The great migration

WriteUp iPad
WriteUp, my favorite Markdown editor, running on my iPad.

Over the past several years I’ve been on an interesting word processing journey. First, I decided to migrate from a traditional desktop suite to the online offering Google Docs (which is now part of Google Drive). I hadn’t originally expected to stick with Google Docs for my regular word processor, but I quickly became hooked on both it’s speed and the way I could integrate Google Docs with the mobile office suites on my iPhone. Suddenly, the idea of “syncing” was gone. With Google Docs my documents lived in the cloud — and my edits followed me on wherever I was.

My shift to Google Docs was significant, but even after migrating to it I was using my MacBook for my writing. Then, on a cold day in March of 2011, I picked up a device which would take me on the next step of the journey — I got an iPad 2. We had purchased a first generation iPad for my son, who is visually impaired, shortly after they came out — I was shocked by how much I enjoyed using the tablet. I borrowed his iPad several times for meetings, and was amazed by its portability, ease of use, and invisibility. I had always used my laptop when meeting with people to make plans for special services, weddings, and funerals. While the laptop was functional, it was far from elegant — I always felt like there was a wall between me and the people with whom I was meeting. When I was using my son’s iPad I kept the functionality of planning services electronically, but the wall of separation caused by a laptop vanished. The iPad had a similar form-factor to a pad of paper, and people interacted with me as though that’s what I was using. I resolved to get the next iteration for myself when it came out.

I acquired a bluetooth keyboard soon after I purchased my iPad, and decided to try my hand at writing a sermon on the device. At first, I didn’t much care for the process of writing on my iPad. The interface in my mobile office suite was clean, but it took too much effort to change formatting. It also didn’t have support for paragraph styles to create structured documents. In the end, however, the extreme portability of my iPad won me over. The iPad was lighter, less obtrusive, and lended itself to distraction-less writing. It got to the point where I actually felt annoyed when I had to use my MacBook whenever I sat down to write my sermon.

For over a year I wrote my sermons on my iPad using a mobile office suite. It worked. The suite had some good outline support, and synced with Google Docs very well. I still wanted a decent setup for paragraph styles and was irked by how hard it was to format text — but the pros of writing on my iPad outweighed these frustrations. Then two occurrences converged and changed my sermon writing work-flow one more time.

The first of these was the shift from Google Docs to Google Drive. Suddenly mobile suite, which had played well with Google Drive so well, became unstable. This was not an acceptable state of affairs, and I began to wonder if there was be a better workflow for me.

The answer came to me when I became aware of a plain-text markup system called “markdown.” The simple style-codes in Markdown keeps documents human-readable while allowing for the creation of highly structured documents, and quick exporting to PDF, HTML, and other formats. The flexibility, ease of use, and incredible portability won me over. I traded the ability to outline as I’d been used to, but gained the ability to write documents with good structure and clean formatting without having to ever take my keys off the keyboard. Now my documents live in dropbox, are synced in real-time, and have no dependency on a specific file format or service to continue being useful for years to come. Even if dropbox goes away, for example, I’ll still have my local copies and be able to read my files with any text-editor. It’s been quite a journey over these last couple of years from a desktop office suite, to cloud-based office suite, to dropbox linked plain text markup which is truly mobile.  In fact, this post was written in markdown, I just copied it’s HTML output to the WordPress editor.

While I’m not using Markdown for all my writing, I’m currently writing a novel in Scrivener, I am no longer worrying about manually formatting my text as I write.  It’s been quite freeing.