Markdown and Distractions

Markdown and Distraction-Free Software

Out of this sample of bloggers, Eddie Smith offers the most vigorous defense of distraction-free writing software by making a detailed and exhaustive case against word processors1 (like Microsoft Word). He specifically identifies Microsoft Word as distracting because its interface turns writers’ attention away from composing words and toward presentation issues before such concerns are warranted.

I’ve said it before; I’ll say it again: Word is not a writing application. It’s a desktop publishing application. When I start a writing project of any size in Word, it feels like I’m starting to build a house by first worrying about wall colors.

Words aren’t worthy of cosmetics until they say something. More importantly, each second you spend fiddling with the aesthetics of your document is a second spent not writing. Accumulated over just a few days, that can be a tremendous number of seconds. (Smith, 2011)

In at least three other posts, Smith makes similar claims about word processors, noting that they distract users with a “superfluous amount of commands bordering [the] page” (2010a), that writers are “encumbered by decisions [about] font choice and line spacing [while composing]” (2010b), and that word processors tempt him “to do a bunch of fancy formatting” (2010c).

Writing in Markdown via a stripped-down text editor, on the other hand, helps Smith avoid these distractions:

Writing MultiMarkdown [an extension of Markdown] in TextEdit makes me feel closer to a purer state of content creation and the art of writing. It liberates my brain from making visual decisions as I write. (2010b)

Smith is not suggesting that document design can or should be disregarded, only that such work should happen after the writing. Markdown is fundamentally a formatting markup language, so it does allow Smith to format the text. He’s not using it to avoid formatting, but to avoid the temptation to attend to the style of the text displayed on the screen. In several posts he describes his processes for using another markup language called LaTeX, which is designed to produce professionally typeset print documents, typically without a WYSIWYG interface. Smith is an actuary and he has suggested that LaTeX offers better support for representing equations than word processors:

In WYSIWYG word processors, it’s miserable trying to guess where Greek and math symbols might be hiding. In an equation editor, you have to visually search through menus and digital palettes looking for, say, sigma. In LaTeX, you just type \sigma. In general, writing math is very natural and obvious in LaTeX. (2012)

Smith, then, describes his own writing processes as separating design from composition, or presentation from production, and in his blog posts suggests that other writers would similarly find value in moving away from WYSIWYG word processors.

Several other bloggers in this sample touch on the theme of separating design from composing as well, but primarily in the context of reviews2 of distraction-free applications that support Markdown. Michael Schechter, for example, contrasts a distraction-free writing application named Byword to Word: “Unlike overly complicated word processors like Microsoft Word, Byword (much like Markdown itself) wants to keep the focus on writing, rather than formatting your words” (2011). David Sparks also attributes his preference for the Byword app to its minimal interface, noting that he “fell in love with this App immediately” because of it (2012). Further, he appreciates the visual display of Markdown syntax in the app (for example, it displays text wrapped in double asterisks as bold on the screen). Rather than being a visual distraction, he notes that this visual display element “makes proofreading a breeze.”

Screenshot of Byword

In his review of the distraction-free application WriteRoom, written prior to any mention of his use of Markdown, David Sparks points to the other software on the computer as the source of distraction, rather than the formatting options presented through the graphical interface of a traditional word processors:

Hog Bay Software’s WriteRoom is a word processor that excels at one thing, distraction free writing. […] You see nothing but a black screen and green text. There is no tempting menu bar, Safari window, or anything else to distract you. Just the words and the screen. (2008)

Screenshot of Writeroom

Screenshot of Writeroom

Sparks frequently mentions his use of the application Scrivener for his writing projects, and in his review on his blog he again focuses on the “full-screen” approach toward eliminating distractions (from the other applications on the computer):

In addition to getting you ready to write, Scrivener makes the process of writing as simple and distraction free as possible. It has a very clean full screen mode that clears all the usual diversions off your screen and provides you easy access to your research. (2007)

These three bloggers (Smith, Schechter, Sparks) describe their motives and uses of Markdown and associated text editors in ways that most closely align with the intended uses of distraction-free software offered by the designers of these tools and described in more detail in the previous section. As the next section explains, others in the sample do not fit within the conventional uses of distraction-free software, although they too privilege the experience of focus afforded by the tools they use to write Markdown text.

