The return of markup languages, sort of

Having worked with WYSIWG tools such as FrameMaker most of my early working career, I found the switch to writing documents in a markup language challenging. 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”

In the former times, a complex machine was used to generate printed documents. It had a sophisticated mechanism for pressing a limited selection of letters onto a single sheet of paper. It was called a Typewriter. Here is an example of one such device.

Ancient device known as a typewriter

Ancient device known as a typewriter.

Over time, by continuous use, a typists as users of this device were called, could achieve unheard of speeds in typing out sheets of paper. An entire profession was built around specialists who had an ability to copy hand written text into a typed form at breakneck speed. Entire halls were filled with such professionals and the clatter of the keyboards and the ringing of the EOL (end of line) indicator bells made for a very loud working environment.

In fact, these professionals were so fast, they could damage the delicate mechanisms within the typewriter. To actually slow them down, designers of these machines arranged they keyboard so that a user had to reduce their speed at typing. This was the origin and the well-known QWERTY keyboard. This stands for the first six letters on the second row of keys. This layout has not changed and is still widely used throughout the English speaking world today.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

“In the really ancient times”

Before typewriters were invented, creating documents involved an even more sophisticated skill set. Using only one’s hand, this profession achieved an art form using 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, 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.

Page layout

Typewritten and hand-written documents had a certain sense of layout. The technology determined the type of layout possible. A hand written document had margins (space on the left and right of the flow of text) and a uniform space above and below the text. Elaborate artwork may have been added, such as initial capitals on major paragraphs, along the margins of the text and so forth.

With the invention of the printing press, such hand-written documents could be typeset by printing presses and bound to create pamphlets, magazines, periodicals and books.

During the 1970s, 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:

With the typewriter, layout could be a bit more precise as the device had controls for setting left and right margins. A sheet of paper was inserted into the feeder of a typewriter. The typist then set up mechanical tab stops to create the margins and then the paper was rolled forward to the correct place. And off they went banging away on the keys to type out a page.

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

Spaces between sentences

With a typewriter, it was considered good form to use two spaces between sentences for readability. And the typewriter had just one font, which originally was a mono-spaced font within a fixed block or area. This font was hard-coded onto the faces of the keys. With electric typewriters, such as IBMs Selectric Typewriter, fonts could be changed by switching in and out a font ball which spun to the appropriate letter based on which key was selected.

Enter Word Processors

With the rapid rise of the use of personal computers with the early pioneers at Apple and Microsoft and others, new forms of software came on the market. One of the most early inventions was the development of Word Processors.

With Word Processors, layout became the first task before writing was started. 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 share those files with just about anyone with a computer that had a capability to read plain text files.

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.

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.