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Journal CleverNickName's Journal: Writing with Open Source tools 30

There's no "Ask Slashdot" topic available for user journals, but I am intrigued by this reader's question, and I thought it was worth a try to tap into the collective wisdom of Slashdot.

Hi Wil,

you mentioned some time ago in your blog that you did a presentation on writing your book(s) using open source tools. Have you posted these slides (or whatever the medium was) anywhere?

I'm asking as I am about to embark on a writing project that will be north of 80,000 words (assuming I get past the 5,000 word 'pain barrier' that killed me last time) and recent experience with M$ Word has, quite frankly, scared the bejaysus out of me.

Anyways, if you get this it would be great to see you share some of your experiences using OSS to write.



I replied:

Hi Conrad,

Sadly, I didn't use any slides . . . that's *way* over my level of preparation for anything I do.

My talk pretty much focused on how I used to compose and edit my two current books, and what some of the pitfalls were.

I can summarize briefly for you: OO.o is a fantastic word processing suite, and did everything that I needed it to do. I was particularly impressed by the "stylist" in OO.o, which exists, I think, because they use some sort of XML-ish language behind the scenes. The stylist allowed me to assign something similar to "classes" to diffferent areas of my text, and was extremely useful in the design of "Just A Geek."

The only time I ran into an annoying limitation was moving to and from the .doc format, because OO.o and MSWord don't play nicely in regards to formatting. I worked around this by using .rtf format, when I needed to send my work out to other people (for notes and stuff). There were a few limitations in formatting, but they were purely aesthetic and didn't affect the actual data in any way.

I briefly looked at Abiword and KOffice, and found them both to be well-written and stable, but they were far more limited than OO.o.

In terms of just putting together a manuscript without regard to formatting, you could work very easily with Kwrite, or Kate, the same way that many other writers use BBEdit on the Mac.

When I finally had a finished product that I liked, I used to print to a .ps file, then used the ps2pdf13 command line tool to convert it into a .pdf document, which I sent to my printer. I understand that the newest version of OO.o has a very robust built-in pdf converter which makes that extra step unnecessary. I should also point out that converting files to .pdf on *nix always results in smaller filesizes than if you'd done it on a Mac or Windows platform. Hooray for us.

I'll post this e-mail to my Slashdot journal (CleverNickName) and maybe some of the Slashdotters will have good advice of their own to share with us.

Best of luck with your novel. Just go one scene at a time, and you'll be past 5K words before you know it!


My presentaton was pretty much limited to "I like this, I don't like this, and this thing was cool." I didn't have the time to get into a 1:1 comparison among all the different Open Source word processing suites. Do Slashdotters have any comments or suggestions? I find myself using Kate more and more when I compose weblog entries or shorter columns for magazines and the like. I occasionally use Abiword to compose and format letters and fax covers when time is a factor (Abiword loads much faster than

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Writing with Open Source tools

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  • by FortKnox ( 169099 ) on Monday March 01, 2004 @01:53PM (#8431012) Homepage Journal
    I'm a coder, not a writer, so I can only give out my experiences as such.

    I find that open source tools are usually ackward at first. Its away from the norm you are used to, but open source is usually much more powerful.
    It always seems like you are using a tool that is primative to the commercial version, but once you really understand the tool you are using and all the shortcuts and most of the features, it really opens up and how much you can do above and over any commercial product on the market.

    This is how I feel when I code in eclipse vs JBuilder. I resisted the change for so long until I really learned eclipse, and then I realized I get more for eclipse than I do the fully feature-filled $800 version of JBuilder. And now I have finally learned to try all the features of an open source tool before I pass judgement on it.
    • An interesting microcosm to show the difference between the power of Open Source Tools and their closed source alternatives, I think, is to look at console shells. Compare bash to MS-DOS or the "cmd" command in NT-based systems.

      Bash is, on the outside, a bit more annoying to figure out if you're used to Windows and/or DOS-based systems. ls is now dir (though "ln -s ls /bin/dir" isn't too difficult), and a couple of the formatting is different (IE, wtf are the symbols next to it in ls -l?), edit is now vi o
      • Oh yeah. My point.

