Workflow: Formatting

Welcome to my fifth and final post on workflow. I’ve talked about my general workflow and tool choices as well as my capture, drafting, and revising processes. For me workflow has been something to focus on and refine, not for its own sake, but a task undertaken to increase the transparency of my tools. I really want to focus primarily on the “flow” part of the term.

Ultimately my goal is to not fiddle with the tools or to wonder how the tool works. I want to be able to settle into the writing with as few obstructions as possible. It’s taken me a long time to choose the tools and processes that work the best for me. It’s been a good investment, because I am now comfortable with them, and in all honestly, I don’t think about them much at all except when necessity forces me to use tools and processes that don’t work well with my preferred approach.

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Markdown

The final step in my workflow is formatting. I’ve mentioned that I write in text documents using a plain text markup formatting syntax called Markdown. The internet is overflowing with descriptions of Markdown and how it works. If you want to know more, I’d suggest you begin here with John Gruber, who started it all. Markdown allows you to designate your desired formatting in the simplest way possible without actually formatting the document. This allows you to format in plain text, which is the smallest, most future-proof and backward-compatible document format there is. Markdown allows anyone to see, at a glance, your intentions. It also allows you to create and share documents that might end up being formatted differently depending on the medium (webpage, blog, print, social media, etc.).

Here’s an example of Markdown syntax. There are also ways to use Markdown or one of its derivatives (MultiMarkdown, for example) to structure tables, footnotes, and the like.

Here’s a more substantial list of Markdown syntax.

Markdown has not been widely adopted

Markdown is really fantastic especially for writing that will appear on the web, but it hasn’t been widely adopted outside of the programming and blogging world. It’s a shame because it’s so easy to use and creates all kinds of consistency in application, even when preparing documents for print. You can even use a Markdown derivative for formatting heavy documents such as screen plays. It’s called Fountain, and I love it.

Markdown’s real power comes from it’s ability to work with different style sheets for different purposes. I have a style sheet for printing early drafts of fiction projects, which uses Courier font, 12 point, 2.0 line spacing, 1 inch margins, page numbering in the upper right hand corner. I like this formatting because it (a) reminds me that the document isn’t even close to done, (b) the monospaced Courier font gives me more red pencil room for revision, and (c) it allows me to visually distinguish early drafts from later ones.

I also have a style sheet for final drafts that really fits itself for use in Microsoft word. That style sheet uses Georgia, 11 point, 1.5 line spacing, 1 inch margins, clearly identifiably section breaks, and running headers with the work’s title, my name, and the page number. All of this is designed to make it easy for my agent to work with, handle, and share the document. If he was a Markdown user, this would be a different kind of article. But, alas, Word is the industry standard, and I have come to the realization that it’s less trouble to make my workflow and formatting as “empathetic” as possible. As I have mentioned before, the new Word for Mac and iOS is really quite good and it’s less trouble for me to use Word comfortably, which has made my life a lot easier.

Empathetic Formatting

For a long time, especially in graduate school, I was the main typesetter, designer, and production editor for a string of literary journals. This meant I spent a lot of time taking in and processing other people’s documents, almost all of them done in Word, and almost all of them chock full of strange and vexing formatting. Double spaces after periods, all kinds of tabs, four spaces then a “hard return,” all sorts of junk formatting that didn’t match the style sheet and specifications of our publication. Even when we’d send along a style sheet the formatting would come to us done however the writer wanted it formatted.

This is where I came up with the term “empathetic formatting.” I realized that what designers and typesetters wanted was the least amount of specialized formatting possible. They would be using pre-established house styles for all the document elements, which they would apply as paragraph or character elements. It would be easiest to strip all formatting from a document, which would cause its own set of problems because that would erase all of the formatting. I was doing most of this work before the advent of Markdown, but even if we would have had it then, I think it would have been very difficult to re-train writers to use it.

As a writer, you should go through your final drafts and use the Find/Replace function to look for extra spaces, tabs, and returns. It’s a small way to make the design people happy, and they are good people to keep happy.

What I do now when I have to work with the writing of other people is convert their .docx files to text files formatted with Markdown. I have a number of tools that help me with that conversion. I work with those documents this way, and then place the writing into the design software, webpage, or blog directly. It is hugely more efficient. The writer gets to do what they are comfortable with, and I get to work in a way that makes sense and is the most efficient for my workflow. Empathetic formatting leads to empathetic workflows.

Empathetic Workflows

In the end, the font you choose, the line spacing, and all of that is really a matter of personal preference until you have to start working with others. At this point, I think it’s the responsibility of writers to be as flexible and neutral as possible. For this blog post, I write in Ulysses, using a modified form of Markdown devised by the Ulysses developers, I export the document when I’m done as a Word .docx file with links and images embedded, then email it in. It only took a couple of emails to learn what Thinking Through Our Fingers wanted and needed and only a couple of extra steps to get the document to them in that format.

Your ability to be flexible and neutral in your final formatting really depends on your facility with your tools and the other tools people might be using. You need to know enough about your own workflow to ask good questions about the workflows of others. Once you have become empathetic and flexible, you’ll find that the business end of writing (editing, proofreading, redlining proofs, etc.) becomes a lot less stressful. You’ll be able to focus on the real creativity, because the necessary evils of formatting kind of take care of themselves.
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Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

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