A Simple Piece

14 August 2020

A few days ago, a reader asked about what I use to do all my online writing. Folk often have some pretty strong opinions about their writing tools, and while most of them have their uses, for me, it is about the format of the saved files. All of my writing is saved as text, either ASCII or UTF-8.

Sample of the Markdown file for this post. Brian Koberlein
Sample of the Markdown file for this post.

I’m old enough to have entered the electronic age during the wild west of file formats. Every word processor had its own proprietary file format. If you don’t have access to the original application, you are often out of luck. So you printed out anything you really wanted to keep. While I have digital files from the 1990s, they are basically unreadable on their own. The two exceptions are LaTeX and HTML files.

A bit of LaTeX from my dissertation. Brian Koberlein
A bit of LaTeX from my dissertation.

I started using LaTeX as an undergraduate because of its ability to typeset equations. Before LaTeX, you would type out your paper, leaving some space for equations that you then needed to carefully handwrite. LaTeX had a pretty steep learning curve, but it let you write equations as code. When you printed your paper, the equations were perfectly typeset, just as you would see in a research journal. It was glorious. Since .tex files are stored as text, they are still perfectly readable. The equation portions can look a bit confusing, but you can figure it out. What’s more, modern LaTeX versions read old files perfectly fine. I can still render and print every science paper I’ve written, from undergrad to today.

My first website from early 1994. Brian Koberlein
My first website from early 1994.

I started messing about with HTML in early 1994 when I made my first webpage while in grad school. Old HTML was in no way standardized, my first page still renders in a modern browser. My early sites were coded by hand but eventually moved over to website generators such as MovableType or WordPress. I have a static-page archive of every site I did from 1994 to today, and they still work just fine.

My fiction first drafts are handwritten. Brian Koberlein
My fiction first drafts are handwritten.

These days (except for the things I handwrite) my writing is done in some variation of Markdown. For example, this website is generated by Hugo, where each post is a Markdown file with a few shortcodes. Write the post, and Hugo creates it for you.

That’s where the real power of Markdown lies. Since it is just text with standard notations for headers, italics, hyperlinks, and the like, it can be converted to any file format really easily. Write something in Markdown, and you can transform it into anything from a Word document to a website. And since I’m just typing text, I can focus on the writing rather than layout and typography.

To answer your question, dear reader, I just write things in text with a text editor. It isn’t fancy, but it works for me.