        Point is that the Open Source stuff is designed to do everything easily and quickly, even if that means the learning curve is a bit more than what you'd be used to. Sometimes it's really annoying to do menial tasks over and over. And this is where a very high-level shell script can come in super handy. Nowadays with ActiveState or CygWin you can do this on a closed-source system, but rarely does this level of outright convenience given to those willing to learn it come to the closed sourc
  • Hey! Stop wasting time on /. and finish the poker story on WWdN. :-)
  • by OctaneZ ( 73357 ) <ben-slashdot2@um ... g minus language> on Monday March 01, 2004 @02:07PM (#8431221) Journal
    Eleven Tips for Moving to OpenOffice []. The magazine's focus this month was Linux on the desktop, and while OpenOffice is far from perfect (why does it not play nice with CUPS yet!?!?) this gives a very brief idea of what a transition could be like, and what to look for.
    • Eleven Tips for Moving to OpenOffice.

      The problem with OpenOffice is that it doesn't fix any of the problems of Word, it merely seeks to duplicate them. Abiword looks like a far more promising option, particularly with version 2, where it's changed from an interesting proof of concept to a really usable program.

      But ultimately, all the word processors I've found are just too poor in terms of typesetting quality to be of any real use. Until I find one that can handle ligatures, I'll stick with groff and/or

      • But ultimately, all the word processors I've found are just too poor in terms of typesetting quality to be of any real use.
        Yup. Amen to that. I do all my short writing in Simpletext and my longer writing in, yes Wil, BBEdit. Then when the content aspect is pretty much done, I drop it all into Quark XPress and do my final stuff there.
        I'm sorry, but once a guy gets used to real type control, everything else just feels grotty.
        Of course, as was pointed out above, so much of it is comfort. I've been using XPr
  • If you're writing for science/engineering/mathematics, the standard is to use LaTeX. [] I haven't studied the license [] in any detail (i.e. can't tell you if it is Free Software or not). I haven't even installed it myself since I still use MS Word and the bundled Equation Editor, in MacOS X 10.3. Lack of an equation editor in OpenOffice is what has prevented me from migrating.
    • Yes, LaTeX is free software (though there are some problems with their latest attempt to revise their license).

      LaTeX is the way to go if you have to do any non-trivial math. Writing with LaTeX ( and TeX) take a whole differenet mind set though. It is much more like writing html by hand, than like using Word. That said once you get past the learning curve, you'll never want to go back to Equation Editor.

  • I think my next programming project (once I finish the other 72, of course) is going to be a text drafter. Yes, there are a good many fine and wonderful open source text editors, but none of them do exactly what I want them to. (Or at the very least, won't do it without some hefty hacking or learning of obscure commands and/or languages.)

    Here are the specifications. Say I sit down to begin drafting a term paper or something. I want to open up an 80x25 console (not an X window), and start banging away at th
    • I believe pico, the editor that comes with pine but is sometimes recommended to be used independently, does this.

      It's console based, so it's not really a GUI text editor.

      • I used pico and nano for quite a while a few years back. They both do word wrapping, but if you delete some words on a line, text from the line below does not automatically come up to fill the line back in. You have to manually press Ctrl+J each time for that to happen. It works, but doesn't quite meet my needs because it misses that little "automatically" aspect. Appreciate the suggestion, though.
    • When I write a block of text, the program should wrap the sentences automatically, placing actual newlines at the end of each line when the file is saved. This way, when I want to view the file with standard Unix tools (cat, less, etc), the words don't appear broken in the middle, and if viewed in a GUI text editor (not a word processor, mind you), I don't have to endure the torture of having to scroll horizontally just to read a paragraph.

      Dear god, no.

      word-wrap was invented for a reason. You wouldn't u
    • PC-Write did exactly what you're asking for ... ten or fifteen years ago, for MS-DOS. It was, to steal a phrase, a huge improvement over most of its successors.
    • Now here is where we get down to why there can't be one solution for every person. To me, you've just missed half of the important tools and included multiple things that immediately give me the heebie-jeebies.
      Especially now that I occasionally write for publication, word counts, line counts, character count, and so on are the second order of business (a rich search and replace being the first).

