Learning to Love Markup Languages

Having worked with WYSIWG tools such as FrameMaker most of my early working career, it was really hard getting used to writing documents in a markup language. I needed the comfort of a WYSIWYG editor and not having to wait for some compiler or typesetter to generate the output just to “see” what it looks like. That was a really big barrier to overcome.

Form AND function seemed to be required in my brain. Layout AND content had to be seen at the same time. I couldn’t write without first making the layout. This I blamed on WYSIWYG editors, or maybe it was just habit. But it was really stupid thinking. Give me a second to explain.

“In the ancient times”

After all, how were documents written before there was software such as Word or WordPerfect (remember that tool?). They were written with a very simple layout in mind using a device called a Typewriter.

Ancient device known as a typewriter

Ancient device known as a typewriter.

In case you don’t know what one looks like, here is an image of one for you. Its main claim to fame is the QWERTY keyboard which slowed down fast typists so they wouldn’t break the delicate mechanisms that lifted and pressed letters onto paper.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Writing involved good penmanship and precise form

Before even typewriters, there was this ancient task called writing. It was done with a special device called a pen or sometimes a pencil. It was called writing because you would take the device and “write” onto paper your message or story or letter. Imagine that!

Starting a few inches from the top of the paper, a writer would start writing the text with an attempt to keep a left and right margin (which is a space from the edge of the paper to the written text). Once the writer had completed one line of text (ideally 66 characters), writing continued on to the next line.

That was it! A good writer just needed beautiful penmanship and an ability to think ahead before writing to create a great document. You really saw what you got. If you messed up, well you just had to start again. Hence, the proverbial clutter of crunched paper below the desk of the dedicated writer.

Enter tab stops and double spaces

Later, with the typewriter, layout was a bit more precise but the device had controls for setting left and right margins. Using a sheet of paper, It was inserted into the feeder of a typewriter, the user then set up mechanical tab stops and then rolled the paper forward to start typing. And off they went banging away on the keys.

With a typewriter, it was considered good form to use two spaces between sentences for readability. And the typewriter had just one font, which was a mono-spaced font within a fixed block or area. This font was hard-coded onto the faces of the keys. Layout was still very simple and the focus was on writing text. In time, clever typists learned how to make tables, boxes, blank spaces for images, post and double lines, and so forth.

With minimal design, writing with a typewriter meant implicitly understanding about layout, simply because it barely existed.

Enter Word Processors

With the rapid rise of the use of personal computers, someone came up with the idea of Word Processors.

Layout became the first task BEFORE you started writing. You “set up” the document by usually choosing a pre-defined template provided by the software, or if you were clever, you could design your own.


WordPerfect word processor. Source: Wikipedia

This introduced so many conveniences. It is hard to remember, if at all, when all this work was done manually. Word processers introduced automatic running headers and footers. They could automatically generate table of contents and indexes. Special footnotes or end notes could be easily inserted. Even images and pictures could be added as required.

What was once the work of artists, typesetters and printers was now in the reach of anyone who owned a powerful enough computer.

This, by the way, was the world of Technical Writers before the early 1980s.

Markup Languages that Separate Layout and Content

I deliberately skipped over one technological innovation that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. This was the ability to write plain text files on computers and send those files to just about anyone with a computer that had a capability to read plain text files, which was just about all of them.

These files had absolutely no layout capabilities, except putting spaces or empty lines between paragraphs. That was it.

In fact, typewriters didn’t disappear completely but were very much still in use during the 1960s and 1970s and even into the 1980s. Authors would provide typewritten manuscripts to typesetters who would retype in the document into typesetting machines, add images, lines, headers, footers and so forth. Plates would be generated and sent to be printed on printing machines.

As an aside, I remember well operating a Heidelberg Platen Press in a printing company based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was complicated, you had to be concentrating on the operation 100% of the time and know that machine well. But I loved running it. I got a thrill out of seeing this machine do its wonder. I can still hear the sound of the press picking up the paper, placing it on the platen, then pressing the text onto the paper. To me, it was music.

Here is an old advertisement for the press.

Heidelberg Platen Press

Heidelberg Platen Press. Source: britishletterpress.co.uk

The circle of life, er… writing…

After all the technological innovations in page layout software, we have now come full circle back to the typewriter. The link between writing on paper with a pen and writing in a plain text editor using a keyboard is very short. I am writing this post in Atom. But I could easily be using a simple text editor such as Notepad++. The complicated stuff of turning this plain text into a beautiful layout with special fonts and styles is in the software tools, just like the Heidelburg Platen Press uses cast aluminum, image blocks and layout to turn text into beautiful printed pages.

There is an efficiency with separating content from layout. Despite the best efforts of tools such as Madcap Flare and FrameMaker, the general trend is towards text based authoring and generating output based on a layout rules. Markdown is my preferred choice, bu many mopre options exist.

It has taken me some time to get used to writing without the comfort of layout but I feel liberated by it. I can focus on what I want to say. I have learned to love markup languages. Let CSS, Jekyll, Liquid and more take care of how the page is rendered, just like the Heidelburg press. After all, society seemed to get along with pen and paper for centuries and quills and whatever else was available before paper. What is old is new again. It’s how the mind works. And I love it.