Writing Tools

Use what you like and what gives you pleasure

“Tool” is a euphemism, in English. This post is not about that kind of tool. It is about things we use to help us perform a job, the job, in this case, being writing on a computer. It requires a tool because almost any time a human is writing for a computer they are writing a draft that will be tweaked in one way or another by a computer before it appears on a screen.

The point about it being on a computer is that nothing else separates the presentation from the content quite so thoroughly. For example, if I want to emphasise a word by making it bold I need to know how you might be reading it. If you’re reading it in a web browser, I want the browser to receive <strong>bold</strong>, knowing that it will present it to you as bold. If I plan to make the text available as a PDF, I need to take other steps to make the text look the way I want it to.

I often notice people making very strong claims that this that or the other way of representing something is “more natural” or “easier for humans to read” and going from there to suggest that some writing tools are inherently worse than others because they get in the way of humans reading the text. To me, that’s like saying Romance languages are worse than English (my native language) because they require me to think about gendered nouns and agreement. Likewise, English is worse than Italian because it requires Italians to think (hard) about pronunciation. The same is true for writing tools.

As it happens, I am very familiar with Markdown (and some of its dialects). So it is no great hardship for me to read [a link](https://example.com) as a link or **bold** as bold. When it comes to proofreading, when I really do not want to have to think about it, I use another tool to preview what I have written.

I’m not nearly as familiar with the many other ways of telling computers how text should be presented, so I regularly make many mistakes when, for example, I have to write something on a MediaWiki site. And I give thanks that there is a button that will allow me to preview my doodlings (just as I do with Markdown). I’m sure the reverse would be true if I regularly wrote in MediaWiki and had occasionally to use Markdown.

If I am perfectly comfortable using one language or writing tool, I am not going to respond well to someone telling me my language or writing tool is objectively worse than another.

This argument is of course nothing to do with the format in which to store my computer writings. Plain text is the only sensible choice. But plain text is not much good at presentation without a lot of outside help. Writing tools are about making it easy for the outside help to do its job. If they also make it easy for humans to do our jobs, great, but humans are flexible enough to be able to learn new languages and new writing tools.

I’m old enough to remember WordPerfect and StarWriter and XyWrite and the sheer pain of fixing printed representations that were broken. I also happen to believe that giving writers so much power over presentation in a word-processing tool (as opposed to a layout tool) is almost computer writing’s original sin. As a human who has to deal with other human’s efforts at presentation, my first job is always to create a PDF of what they thought they were doing, then remove all the extraneous crap they introduced and finally create the styles they didn’t understand they needed.

All of which is to say, no writing tool is inherently better or worse than any other tool. Use what you like and what gives you pleasure. Let others do the same. I do.

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