      Now, from a "writing for publication" standpoint, the idea of a standard, *any* standard column width, is deepl

      • You make some interesting points, but bear in mind that you are a professional writer and you rely on professional tools. I am not and I do not. My text drafter program would be deliberately narrow-minded. I might be the only person in the known universe who would actually be happy to use it, and that would be fine with me. All I want is something that's going to let me focus on getting my words onto the screen as I have a microscopic attention span and limited creativity and usually need all the help I can
        • We are clearly of the same mind and just pursuing different approaches. All isssues of experience and text destination aside, would it be a misstatement to say that I want a tool for a purist and you want a tool for a pragmatist?

          Predictably, I react to Linus Torvald's statement with an energetic and reflexive "of course!" But I well remember that back in those long-gone days when I tried my hand at coding I was very grateful for debuggers since my eye simply wasn't practiced enough to make a manual approac
  • Kate (Score:3, Interesting)

    by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) <bittercode@gmail> on Monday March 01, 2004 @03:12PM (#8432227) Homepage Journal
    I use Kate when I am getting started on something. I find that I really need to focus on content first and then editing that content before I even let formatting enter my mind. This is because I can't really think about both things at the same time. The minute I start worrying about format- that comes to the forefront and the actual writing gets pushed to the side. So I don't let myself have a lot of options until the words are out.

    I have to imagine that the art of writing is so highly individualized that at best you can look at someone elses example- and if it seems to resonate as a good possibility- you give it a try. If it doesn't work- drop it and find what does.

  • I've used both, and it IS possible to get almost the same formating, Will--especially if you're writing text, and not doing page-layout. (And, yes, Word does do styles.) I did three journals on OO a while back:

    OpenOffice Annoyances []

    a href="// "> OpenOffice : The good part that makes me want to use it

    OpenOffice: Some suggestions []

    The above were written with regards to 1.0, but most of the problems/suggestions still exist.

    In a nutshell, for wr

    • I have to disagree with your evaluation with MS Word. For large documents (>100 pages), Word has serious problems. This is based on my (admittedly long ago) tech support experience with Office '97 and my technical writing experience with Office 2K. Larger Word docs frequently lose all formatting for large sections. This is because Word loads most of the .doc file into RAM, creating the temp file. If your RAM isn't big enough, Word starts choking. Maybe this problem has been solved in Office 2003 or XP, I
      • Word has a 32MB file size limit (as of 2000 / XP). If you do a lot of complex page layout bits--such as using a bunch of floating objects ot tables, or let Word auto-define styles, it will choke on it.

        However, if you keep it to a simple and standard formatting--like, for example, an author would do when writing a non-technical book--Word can easily handle documents in the hundreds of thousands of words in size. I've got a 140,000 word novel done in word, and the program doesn't even choke on it. OTOH, w
      • I have the exact same experience, but went to PageMaker instead. Big-ass tech doc (TenFour TFS Gateway 3 Admin Reference Manual) with lots of screenshots. Everytime I printed a page, Word re-flowed the entire document so I had to go through it manually to fix orphans and re-create indices. It was a royal pain to convert to PM, but I made that up in saved time in a week or so.

        Word is fine for small docs with no real formatting or printing needs, or if you just have text, but I find I do more and more of th

  • Plain text (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ChaosDiscord ( 4913 ) on Monday March 01, 2004 @03:52PM (#8432759) Homepage Journal

    Word processors have the advantage that they are pretty simple to get going with, but they don't tend to scale too well. For people willing to put up with a bit of effort up front to save effort in the long run I suggest just about any simple text format. You'll want some formatting capabilities, but just a bare minimum (say, the ability to mark titles and subtitles, bold, and italic. For a technical book, indexing.) There are multiple advantages to a human readable text format. You can do meaningful diffs in any version control system. You can easily convert the file to any other system (going from a simple ad-hoc markup language to formatting in Word is relatively straight forward; just craft a few search and replaces to search for your markup and replace it with styled information).

    Unless you're working on something with lots of complex formatting (lots of tables, equations, etc), adding the real styling after the fact is quite easy and will be more efficient in the long run. Plain text means you're not spending time fiddling with the look of your chapter headings, you can focus on writing.

