The traditional publishing industry relies on Microsoft Word. If you want to be published traditionally, you should stick to that application. If, however, you wish to self-publish, then there are other options that will make your computer work with you rather than against you.
A couple of years back, a writer friend introduced me to something called Markdown. This is a system of ‘marking up’ plain text so that a computer can easily convert it to the language that most web pages are written in, which is HTML. This language is not itself complicated like a true computer language. It’s just plain text filled with a series of on/off switches. In the HTML example below, we’re making the word ‘cat’ italic by switching italic mode on with the
<i>tag and off with the
TheHTML is not easy to read. This is where Markdown comes in. With Markdown, you can specify these on/off formatting switches in a simpler way. We can write the above example again using the following Markdown:
</i>sat on the mat.
TheNow, to get this into HTML format, we need a helper program to scan the file and produce the HTML. It’s not only italics that can be specified. Pretty much any of the formatting tags you’d need (to indicate new paragraphs, italics, bold, insert pictures, hyperlinks, and so on) have Markdown equivalents.
*sat on the mat.
But why should you, as a writer, bother using Markdown? Because it’s an easy way of producing HTML. Why produce HTML? Because HTML is a lingua franca. Once you have your story in HTML format, you are one step away from using a helper program to produce a beautiful PDF (using LaTex), an iBooks-compatible file, a Kindle file, a mind-map, a PowerPoint presentation…the list goes on. All of these new versions of your story can be produced from the original Markdown source.
Another advantage of using Markdown is portability. Your novel will take up minimal space on your hard drive. Any system that offers text editing (Windows, Mac, iOS, Linux, etc.) can be used to edit the file; you’re not limited to a proprietary word processer like Microsoft Word. Plus, when you come back to your novel in twenty years, your computer will be able to read the file. Try doing that with MacWrite.
At the beginning of this article, I said that using a computer should be as frictionless as possible. Why is using Markdown better than using Microsoft Word, or another word processor? Once you have your workflow set up–with helper programs in place to produce your various formats–the only thing you need to edit is your Markdown file. You will never be troubled by mysterious horizontal lines you cannot delete, or ‘smart’ quotes that don’t match properly. You can concentrate on your job: words.
Further ResourcesMarkdown was invented by John Gruber. You can find out more about his original specification here. There’s also the Wikipedia page on Markdown. For the geeky, you can read two articles on my blog about how I use Markdown to produce books. And here are some programs that can help you write in Markdown.
Dr Ian Hocking is the self-published author of the best-selling Saskia Brandt series (Déjà Vu, Flashback, and The Amber Rooms). Déjà Vu won the Red Adept Science Fiction Award. He is represented by the US-based agency Kneerim, Williams and Bloom.