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Writing formats for books

I’ve recently started contributing to another book, and one of my tasks was, like, “start the book.” I’ve been dealing with the tyranny of choice – poorly, as it turns out – and I think I’ve finally solved one of the hardest problems:

In what format should the book be written?

I’ve gone around and around on that question. It comes down to two features: simplicity and power.

Simplicity is what you get when you use plain text; you’re just writing. Most writer’s editors emphasize a plain writing surface; they just present you a simple screen, with nothing in front of you but the plain page. No proportional fonts, no bolds, no italics, no spellchecking, nothing: just the page; you get to (or have to) focus on just writing; the editor is out of your way. (This is a good thing.)

Power is the ability to modify the text, adding features and maximizing the impact of each word. It implies all the cool fonts, leading drop-text, references, specific layout control, grammar checking, spelling, all the bells and whistles.

Publishers tend to prefer Microsoft Word; that’s the format I’ve used for another book. Word’s certainly capable, but it’s not open source (a critical aspect for this book), and it’s not available on all of my platforms. Word strikes a good balance between simplicity and power; the ribbon doesn’t help (you have to learn how to use it, and it’s not especially fast with which to interact). As far as open source and wider availability goes, well, LibreOffice can work with Word documents, for the most part, but that “for the most part” isn’t really enough.

LibreOffice Writer might be a workable substitute altogether for Word, of course. The Open Document Format isn’t terrible; I don’t know what really biases me against this choice, but I am biased. Maybe it’s because I also use Word, and the finger-familiarity dissonance isn’t entirely pleasant. LibreOffice is a lot like Word on the balance between simplicity and power; it’s a little simpler without necessarily losing power.

I considered DocBook, and even set about writing some with it (with the help of Publican). I can’t argue against DocBook’s raw power, and won’t… but I will say that writing in DocBook is almost as fun as gnawing off your own neck. Almost. The signal-to-noise ratio for DocBook is incredibly bad – I spent more time muttering under my breath about <para> than I did actually writing the text. DocBook is the epitome of power, and doesn’t even pretend simplicity; SGML, for the … win.

If a format like DocBook prevents you from concentrating on writing, it’s a bad format for you.

HTML is out there, of course, and while HTML is very well known, it is pretty much straight markup.

I looked at Markdown, which is the format I use when writing on my blog (thanks to JetPack in WordPress). Markdown’s fairly old, but closer to what I think I want, except as a format for large, printable documents it’s vastly underpowered. Markdown tries to end up more on the side of “simplicity,” with some power; this is a good thing, because it means a simple text editor can be used to write workable Markdown.

That led me to AsciiDoctor, which is a lot like Markdown in substance, but has a lot more power: footnotes to abuse, a full working table of contents, references, a bibliography, customized rendering templates (including to DocBook)… basically, AsciiDoctor has most of the features one thinks of when considering word processors, without the “word processor” part – it’s just a markup engine with a lot of power.

AsciiDoctor strikes probably the best balance I’ve seen between simplicity and power. If you need it, you have all of the power you need; it’s not a layout engine, so the power you have to endure to get layout isn’t in your way. (This is where Word fails, honestly; you can use Word for layout, which means you get to face features aimed at layout.)

So there you have it, folks: I’m choosing AsciiDoctor to write with.

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