On Writing: Composition and Layout are Two Different Things

I write a lot. Seriously. I tried to work out my monthly output once, and it was kind of scary – between work stuff, personal stuff, this website, forums I’m on, and all the email I send, I sometimes write the equivalent of a short novel every three to six weeks. (I average around twenty-thousand words a week, give or take.)

This doesn’t make me good, or anything approaching an expert, but it does lend me a certain amount of jaded experience…

One of the things I have very much noticed is that people tend to conflate composition and layout when writing, or thinking about writing. My take is that, no, that way lies madness.

Programs like Word, Wordperfect, OpenOffice Writer, and so on are what probably 99.9% of computer users turn to when they need to write something other than an email or online post. And, why not? They’re word processors, right? That’s what they’re there for.

Well, no.

You can write just about anything in or on just about anything. I composed a letter the other day in vi, for crying out loud, though I don’t recommend you try that at home. (I was using a netbook, and… yeah. Don’t ask.) As long as you can cut-and-paste text out of it, it really doesn’t matter what you use.

When it comes time to choose a font and a type size and formatting and layout, then you need something that can imitate a desktop-publishing suite.

At work I have Word and OpenOffice. At home I have OpenOffice and Abiword and Scribus.

Lately, however, nearly all the non-email, non-forum-posting stuff I’ve written has been written… in a wiki.

Why? Because it’s incredibly easy and convenient, for starters. And because it allows me to concentrate entirely on composition, without getting distracted by layout matters.

Oh, and it offers extremely flexible revision-control and searching, which are very nice things to have.

Oh yeah, and I’m never left wondering where I saved something to.

The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is that – so long as I’m careful not to add any manual markup along the way – I wind up with completely unformatted text when I’m done, ready to be cut-and-pasted elsewhere with zero difficulties.

I’m not saying it’s the greatest productivity-enhancer ever, or anything like that. I’m just saying it works for me, and I’m really happy with it. But, then again, I’ve gotten used to composing stuff in text-entry boxes online – with literally one or two exceptions, every one of the 1,301 (and counting) posts on this site have been composed directly in WordPress. You do this roughly weekdaily-ish for a couple years, and it becomes perfectly normal. (I do find I sometimes need to stop myself, when writing other things, from adding HTML markup, particularly italicizing things for emphasis.)

For personal stuff – I’m almost finished writing an actual novel, please support my literary-lack-of-genius, thanks – I’m using a copy of Foswiki, if anyone cares, running on a webserver somewhere, protected by passwords and an SSL certificate. At work I use something similar. And I’ve got a wiki thingy that runs off of one of my flash drives.

Collaborative? Nope. Just me, myself, and I. But easy, efficient, and productive? Oh my, yes…

Published in: Geekiness, General | on June 10th, 2010| 2 Comments »

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  1. On 6/12/2010 at 3:56 am Artanis Said:

    I’ve found myself doing similar, except using reStructuredText and a git repository (bonus backup & sync via private github repo) for versioning and backup.

    It looks good on it’s own, and when I do need formatting more than UTF-8 can provide alone, often times I can bypass the desktop word processing suite entirely since rST can be converted to a variety of formatted-text file types.

  2. On 6/12/2010 at 12:37 pm Nemo Said:

    reStructuredText is pretty nice, because (IMO) the markup is a lot less obtrusive, visually, than (say) HTML, or whatever wiki markup you happen to prefer. (Because there’s always that one person who cuts and pastes the raw view into an email, isn’t there?)

    That said, argh, one more markup format to learn would probably kill me. (Foswiki has its own markup, which is annoying, but it also handles HTML just fine, so for those occasions when I want to do something more than just type basic text, I rarely need to RTFM. Problem is, between this blog and the wiki and everything, I tend to just automatically assume that whatever I’m typing in an online text-entry box will accept HTML, so forums that use vBScript or whatever are the bane of my existence.)

    “I do not like square brackets, Nemo I am…”