Word processors are overrated
(This is the transcript of my second submission for Hacker Public Radio.)
Word processors are overrated. Too often they are used instead of better alternatives. For example: to write a report, to describe a workflow or a vision, a lot of people just grab Microsoft Word. Which is a bad idea. Should you use LibreOffice Writer then? OpenOffice? Maybe Google docs? They are not much better.
If the focus of your text is on its content, if the structure of your text is important, if the way the text is laid out is less important than the consistency of the lay-out, or if you want to collaborate with other people, you should not use a typical mainstream word processor.
Problems with mainstream word processors
Page layout errors
There are some major issues, and the first one is that you will probably end up with page layout errors.
If the way your text is laid out is unimportant, you should focus on the actual information, not on making your text looking good. With a mainstream word processor, you often end up with formatting inconsistencies: incorrectly indented list bullets, wrong fonts in a text after a copy-paste-operation, or inconsistencies in the formatting of section titles. Especially when you have to collaborate with other people, the result will be ugly. And if some contributors use a different word processor than you are using, all bets are loose.
When multiple people work together on a document using a mainstream word processor, and if those people don't really care about page layout, they will probably create an ugly document. And that's a shame. It does not have to be this way
The underestimated learning curve
Another problem with typical word processors, is that the learning curve is underestimated. Experienced users of a word processor will argue that you can avoid all those layout problems, if you use the software the right way. But that means that all the people working with you on the same document, should know how to use your word processor. Some of them might have to invest in training. And even then, it is easy to make mistakes.
A typical word processor has a WYSYWYG interface, which seems to be very easy to use. Even a 3 year old child can produce a text. But any advanced user of a certain word processor, will agree that there are many ways to use it in a wrong way.
It's not beatiful
The last problem I want to cover might be personal, but many texts that are created with software like Word are not to say beautiful. It is not difficult to produce ugly texts with Word alike systems, and it happens a lot. Some users need to be protected against the Comic Sanses of this world.
If you don't care about your page layout, you should not spend time in laying out your pages.
You have a computer. Your computer should take care on the looks of your document, so that you can concentrate on what actually matters: the content.
So we have to look for are alternatives for Word. Not LibreOffice, not Google Docs not Abiword; they have the same problems. We should be looking for something completely different. Like for exampel LaTeX.
LaTeX is very good if you need mathematical formulas in your text. If you have to write a mathematical text (on your own or together with someone else), you obviously choose LaTeX anyway, because there is just nothing else. But if your text is not about mathematics, and you have to work with someone else, LaTeX is usually not an option. The majority of people are easily scared, because a LaTeX source document is rather hard to read.
What else can we use? Plain text? It is an option as well, but the possibilities to format text are really limited. Plain text is good for quickly sending an e-mail, but as soon as you need some formatting, it just won't work.
Maybe HTML is an option. HTML is a whole lot richer than plain text. But also it comes with some disadvantages. The source code is still quite difficult to read. It requires some work to get a nice printout (without e.g. headers and footers from a browsers). And I personally find the HTML tags annoying to type.
So now I come to the point I want to make: Markdown is a great alternative for writing texts. I won't pretend that it is the perfect solution, but it has some nice features, it has a decent user base, and the learning curve is quite low.
A Markdown file is a plain text document. Meta-information about the structure is added using symbols like the asterisk or the hash symbol. This way, the source text stays very readable, and you can easily see the structure.
Text documents can be opened by virtually everyone.
And because the possibilities to structure the text are limited, the possibilities to make mistakes are limited as well.
A Markdown document is a text file, but there are a lot of tools that render Markdown to a formatted text. A lot of blogs and forums accept Markdown as input format. And so does Github. If you work on a text with someone who understands the workings of git, Github renders your text, and you can easily look up the history of your files.
If you are comfortable using the command line, then you can use pandoc to convert your markdown documents to LaTeX (for pretty output), to Word (for conservative readers), to HTML and some Wiki formats. There is also a command line tool (which is called mcider) that converts a Markdown document to a html slideshow, but at this moment you will probably have to do some hacking to finetune the layout of your resulting slides.
Limitations of markdown
Markdown is not ideal, it has some limitations. Like for example: There is no clear Markdown standard. Putting tables or images in your document, is not always supported. Support for footnotes is often non-existent. And so on.
On that level, I think that dokuwiki does a better job. But unfortunately: the dokuwiki syntax is less used than Markdown. In fact, I don't think it is used anywhere except on dokuwiki itself.
Another disadvantage is that most people do not know Markdown. And even worse: Windows doesn't know Markdown (or doesn't want to). As said, markdown documents just plain text files, but they typically get the .md-extension. And if you try to open such a document in Windows, then you get the message that the file format is not recognized. So if you work on a document with a Windows user who does not know the difference between plain text and binary file formats, you probably better use the .txt-extension for your file name. And if you do not use Windows yourself, make sure that your Windows colleagues get a text file with Windows line endings, otherwise notepad is confused :-)