What tools do I use for writing?

Earlier today I was asked about what tools I use when writing. This is not something I have written about here on the blog before, although I do have very strong opinions on my own tools. I actually really enjoy reading about how other people work, so writing about it here may perhaps also be interesting to others.

Text editor: Atom

Most of my writing, whether it is e-mail drafts, meeting notes, or academic papers, is done in the form of plain text files. I use different text editors dependent on what computer/platform I am working on, and that is also one of the beauties of text files. They work everywhere. On my main laptop (running Ubuntu Studio), I primarily use Atom as my main text editor. This is mainly because it is cross-platform, has some plugins that are useful, and has excellent integration with Github.

Most of the time I write using markdown, which is just a structured way to write text files. The nice thing about markdown formatted text files, is that they can easily be converted to other formats using Pandoc. I often have to send off files as either PDFs or DOCX files, and this can easily be done with a terminal command such as:

pandoc file.txt -o file.pdf 

Yes, it is a nerdy way of writing things, but working in a text editor (as opposed to a word processor) is just so much quicker for many things. I use quite a lot of advanced query-replace functions, for example, and then regular expressions are useful. I also like to be able to do multiline editing.

Academic writing: Overleaf

I usually start my academic writing with notes in markdown, but as soon as I start to get into the proper writing mode, I convert into LaTeX. This is also a text-based format, but with a slightly more complex (and also more powerful) syntax than markdown.

Since most of my academic writing these days is collaborative, I almost only work in the web-based LaTeX editor Overleaf. This editor makes it possible for multiple users to work on the same document, and it also handles the compiling into PDFs very nicely. Being a web app, you don’t have to install LaTeX locally on your own computer. This makes it much easier for people to get started with LaTeX than it used to be only a few years ago.

Academic references: Zotero

Zotero is my current reference manager. It is not perfect, but I like that it is cross-platform (and by that I mean Windows, OSX, and Linux), it has a web interface, and it synchronizes between systems. There is a connection from Zotero to Overleaf, but I have found this to be somewhat shaky. So most of the time, I just export a BibTeX file of my complete library from Zotero, and import that .bib file in Overleaf.

Other collaborative writing: Google Docs

When I am writing non-academic texts with others, such as administrative documents, reports, and so on, I typically use Google Docs. I have been using it for several years now, and it really shines when it comes to collaborative writing and editing. I try Office 365 from time to time, but it just cannot compare to the trouble-free collaboration I experience in Google Docs.

Word processor: LibreOffice

When I have to use a normal word processor, it is usually LibreOffice. I never start writing in LibreOffice myself, so this only happens when someone sends me a .docx file that they want me to look at. Fortunately, LibreOffice handles .docx files well most of the time. So I am able to edit documents using “track changes” and send them back to people using MS Word.

In those few cases where LibreOffice does not manage to handle the .docx documents I receive, I connect to a remote desktop at the university and fire up MS Word. This is typically when there are some weird macro functions in the document, or some strange fonts. Fortunately, this happens only once in a while.

Summing up

All in all, I am quite happy with my current set of tools. Relying on text files has worked well for me for many years now. They are also the most future-proof solution I can think of. My software tools will continuously be replaced, but I am sure that plain text files will be around for a long time.

Taking notes

I used to use Journler for taking notes on my computer, and when Journler died I moved on to MacJournal. However, nowadays I constantly find myself using different computers (Mac, Windows, Linux) and various mobile devices (iOS and Android) every day, and have found it to be problematic to be locked into an OSX/iOS application for note taking/access. There are some cross-platform note-taking applications out there, most notably Evernote, which I have tried to become friends with several times, without success. My biggest problem with Evernote is that it locks you into their system, and you cannot export everything in your library in an easy way.

Inspired by a blog post by Alex Payne, I have decided to change my note taking to the simplest and probably most future proof system: plain text files in folders. All OSes that I know of can handle text files and folders without problems (at least if you are a little careful with file naming), and you can also search your files using standard built-in OS search functionality. So there is really no reason for using a dedicated application for this.

Fortunately, MacJournal let me export my entire library as separate RTF files, and I wrote a little script that added the creation date of each note to the beginning of the file name. So now I have a folder called “Notes” with all my notes from the last 7 years as separate RTF files, organized after creation date.

For new notes, however, I don’t even want to use RTF files. I have had some bad experiences with opening RTF files in different software. Since I am often moving files between MS Word, OpenOffice Writer, TextEdit, Bean, etc., there is always something being messed up (particularly bullet lists). Instead, to keep some richness in the texts, I am now writing notes using MultiMarkdown. I have been doing this for a month’s time now, and think it works great, even though it adds a little overhead in terms of the formatting. However, the freedom to easily export the files to HTML, LaTeX and RTF later on makes it less of pain overall. And storing the notes using Wuala makes it possible for me to access them on all my devices and computers.