Replacing Word with MultiMarkdown – Part 2

Written on:July 24, 2013
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In Part 1 of my article about “Replacing Word with MultiMarkdown” I provided my reasons for doing so. This part will address the features supported and challenges that may exist in getting free of Word.

To exchange documents with non-MultiMarkdown users, the last stage of my workflow requires Word-level reviewing and commenting tools. Most of those documents can be created with just about any text editor and can be translated into a Word format (.doc or .docx) or even a PDF with commenting and markup features enabled without additional handling.

Because MultiMarkdown being a superset of Markdown, it can handle many of the complex features which have become a pre-requisite for standards work. These additional features are:

  • footnotes
  • tables
  • citations and bibliography
  • math support
  • automatic cross-referencing ability
  • smart typography, with support for multiple languages
  • image attributes
  • table and image captions
  • definition lists
  • glossary entries
  • document metadata

One of the biggest challenges writers face today is the paper paradigm where documents are created with the intention that they are going to be printed out. Therefore any digital version still needs to be functional. Because these documents often include cross references between sections, figures and tables, these references need to remain intelligible when printed out.

If documents were never going to be printed and could remain digital, then this referencing system could be replaced with internal hyperlinks which don’t need to be attached to dynamic paragraph references. In the current model it is important to be able to not only create a reference in one, but to have that reference link capable of being dynamically updated as the item being referenced changes position in the document.

The first question is whether it is possible to emulate this referencing model using MMD? The answer is yes, MMD added the feature to create internal links inside a paragraph to any document heading. To create cross references/links within paragraphs require the insertion of an anchor point using html (actually xhtml):

<a id="top"></a>

To demonstrate I added this one to the top of this article. To jump to that location the syntax required is:

Take me to the [Top](#top) ....

To see it in action click here to take me to the Top. Give it a try!

A bigger challenge is extending the paragraph numbering syntax to accommodate multi-level numbering. Multi-level numbering is painful, especially as the structure becomes too complex (e.g Currently it is the common method of applying a hierarchical structure to standards documents with headings, sub-headings, paragraphs below each heading level and numbered lists thrown in for good measure. These is solely a paper-based requirement. In web-based documents multi-level numbering are less useful.

The numbering syntax in MMD is very flat and offers ordered (numbered) or unordered (bullet) lists. For numbered list each level has its own number sequence starting at one (1). Ideally, it would be great to be able to accommodate more complex paragraph numbering for standards documents, however, the International Standards body I work with is in the process to develop solution that does not require the writers drafting the standard to worry about format and instead concentrate on content. All they require a simple indication what are heading, lists etc. This sounds like a opportunity to use MultiMarkdown. If there is a need to create a PDF or Word document that includes multi-level list numbering, it can be done by using MultiMarkdown to create a LaTeX formatted output.

One main reason for using Word in the Standardization area is to use the change tracking feature. This allows multiple editors and reviewers of draft text to collaborate remotely. Would’t you know this is now available for MultiMarkdown as well.

Thanks to Gabe Weatherhead and Erik Hess we now have CriticMarkup. They achieved to build a readable and easy to grasp syntax which is dead simple to write – everything is truly in the spirit of Markdown. CriticMarkup, or CM, uses five different kinds of “Critic marks” to denote additions, deletions, substations, comments and highlights. These use the following plain-text characters to do their work:

Addition {++ ++}

Deletion {– –}

Substitution {~~ ~> ~~}

Comment {>> <<}

Highlight {== ==}{>> <<}

In summary, [Multi]Markdown allows writers to focus on content, many of the features of today’s word processors are just a distraction (e.g. (fonts, line spacing or style sheets). Adding markup for document structure (e.g. title, authors or abstract) on the other hand is overly complicated with tools such as Microsft Word. One of the big advantages of MultiMarkdown is that the format can not only be translated to HTML, but also to other formats such as RTF, Microsot Word, LaTeX, ePub and PDF, as these are the formats typically use for final distribution.

I hope I provide enough information that you give MultiMarkdown a try. MMD will not provide a distraction free writing environment, but also ensure that your are not tied to a proprietary file format that does not ensure interoperability over time.

In Part 3 I will wrap-up by provide some more information about the lightweight Markups, editors and support tools I mention.