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Document Creation software

Submitted by Jason Griffey on May 17, 2008 - 4:59pm

I'd like to talk about a style of software that everyone in libraries is definitely familiar with--the massive interconnected hunk of software that does everything. In libraries, that could be the ILS, but what I'm going to talk about today is something that almost everyone is familiar with: the Microsoft Office suite. In fact, let's just take a single piece of the suite: Microsoft Word. Word is easily the most popular word processing program in the US. But as we know from reality television, popular does not always equal good. Is Word the best at performing a specific function? Pick any single writing assignment or a single piece of functionality from Word. Can you think of a way to do it better, or do it differently that makes more sense for your workflow? What if you could swap out just that one activity for a piece that makes it better?

Word is not good at anything specifically because it is an acceptable solution for a variety of functions. With generality comes mediocrity in function, and with specialization comes excellence (this comes from a person who studied Philosophy and Library Science specifically because he didn't want to specialize, for whatever that is worth).

What sort of tools give you limited functionality but advantages derived from specificity? Since writing is such a large part of our professional development, I've picked a handful of writing tools that everyone should take a look at, and that improve on Word in significant ways.

First up is my very favorite writing application, Writeroom.  Writeroom is for Mac OSX, but there is a freeware Windows equivalent that is called Darkroom. The beauty of both of these applications is the intense focus on a single objective: writing. You can just pump words onto paper, with no overhead for styling them and no worrying about Word auto-correcting your ordered list into something you don't want. You simply have text on a black screen. Even better, both of these applications black out the rest of the screen completely, forcing you to focus solely on the words at hand. These applications are reminiscent of writing in the good old days of monochrome CRT screens--they both give you an unobstructed landscape for creation.

My other recommendation is at the extreme other end of the need for a writing tool. When you are preparing a manuscript or doing extremely technical writing, especially writing that involves equations or other very complicated typographic problems, you could do much worse than learning how to use LaTeX. LaTeX is a system that uses the Tex typographic language to describe very precise layouts of type, and separates the writing from the presentation. This is very similar to the way in which webpage creation has evolved, and the separation of content and style is a standard for current websites. It is also the standard for document creation in many of the sciences, and is increasingly popular in all academic disciplines.

The downside to LaTeX is that, like many highly technical things, it is very difficult to begin using if you have never done so before. There are tools to ease the initial learning curve into something less than Everest proportions. The most popular of these is a program called LyX, which places a graphical front-end on the LaTeX engine. It bills itself as a WYMIWYG (What You Mean is What You Get) document processor, where you embed the type section/object and then let the typesetting engine actually render it. If you have a serious manuscript you are working on, LaTeX or LyX may be exactly the thing that saves your sanity from Word.

The next time you are particularly frustrated with software that doesn't quite do what you want, ask yourself if you're only using it because it is tied to other things. Then see if there's a better solution out there for you or your library.

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Comments (7)

Linux isn't currently geared

Linux isn't currently geared towards the average user. A part of why most people revert is because they chose the wrong version, there are some user friendlier versions out there, but all versions still have compatibility issues.

As a writing platform it is sound as can be, very stable and responsive.

I am a LATEX user and I've never had any problems, like with windows where some other program running in the background would break and you'd lose everything.

I tried Linux once, it

I tried Linux once, it didn't go to well so i reverted back to good ol' windows. I decided to try it out as my fellow copywriters recommended it as it was the "perfect" platform for writing. However, I found myself fraught with driver issues, my sound wouldn't work and neither would my internet connection. So it was back to Windows and Darkroom for me.

If you like the mac OSX but

If you like the mac OSX but use windows, Id recommend you give linux mint or ubunto a try (both are based on the same engine). Both are highly customizable and let you create your perfect writer's platform. It can run all the programs a writer needs including the microsoft office suit, adobe acrobat and LaTeX.

I wouldn't be able to use

I wouldn't be able to use latex without Lyx, I'm certain nearly 90% of all other people couldn't either. We are writers not programmers. The interface is still a bit sloppy but it lets us get our writing done no problem. For most of my work or if I have an idea I need to get down quickly, I'll use word then probably take what I've written into another program to finish it up.

Interesting article, who

Interesting article, who said anything about OO? LaTeX lets you directly edit and publish your work on the net without needing any extra complicated tools. This is great because it lets us writers/bloggers focus on being writers/bloggers :)

Since when can OO Writer

Since when can OO Writer upload files? I'm using the latest version openoffice and it doesn't have the ability to upload files.

The point is we want a powerful online writing solution for amateur and pro authors alike. It is worth getting over the steep learning curve and master the basic of LaTeX if you are serious about making a name for yourself on the internet in writing.

I agree with you about the

I agree with you about the power of LaTeX, and its steep learning curve. For an online illustration of the power of LaTeX, see Wikipublisher. This uses LaTeX as a back-end to a wiki, so people can produce high quality pdf files from a web site. These can then be printed. Using a wiki provides a simplified markup that is easy to learn, and it also enforces separation of content from presentation. This lets authors focus on writing, and allows the same content to be read online and in print. The writer's web browser becomes the site's content editor and front end for both web and print.

The pdf icon on a Wikipublisher page passes content to LaTeX for formatting, and collections of pages can be assembled into a single document for printing using a 'Typeset' function. Try it for yourself!