Markdown and Hypermediated Work Environments

Seeking relief from problems with their tools, writers like Smith, Sparks, and Schechter yearn for a medium that provides “a more immediate or authentic experience,” as Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (1999, p. 19) have argued. Bolter and Grusin identify the oscillation between immediacy and hypermediacy as a defining feature of the history of media. With immediacy, the mediating aspects of the medium fade into invisibility–as in virtual reality, which does away with the graphical user interface in an attempt at uber-realism. With hypermediacy, the interfaces multiply in the foreground rather than recede out of view–as with cable news shows and their text tickers, picture-in-picture graphics, and studios containing several video screens. Word processors allowed writers to bypass white-out and penciled-in arrows for more immediate editing on the screen. With time, these same word processors now seem, to writers like Smith, to draw attention to the interface in unnatural ways. As Bolter and Grusin explain, “a transparent interface would be one that erases itself, so that the user is no longer aware of confronting a medium, but instead stands in an immediate relationship to the contents of that medium” (pp. 23-4). The WYSIWYG interface of word processors, by focusing on displaying an immediate representation of the printed page, no longer “erases itself” for writers like Smith who compose text for the Web as well as print. Used to the separation between “content and presentation” via HTML and CSS, such writers see plain text as more immediate than WYSIWYG formatting.

The other writers in the sample gravitate toward more hypermediated interfaces. As defined by Bolter and Grusin (1999), “contemporary hypermediacy offers a heterogeneous space, in which representation is conceived of not as a window on to the world, but rather as”windowed" itself–with windows that open on to other representations or other media” (p. 34). These writers describe their desire to work with many windows open at once, noting that such windows do not function as distractions but rather as reference material for composing. In his review of the Byword app, Brett Terpstra notes that he’s “not a big advocate of ‘distraction-free’ writing” because he’s “never found that I need it, despite my ADD and generally short attention span” (2011a). He writes that he is “constantly checking facts and links in my browser” while writing, which would be more tedious when using an app that blanked out the entire screen. Nevertheless, he notes that “Byword has quickly become the place where I actually do my writing” because it “doesn’t focus solely on the distraction free aspect.” He appreciates the visual aesthetic of the app as well as its Markdown support.

Like Terpstra, Dr. Drang writes that he prefers not to work in a full-screen writing application because his writing process typically involves several open windows. In a detailed post about his process for writing a short engineering report, he describes concurrently using a text editor to produce text formatted in Markdown, an image viewer window containing over a hundred photos, a command line prompt, and a file browser window (2011a). He notes that typically he writes more complex reports, where he would also have open a web browser, additional image viewer windows, and additional command line prompt windows. He notes: “As I wrote, I continually shifted between all of these things.” Therefore,

I simply can’t do this kind of writing in a full-screen editor or one that otherwise blocks or dims my view of other windows as I write. The other windows I have open aren’t distractions, they’re part of my writing process. (2011a)

Drang contrasts his report-writing process with those of other writers who prefer to “bang away at a shitty first draft, leaving markers in the text for the details [to] add during revisions” (2011a). Such writers, he suggests, may indeed prefer a distraction-free writing tool, such as Byword or WriteRoom.

Gabe Weatherheadhas written several posts that mention the various writing applications he uses, although typically these posts offer more reference material (e.g., lists of useful keyboard shortcuts, details of scripts or plugins) than description of his writing processes. None of these posts focus on conventional “distraction-free” features, such as those described by Smith, Sparks, and Schechter (although he does call Microsoft Word “bloated” [2011c]); nor does he argue against them along with Drang and Terpstra. When he does mention a feature like “full screen,” it is in the context of opening multiple panes (or views) of a single document (2012a). Like Dr. Drang, he often posts scripts or text editor plugins for working with Markdown, such as a script that automates adding Markdown links to a document (2011a) or a plugin that facilitates working with existing Markdown links in a document (2012b).

  1. Word processors typically create files that embed formatting and cannot be easily read by other applications. Text editors, on the other hand, create plain text files which can be read by nearly any application that works with text and do not contain formatting as part of the file itself. See Wikipedia for more on the differences.

  2. Like most bloggers, the writers in this sample walk a thin line between offering objective reviews of products and profiting from sales of those products. They typically use affiliate links, so that they receive a small payment when readers click on a link to a reviewed product and buy it, although they also announce that they are using affiliate links. Sometimes they receive the programs for free in exchange for their reviews, or they participate in beta testing programs and write reviews based on that experience. Further, because they write about their daily practice, they can also be seen as tacitly endorsing what they write about in their day to day posts.