Selecting and Structuring Digital Environments with Markdown

These writers’ efforts to arrange their digital workspaces in search of immediacy or hypermediacy match Prior and Shipka’s (2003) definition of “environment-selecting and -structuring practices” (p. 219), in that they “highlight people’s . . . tuning to and of environments … [that involve] externalizations meant to regulate thought and affect, to channel attention and action” (p. 228). All of these writers describe the ways that their chosen software tools and writing practices allow them to focus on the task at hand, as they understand or define it. For Smith, Markdown helps him regulate his impulses to attend to formatting and presentation issues too early in his process. Drang positions Markdown as a subtle component of a writing process that involves a number of open windows and applications (as well as physical books and other reference material spread on his desk), a setup that affords display of information so that it is at-hand immediately when needed. Ultimately, it seems their definition of distraction is the same, even though the objects that count as distractions may differ between the two writers, or even for the same writer during different activities. A distraction, for these writers, is anything that takes away from their intended focus.

In fact, both Eddie Smith and Dr. Drang write similar statements regarding the importance of focusing on writing words rather than attending to other applications or processes (primarily processes like formatting text). Smith describes the benefits of writing for the web using MultiMarkdown versus writing HTML directly, after noting that Microsoft Word generates bloated and flawed HTML:

Maybe you’ve also tried composing in a simple text editor like TextEdit on your Mac or even Notepad on your PC. Again, the writing part is easy [like with Microsoft Word], but now you’re stuck having to type long HTML commands like anchors, breaks, paragraph codes, etc. over and over. And if you need to create a table, just forget it.

The underlying problem is that you find yourself playing the role of a programmer at least as much as a writer. This can be a major distraction that ultimately affects the quality of your work.

MultiMarkdown eases the woe of the common web writer by providing simple, intuitive shortcuts for HTML codes. […]

… So in summary, with MultiMarkdown, you can focus on your writing, not your coding” (2010a).

Dr. Drang contrasts writing with formatting at the end of a long post (the last in a series of five focused on his 15-year history of writing in plain text files using a variety of markup syntaxes) detailing how he came to use Markdown for writing his blog and ended up also using it to write his engineering reports. He had previously been writing the reports using LaTeX, the same complex markup language Smith describes using, which is designed to produce professionally typeset print documents. He appreciated the finished product that LaTeX produced, but not the writing process required to generate a LaTeX document:

So there I was, writing blog posts and class notes in Markdown that was then getting converted to HTML. The writing experience was so pleasant that I began to resent writing my reports for work in LaTeX. And I started to scheme. (2011b).

After discovering MultiMarkdown, Drang customized several scripts and developed a process that allowed him to write his reports using Markdown, convert them to LaTeX, and finally generate high-quality typeset PDF files for printing or emailing. As he describes in the conclusion to the post, the process may seem overly complicated, but he regards it as simple because the scripts have already been written and they do all the work. After he has generated the Markdown file, all that is needed to produce the PDF file is to run the scripts (as easy as selecting them from the script drop-down menu in the Mac OS X operating system).

I started this series almost a year ago, and as it’s traced my use of text files over the past 15 years we’ve gone through many formats, many scripts, and many processors. If you were to read the whole series in one sitting, it might seem overwhelming and unnecessarily complicated. Certainly some of the things I’ve done over the years were done just because I like to tinker.

But surprising as it may seem, the overarching theme of these 15 years has been to simplify my writing process–both for my reports for clients and for the blog. I’ve gone from word processors to SGML to LaTeX to Markdown, and with each step I’ve been able to spend more time writing and less time formatting. Yes, there’s a lot of machinery working behind the scenes, but the construction of that machinery was done years ago and its maintenance takes up almost no time today. I spend all of my time on the content. (2011b)

In describing the development of his technological process for generating reports, Drang echoes Smith’s emphasis on maintaining a separation between production and presentation, between generating text and formatting it.

Whether these writers refer to distraction explicitly or not, or use tools marketed as “distraction-free” or not, they all describe their processes for achieving focus on the task as they define it. As Smith notes, “Taking steps to ensure that I focus my energy as efficiently as possible while writing helps make my writing better, I think.” (Smith, 2010b). For Smith, this means avoiding having to type HTML codes and avoiding WYSIWYG word processor interfaces. Similarly, Drang focuses his energy by having all of his reference material for his reports open on screen with his text editor window and having ready access to the command line for doing math and generating previews of the final PDF document. Schechter and Sparks both write about keeping the focus on the writing and using distraction free writing environments to eliminate “diversions” from the screen.