back to the blog with MarsEdit

As I’ve noted several times over the years, I do almost all my writing in a text editor, BBEdit. But when I write a blog post in BBEdit, the process of getting it onto the blog is not as straightforward as it might be. I write a post in Markdown, convert it to HTML, and copy it to my clipboard. Then I open a browser tab for the relevant blog/blogging platform — WordPress for my personal blogs, Blogger for this one — paste in the text, add some tags, and hit Publish. 
I can do all this very quickly, and save a step or two with Keyboard Maestro, but even so it’s not ideal. The estimable Dr. Drang has written some scripts to post directly from BBEdit to WordPress, but I lack the skills to make those work for me, and I can’t even imagine having the skills to write an equivalent script for Blogger. So… 
I’ve owned Daniel Jalkut’s blogging app MarsEdit for a long time, but just recently have dedicated myself to using it every day — and it’s great, a marvelous piece of software. You can write in rich text, HTML, or Markdown (the last slightly awkwardly, but it works) — it even lets me edit a post in BBEdit if I want. MarsEdit offers very convenient options for pasting in links, and also serves, if you wish to download your previous posts, as a backup for your blog. 
For me, one of the most useful features of MarsEdit is the ability to draft a post in any of my blogs and then with a dropdown menu change it to a different blog (this feature aids in cross-posting also). 
When I’m done drafting and adding tags, I click “Send to Blog” and it uploads flawlessly, every time. 
MarsEdit has been around a long time, and I hope will be around for a long time to come. Frustration with most of the dominant social media platforms has led to a mini-revival of blogging, which I hope will become a full-scale revival. Austin Kleon has been blogging daily for several months now; Dan Cohen has gone “back to the blog”; Gordon White recently wrote, “Last night, sitting by the outdoor fire, drinking and ranting into a wordpress window as in the days of yore was joyous.” The great Warren Ellis has noticed: “My RSS reader is starting to get nicely repopulated, and the more people who notice this, the better the world gets.” 
Let’s do this thing. Let’s bring back the blog. And if you have a Mac and want to make blogging as simple and seamless as possible, use MarsEdit

are these apps changing the way we write?

I’ll admit to some disappointment with this essay on new writing tools by Paul Ford — Ford is a smart writer and the topic seems a good fit for him, but I don’t think he gets as deeply as he could into the legitimacy of the claims made by the makers of some of these writing tools.

As far as I can tell, the tools that he examines either aren’t really about writing at all — for instance, Ghost is an environment for publishing stuff online, stuff that you might write anywhere else — or they amount to taking already-familiar desktop writing tools and putting them online to make collaboration easier. That’s about it.

Not an inconsiderable achievement, mind you. Consider Editorially: it takes a practice that some of us have been following for several years now — writing in a plain-text editor with Markdown syntax which you can convert later to HTML or .doc format — , situates it in a super-attractive editing environment, and encourages sharing your writing with collaborators or editors. If I wrote regularly that way, I’d love Editorially.

Fargo does much the same for outlining — though outlining doesn’t seem naturally collaborative to me, so I’m not sure what the use-cases for Fargo are. But just as Editorially won’t be new to you if you’ve been following plain-text gospel, Fargo won’t be new to you if you’ve used, say, OmniOutliner or, if you’re a real oldtimer, the greatly-lamented DOS-only GrandView. In short, even if the tools you make are really cool, you’re not “reinventing” writing just by coding them in HTML5 and putting them in the cloud.

But I do think that a handful of recent apps have indeed made some significant innovations in writing technology, and I’ll talk about them in some near-future posts.

the plain text gospel revisited

For some years now I have been a big believer in the Gospel of Plain Text: eschewing whenever possible word processors, and indeed anything in a proprietary file format that creates documents I might someday be unable to open — or could open only by paying a hefty upgrade feed to a software maker. Plain text files are very small and fully portable: they can be opened on any computer, and are as future-proof as anything in this vale of tears can be.

But still, I read with interest a recent post by Federico Viticci that points to the limits of a plain-text-only workflow:

I came to the conclusion that, in spite of the inner beauty of plain text, some things were better off as rich text or contained inside an app’s database. By saving links to interesting webpages as plain text URLs, I was losing the ability to easily tap on them and open them in a browser; by organizing tasks in a plain text list, I started feeling like a GTD hippie, presumptuously denying the higher appeal of tools like OmniFocus and Reminders. Plain text is great…until it’s not. It’s silly to deny the fact that, in today’s modern Web, we’re dealing with all kinds of rich content, which gets lost in the transition to plain text or hierarchical file structures (such as Dropbox); managing tasks in a text list is an elegant, old-fashioned concept that I’m sure Don Draper would have appreciated 50 years ago, but that, today, I wouldn’t choose over smart features like alarms, notifications, and location data in my todo app. I didn’t drop plain text altogether: I chose plain text for some tasks, and started using other apps for different purposes.

I get that — but I think Viticci is neglecting a really interesting development in recent writing software, what we might call enhanced plain text. (Maybe there’s an actual name for this and I just don’t know it; if so, please let me know in the comments.) For instance, I am writing this post, in plain text, in a remarkable new iPad app called Editorial. But this is what I see as I type:

In Editorial, I create plain text files but, instead of a .txt file extension, I label it as .md, for Markdown, John Gruber’s simple markup syntax. Editorial then provides appropriate syntax highlighting, as you can see from the image, and when I’m ready it will, with a single click, convert this document to nicely formatted HTML, ready for posting.

But, as when you view an HTML file in your browser (HTML files also being plain text), what changes here is merely the presentation, not the text itself. If I ever find myself trying to open this file in a text editor that doesn’t recognize the .md extension, I just have to change it to .txt and my file will be perfectly readable. So an app like Editorial gives me the simplicity and portability of plain text with structural markup that makes that text easier for me to read and use.

Similarly, when I’m on my Mac I take all my notes in an app called nvALT, in which I use plain text files only — but the app recognizes links I paste or type in and makes them clickable, and in one note I can link to another one simply by placing its title in [[double brackets, like this]] — and now that title becomes clickable: a click takes me to that note. This, along with the use of tags, enables me to keep all my research for the book I’m working on highly organized and easily accessible — a major boon for me.

Or consider TaskPaper, an app that’s far too little-known: it’s a simple but very useful task manager, which can also serve as an outliner. In TaskPaper I can keep track of projects, tasks, and sub-tasks in a hierarchical list with clickable tags; and I can create a color scheme that keeps all these elements visually distinct from one another. And yet .taskpaper files are just text files: as with .md files, I can just change the extension to .txt with no loss of data.

And then there’s LaTeX, about which I can geek out so enthusiastically that I probably shouldn’t even allow myself to get started….

Anyway, I love apps that do this: that give the structural and visual appeal we typically associate with complicated and proprietary file formats while retaining the underlying simplicity and universality of plain text. So while there may be good reasons for going beyond plain text at times, those times don’t come around as frequently as many people think. I’m gonna keep preaching that Gospel.