    If you're writing something that almost no formatting (say, a novel), I'd just use a plain text file, maybe with some ad-hoc markup for italics. For something a bit more powerful I'd go with LaTeX. (LaTeX has a number of flaws, but if you're using it for simple work it's easy to convert to another format.)

    Of course, if you're not the sort of person who is willing to hack out a few complex search and replaces or maybe a small script than this advice is probably useless. For people who really aren't techies and just want to write I regrettably don't have any suggestions.

  • LaTeX (Score:4, Informative)

    by naoursla ( 99850 ) on Monday March 01, 2004 @08:07PM (#8435171) Homepage Journal
    If you are writing a book, you might want to seriously consider LaTeX. The idea behing it is similar to htlm (as someone else mentioned). You write your document with annotations about what the different components are. You then compile the document using LaTeX. The compilation formats the document. It can pretty much handle anything that you need in terms of typesetting -- table of contents, footnotes, references, indexes, or whatever. You can also compile a tex document to html. The history is fairly amusing.

    Knuth began TeX because he had become annoyed at the declining quality of the typesetting in volumes I-III of his monumental The Art of Computer Programming. In a manifestation of the typical hackish urge to solve the problem at hand once and for all, he began to design his own typesetting language. He thought he would finish it on his sabbatical in 1978; he was wrong by only about 8 years. The language was finally frozen around 1985.
    • LaTeX (say: Laatech, with the 'ch' spoken like a Klingon) is a great type-setting tool, I used it two write my master thesis and a couple of other papers. It has very good Math-support.

      Unfortunately, it works like a compiler: It generates warnings and errors when you want to generate the result. But because it is not WYSIWYG, it does let you focus on writing, and not directly on layout-ing. There is a WYSIWYG-LaTeX called 'LyX', but it is limited and does not work so well (at least some years ago).

      At t

  • by Interrobang ( 245315 ) on Tuesday March 02, 2004 @08:48PM (#8447069) Journal
    (I notice there are a lot of coders and math hackers posting here, so this lonely technical writer's going to add an opinion.)

    Most writers of my acquaintance (including myself) like something fairly simple to use for basic writing stuff. I'm not sure how one would handle formatting a manuscript properly in vi, as I'm still not sure how to do things like right-justify and all that, or even if it's possible. Having used OO, I rather like it, except that I think it's a little too close to Word for my tastes. When push comes to incompatible closed file formats, I like WordPerfect as my Tool of Choice for basic tasks overall, because it (unlike Word) shuts up and gets the hell out of your way: fix once, write anytime. If I were submitting more hard copies and not soft copies that had to be in Word format (don't ask!), I'd use it almost exclusively.

    Depending on the novel in question, a word processor might do just fine for the task, although if you'll permit me to say so, I think the coders in the crowd think there's less formatting in a novel manuscript than there actually is (hint, people, you need left- and right-justify, double space, italics, bold, centre, underlining, and margin controls at minimum). Some novels might need more (think Douglas Coupland), so might need a more powerful tool. I personally like to add most of the complex formatting later, if there is any. All the complex, structured-document projects I've worked on so far have used (the proprietary) Adobe FrameMaker, which is, I gather, similar to LaTeX, so I defer to the LaTeX advocates in the crowd. (I hear it's got quite a steep learning curve, but then again, so does FM, and I don't imagine that's a problem for you.

    • My first thought on reading Interrobang' s post was to chime in in favor of WordPerfect. WP DOS kicked major ass and I miss it sometimes.
      My second thought was that if we're gonna talk major document creation tools then, I'm sorry, we're out of open source territory for now and I (as a former Quark Publishing System integrator, yet) have gotta say go with InDesign.

      But given Wil's initial question, maybe we should look at what adzoox has been recommending lately and see if there are any orphan or near-orpha
  • Sadly, I didn't use any slides

    Please don't be sorry you didn't use slides. A good presenter can captivate an audience without the need for slides. A mediocre (or worse) presenter can rely too much on slides and tools such as PowerPoint, which can easily make the presentation worse than it would have been without them. Edward Tufte [] has some excellent rants^Wviews on the (ab)use of PowerPoint.
  • I remember when you were just trying to install a printer on Redhat. Now look at you! Geek! (we can smell our own)

Marvelous! The super-user's going to boot me! What a finely tuned response to the situation!