Tools, Part 1: Plain text

In our research management course (which is a completely different story to be told another time) we learned that we should use some time to “sharpen our knife”. Being a big fan of good craftsmanship also and particularly in academic work, I liked the idea that good tools need maintenance. I am not living up to my ideal, admittedly, because I play too much with my tools, but I am constantly surprised how academics keep up with the ok-ish tools provided to them by Microsoft [^cannot say much about Apple products since I avoid them and they are easy to avoid]. So here is part one of my series on really good academic tools, 2019-edition:

Plain text is a must. Why? Because of portability and compatibility and because it truly can do everything an academic needs. I have played a lot with different minimal markup languages to include some styling (bold, italics) and hierarchical structure (title, heading 1, etc). Asciidoc was for a long time my favourite because I liked how it rendered to docbook, an xml format which can be used to create very nice looking documentation. But in the end Markdown rules the plain text world and I succumb to its simplicity, and more importantly the wealth of tools and extensions that have been created around it.

Another advantage of plain text is that it is handled just fine by almost every editor, and more and more editors provide some sort of Markdown syntax highlighting. Right now, Atom is my main editing machine, despite its resource hunger (I have a very powerful laptop by courtesy of my rich employer: the Norwegian state) and its ecosystem of ‘packages’. The git(hub) package in its simplicity is a highly functional git frontend for writers and I use the outline pane and zotero picker every day. For a while I looked for ‘distraction free’ modes everywhere (and of course Atom has you covered there), but I discovered that I can live (or: write) just fine with some useful distractions provided by these packages. Other small enhancements that I use are the word count and the clock package. I also like that here, as in many other editors, I can have several files open at any time in tabs and that these open when I open the editor, so that I have the three or four texts that I am working on at any time in front of me when starting to work. This is essential in my everlasting fight against procrastination which often starts with the complete impossibility to click on the “open file” button.

Honorable mentions of the markdown world are Typora and Zettlr, the first focuses on looks and the second, a rather new tool, wants to be a universal tool for the plain text academic but - so far - it lacks the contributing community that has made the (closed-source) Sublime text and (soon to be owned by Microsoft) Atom such versatile tools.

What about Emacs and Vim some of you may ask. I really tried to like Emacs because of the fabulous org mode. I tried Emacs derivates, I changed my work flow, but fiddling in its configuration file is just not for everyone. So for quick edit jobs on the terminal, Vim is my choice, even though I know that I am only scratching at the surface of its elaborate possibilities.

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Thomas Berker
Professor of Science and Technology Studies

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