I write an awful lot of words each year, and I’m always looking for my perfect writing environment. Much of what I do ends up in plain text, since Word is rather clumsy in many situations, and LaTeX is too intrusive/hard work.
So I’m fascinated by things like John Gruber’s new Markdown, a Perl script and Movable Type plugin that generates XHTML from the sort of plain-text email shorthand most of us geeks have settled on. That is, surrounding words with asterisks for emphasis, using angle-brackets to denote links, quoting text by adding ‘> ‘ at the start of each line, that sort of thing. Here’s a full list of the (modest, manageable) Markdown Syntax. The key idea is that text intended to be parsed by Markdown should still be perfectly readable as plain text.
This isn’t the first such attempt: Setext and Textile have similar goals, amongst others. But Markdown looks like it might be simple enough to use without getting in the way. In fact, I can see only two problems:
First, my own personal email/newsgroup posting style seems to have evolved into using square brackets to denote something akin to stage directions. Which is unusual, but works well enough for me. Unfortunately, Markdown uses square brackets for its link syntax, so all of that breaks. As my friend Conor observed twelve years ago, while writing his own programming language, “Oh, shit! I’ve run out of bracket types!”
The second problem is more serious: I need to find an editor that handles text as I want it to. BBEdit behaves like a code editor, indenting lines only when asked – so an indented line does not wrap to the same indentation level. JEdit will do that beautifully, but it’s a massive, clunky app with a slightly nasty Java interface and far too many options pleasing far too many people in far too many places. Pepper did exactly what I wanted… but it’s never been entirely happy under Mac OS X, and development seems to have ground to a halt. Pretty much everything else seems to work either like BBEdit, or like the standard TextEdit. As a result, I find myself writing more and more in OmniOutliner, which has its own annoyances. Perhaps I’ll just have to write my own editor.
Strange, isn’t it? The personal computer revolution is getting on for thirty years old, and we’re still finding new ways of handling that basic commodity, text.