At Hourigan & Co, a large proportion of our projects are either books for self-publishing authors, theses and papers for academics and graduate students, and small business websites.

These projects have one big thing in common: they are all complex documents that involve a lot of structure. Arguably, all documents, even some of the smaller ones like this post, benefit from being thought about in a structured way.

Many people, including myself, have spent many, many hours doing their work in Microsoft Word. It tends to be installed on the computers at our schools and offices, and then because it’s what we’re used to, it ends up on our home computers, too.

But Word has a couple of crucial flaws:

  1. It has so many features it’s confusing and distracting
  2. It doesn’t make it easy to write with structure
  3. It wasn’t built for collaboration.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at alternative tools. And the best that I’ve come across are Markdown and Draft.

Writing with Markdown

Markdown is a very simple syntax for writing structured and formatted documents in plain text.

Document structure is actually very simple. There aren’t too many parts to the average document. There are ordinary paragraphs, different heading levels, bold and italic emphasis, block quotes, lists, and when we look at the web, we have links as well.

Markdown gives you a way to show these structural elements using symbols you could find on a typewriter. There are no buttons and no keyboard shortcuts. You don’t even need a mouse (though it typically helps).

Here’s what Markdown looks like:


# Heading 1

An ordinary paragraph needs no special markings.

All you need to do is separate paragraphs with a blank line.

## Heading 2

### Heading 3

> Block quote. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.
Pellentesque pretium elementum eros, ac dignissim purus volutpat et.

**bold**  
*italic*

* bulleted list item 1
* bulleted list item 2

1. numbered list item 1
2. numbered list item 2

[link text](http://linkurl.com)

<!--- Comment. -->

----

and here’s how it looks when you convert it to HTML or rich text:

Heading 1

An ordinary paragraph needs no special markings.

All you need to do is separate paragraphs with a blank line.

Heading 2

Heading 3

Block quote. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Pellentesque pretium elementum eros, ac dignissim purus volutpat et. Integer eleifend, odio id tincidunt rhoncus, orci lorem faucibus orci, sed euismod sapien lectus sed erat.

bold
italic

  • bulleted list item 1
  • bulleted list item 2
  1. numbered list item 1
  2. numbered list item 2

link text


Notice how the comment doesn’t show at all? When you’re typing in Markdown, you can leave comments to others and they won’t appear in the output.

Tools for writing with Markdown

You can write Markdown in any program that will take text input, even Word, and cut or paste it into any other. It’s still Markdown. But some programs are better suited to it than others. Generally, these programs are called “text editors”.

Some are simple and distraction free, like Byword, iA Writer, and WriteMonkey. Others have a wider range of features and are aimed at programmers, like Sublime Text and Atom.

When you’re trying a new process like this, having to install new software that can be daunting. That’s where Draft comes in. It has a lot of the same great distraction-free qualities of editors like iA Writer, but since it’s online, you can try it easily.

Collaborating online with Draft

Using an online writing tool has another advantage: it makes collaboration easy.

  • You can share documents written in Draft by sharing a link or emailing it to your collaborators.
  • You can leave a comment on a document by pressing Ctrl+/ or Cmd+/, and it will be emailed to everyone you’ve shared it with.
  • A special view allows you to see and accept or reject edits other users have made.
  • By pressing Ctrl+R or Cmd+R, you can switch to a preview mode that shows you how your document looks when exported to HTML or rich text.

You can learn more about what Draft can do by reading its online manual.

Draft isn’t the only tool like this: Google Docs is also great for collaboration. But Docs tries very hard to copy Word so users will find it familar, and that’s not entirely a good thing. Draft is something very different, and better suited to producing structured documents like books, theses, and websites.

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Ben Hourigan is an Australian-born novelist and freelance editor. His novels Kiss Me, Genius Boy (2011) and My Generation’s Lament have been Kindle bestsellers, reaching #9 and #10 in the World Literature > Australia & Oceania category. Since 2013, Ben has worked full-time at Hourigan & Co. while writing his third book. As Hourigan & Co. grows, Ben continues to work with businesses and institutions while cultivating a growing practice in editing, publishing, marketing, and mentoring for self-published authors.
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