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January 7, 2016

Word processors considered harmful (part 2)

Several months ago, I wrote about the considerable drawbacks of using word processors. A few years ago I started searching for a replacement for Sprint that would run on Linux: a non-WYSIWYG text formatting system that would allow me to use my favorite editor and focus on writing instead of typesetting and formatting.

For a while, I experimented with DocBook, which uses XML-based semantic markup; that is, the markup described the meaning of words, not their typographic appearance. It worked well, and there were tools for generating both PDF and HTML output. But writing the DocBook dialect of XML was rather tedious, even moreso than HTML. Each paragraph, for example, has to be surrounded by <para> and </para> tags, and that quickly gets tiresome.

There is a GUI front end for DocBook called LyX that eliminates some of this tedium. LyX doesn’t attempt to be WYSIWYG, but has some of the other drawbacks of GUIs, the major one being the inability to use any editor.

More recently, I discovered Pandoc, and have settled on this versatile piece of software as my preferred text processor. Its preferred input is an extended version of Markdown. Instead of using tags in the style of XML or HTML, Markdown uses many of the conventions that were developed in the early days of plain text systems like Usenet and pre-HTML email. For example, you emphasize a word by surrounding it with asterisks or underlines; quote a block of text by preceding each line with a “> “; and indicate a header line by preceding it with one or more “#” characters. These conventions are easy to type, and they are also much more readable than XML or HTML.

Pandoc uses LaTex to generate PDF files, and it allows you to insert LaTex commands in the input Markdown files for special situations that Markdown can’t express. As an example, I use this feature to write letters. I first installed a letter template for Pandoc by copying it to the directory ~/.pandoc/templates/. Then a letter that uses this template looks like this:

---
author: Mark
opening: Dear Sir,
closing: Sincerely,
address: 
 - John Q. Public
 - 123 Main Street
 - Podunk, IL 34567
return-address: 
 - Mark Alexander
 - 666 Farm Road
 - Gitville, VT 01234
...

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Proin mollis
dolor vitae tristique eleifend. Quisque non ipsum sit amet velit
malesuada consectetur. Praesent vel facilisis leo.

To output a PDF for this letter, I use this command:

pandoc --template=template-letter.tex -V blockquote -o test-letter.pdf test-letter.md

I’ve used Pandoc to create other kinds of documents as well, ranging from text-only informational flyers to book chapters that include figures.

Semantic markup works best with documents that are heavy on text and have straightforward or repetitive formatting. The situations where semantic markup will be weakest are those where an old-style desktop publishing program would be more suitable: documents with complicated layouts, large numbers of images or text styles, and precise placements of those elements. Word processors are the wrong tools for this kind of work, too, but are frequently used that way.