth your while to explore and find one you really like. Some are more general purpose, some more specifically targeted. The general rule of thumb is that the editors that are the most graphical and simplest to use are often one-trick ponies–good for one thing but not much else. Editors that are more versatile and customizable tend to have a steeper learning curve, but the reward for the learning curve is a lot more ability to customize your editor to your particular needs and style of working. I suggest starting with an easy-to-use, simple editor first, but then experimenting with some of the more advanced editors to see what they can offer. I learned both vim and emacs very slowly, just experimenting with each a few minutes at a time, looking around at online documentation, and not worrying about doing anything with them right away. As a result, I’ve discovered ways to enhance my writing process that I’d never imagined.

Here’s a set of links to the editors I’ve found the most useful:

Gedit: I think Gedit offers about the best balance of features, simplicity, and ease of use. Definitely my recommended editor for beginners, and adequate for more advanced markdown users as well. – Also on the “easy but less versatile” spectrum, but also very useful for beginners, are specialized markdown editors that provide features like a dual-pane view that gives you an immediate preview of your markdown.

Typora is one of my favorites, offering live preview, and the ability to convert your markdown to various other document types right onboard. Especially good for those who want to use Markdown but who find the command-line interface of raw Pandoc intimidating.

For Windows users, Markdown Pad is one of more mature go-to-options. It also features a dual-pane view, where you write your markdown on the left side and see a live

markdownpad2

Using the live preview feature in MarkdownPad for Windows.

preview of the result on the right. There are both free and paid versions. The free one is very nice as an editor, and the paid version offers automatic conversion features, among other enhancements.

For those who desire a very distraction-free experience, WriteMonkey is a lean and elegant cross-platform writing app, with versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux alike. WM is designed to give you clean, minimal, full-screen interface, and supports Markdown. While it doesn’t give you a live preview like the previous two, it does feature syntax highlighting, which helps you keep track of your formatting.

Another great condender in this category is FocusWriter, a ‘zenware’ editor that really concentrates on a clean composition experience.

If you need or want to be able to work from anywhere within your browser (working on a borrowed computer, a public computer, or a Chromebook, for instance), I can’t recommend StackEdit highly enough. It gives you a real-time preview, seamless integration with cloud storage services like Dropbox, and–most useful for bloggers–the ability to publish directly from the app to your WordPress account. Stackedit is a chome app that runs in your browser, so you can work from any internet-connected device.

Other editors offer a more technical approach and are oriented toward writers of both code and prose.

My favorite of these is SublimeText. It’s probably the most elegant code and text editor out there, looks fantastic, and is extensible in ways few can imagine. It can provide tons of functionality, there’s a little bit of a learning curve, but it’s not that hard. One

download

Elegant editing in Sublime Text (here in Ubuntu Linux)

drawback is that ST is not technically free software. You can download a fully-functional evaluation copy to use for as long as you like (it’ll remind you occasionally about buying a license), but if you decide it’s the right editor for you and use it a lot, do the honest thing and pony up the (expensive but well-worth-it) $70 license.

For windows users, another contender in this category is the venerable Notepad ++, which has been a mainstay of coders and writers alike for many years.

A newer player in this category of editors is Atom, and is probably the best-looking editor in this list. It has similar functionality and complexity to Sublime Text, but is free and open-source, which makes it a preferable options for many. Like Sublime Text, it’s primarily geared toward coders, but has extensions that make it quite nice for writing if you’re willing to deal with a bit of a learning curve.

The Hardcore Options: Vim and Emacs

One thing I’ve learned about software since learning to program my first-ever computer (a Commodore 64!) in junior high: it’s always a trade-off. The easier an app is to use, the less versatile and powerful it will be. The higher the learning curve, the more powerful the app, and the more customizable to your own experience. The question to ask yourself is this: Do I want to work the way someone else thinks I should work, or do I want to work the way I want to work? If the answer is the latter, you owe it to yourself to look into one of the editors that takes a little while longer to learn, but gives you undreamed-of control, flexibility, customizability (is that a word?), and speed. There are really two major editors that fall into this category. While I started out with several of the editors listed above, I have to admit that these two have become my favorites, and my go-to editors for almost everything. They take a little more time and effort to learn–but once you learn them, wow–gangbusters! Each will get a post of its own here, but for the being short descriptions will have to suffice:

Vim is actually one of the oldest pieces of software still in continuous development, initially developed as an editor for the Commodore Amiga in the late 1980’s. It’s come a long way since then, but it’s a powerhouse that many coders and writers alike still swear by. It’s an app that runs without a GUI (that is, a “graphical user interface,”although there are GUI versions available), which means that it runs, regardless of platform, in a

VIM

Minimalist and lighting fast, but still powerful: Vim running on my desktop.

terminal window. One advantage of this is that it makes Vim the most blazingly fast editor on this list. Up and running in a keystroke. Its interface is keyboard-oriented, which means you never reach for the mouse, keeping your mind and hands on your writing. It doesn’t look like much, but the advantage is that it gets the heck out of your way and lets you compose and navigate easily through even long, complex documents. There’s a great beginner’s tutorial here if you’re interested in getting started. Look for a post from me on customizing it for writing.

Emacs is the other biggie in this category. Like vim, there’s a steeper learning curve associated with emacs, but I can tell you this: when I finally committed myself to learning emacs and discovering what it could really do, my reaction was “where have you been all my life?” I’m a little angry with computer scientists and programmers, truth be told, because they’ve been keeping all the best writing tools for themselves without letting

spacemacs

This blog post in Spacemacs, a variant of Emacs.

we writers know about them! Emacs definitely has a learning curve, but, in conjunction with a plugin called orgmode, it is hands down the most powerful tool for both note-taking and composition I’ve ever found. In fact, I wrote this post in a variant of Emacs called Spacemacs. I’m going to dedicate a whole series to Emacs later on, but, for now, there’s a good introduction for beginners here.

That’s it for now–have fun playing with the various editors and discovering more. And, as always, happy writing!

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