More tools of the trade - the second part of a blog series on the technical aspect of writing
Following up from the previous instalment, I would like to add more to the features already mentioned. There are functions aimed at more advanced users and writing professionals. There are situations when more formatting or text tools would be needed. I will first mention the most important of these and then move on to another set of wonders: the productivity tools.
# More than words: images and special input
Sometimes mere text may not be enough and this is where advanced formatting kicks in. In most cases, these would be in scientific or academic papers and technical ones. This, in fact, nicely falls into our area of interest of this blog post. They also say an image is worth a thousand words, but the same goes for other advanced content that sometimes needs to be reproduced for publishing or print. CKEditor 5 offers out-of-the-box solutions for those advanced editing needs.
# Beyond the basic typeface: subscript, superscript and math formulas
More often than not the list of special formatting will start with references. Two brothers called superscript (the lofty one) and subscript (that’s the lowly one in turn) come forth when this is needed. I used to employ them a lot in my 2020 book, “The cold starlight”, where I had lots of explaining about spacecraft and quite a number of Russian and not only phrases to translate. Even though it was an adventure space opera, a considerable number of technical notes were needed and not everything is possible to be explained within a text. A technical document would probably employ some kind of a hyperlinked index for that purpose or even tooltips. Whatever the designer’s choice is, the lesser brothers will probably pop up (or pop down, for that matter — especially when we deal with chemical formulas like H2O).
As a matter of fact, the mathematical or chemical formulas do come to mind mainly when we think about some academic, scientific or technical papers. While equations and formulas are usually complicated, advanced features that need some proficiency on the part of the end-user, we can also spot them on things as plain as a soap wrapping where they are listed in the ingredients section. Whatever your professional field is, a time may come when you would need to resort to this kind of notation. Even a package designer needs to employ some higher writing level sometimes…
# An enchanting vision: images in the content
The 90’s computer scene veterans may have liked to employ simple shapes contained within the UTF-8 character table or resort to the sublime paths of ASCII art. This is, however, not the modern way. Now, a typical user will rather resort to images. Those little neat nifty fellas that can say a thousand words instead. And even though a novelist will most probably just put a placeholder in a place where an artist will masterfully picture the ultimately devoted, brave-to-the-bone, laser emitter-wielding space pirate from the otter world, an associate will rather use their own smartphone photos from the recent research-stimulating lab accident. This calls for the image management function. And does that not call for a file upload solution? The images can be styled, aligned, pasted and basically ordered around the content. They can even be link anchors!
# Writer, the professional: productivity features
There is no exaggeration in the claim that good tools make good work. Sure, a good photographer may indeed come up with a great snapshot with something as absurd as a phone or a portable sandwich grill. And it is equally true that even the most expensive acrylic colors will not improve the paintings of a guy who cannot draw a horse in a way it does not look like a cow. But some certain writing-oriented features and functions are nowadays a must and I can hardly imagine how people as recently as 30 years ago could go on with their business without them.
# The flawless typist: spell and grammar checking
There is a famous frame from the universally loved Polish comic book “Tytus, Romek and A’Tomek”. It features the adventures of a chimpanzee trying to become human. In one of the books, Tytus de Zoo gets employed in a newspaper and while asked by his friend how he is supposed to write if he cannot even use orthography properly, he declares: “A journalist needs not to know the orthography. He just dictates everything to a flawless typist”.
The days of typists are somewhat gone, most probably not only to the dismay of Tytus de Zoo but some other people, too. There is a new phenomenon, far more useful for that specific task, that is commonly known as the spell check.
The advantages of aided writing are hardly describable. And it is not only because one cannot employ proper orthography — sometimes we just err, as all people do. Sometimes we mistype. Sometimes stuff happens. And it is a commonly recognized fact that screen-reading does not allow for mistake spotting to the extent reading from a paper did. Of course, printing your work and re-reading it in this form is the most right thing to do in all respects, but not always can we afford such a lavish endeavor, both in terms of time and resources. More often than not writing is somehow timed — be it semester end, news freshness or the big, bad, sharp-toothed capitalist publisher who wants the newest instalment of the Faroese private detective to be ready by last Monday. And the printing press already goes brrrr. And even if we know the text will be proofread, it is simply inelegant to submit it with errors.
Spell check on the go, showing all the possible orthographic and grammatical mistakes as you type, is an industry standard nowadays. Widespread as it is, it is not only included in word processors — it is present in web browsers, phone message editors and countless other places online and offline all the same. It may be further enhanced with an autocorrect that changes the most common mistakes, corrects abbreviations, adds thingamajigs here and there if they seem to be necessary for that very type of content. This speeds up the process, enriches it, ensures the basic correctness before it is sent to the professional that takes care of the final proofreading. More often than not, however, places like news portals and small academic outlets would not or cannot afford a proofreader. And then the spell checker becomes the frontline aide. Take good care of whom you choose as your battle-hardened brother in arms, writer.
What is best, the spell check will not only work well for the particular language its dictionary covers, but it supports multi-language texts. You can set different languages for different text parts with ease, and when the spell checker is set to auto-detection, it will properly suggest corrections for all available languages.
# Count on yourself with the word counter
There is another device, one more best friend of the professional writer (that will also get some love from students). This is the seemingly simple counter. And I do not mean a visitor counter we used to see more often in the gone days of Web 2.0. I mean the writers’ very own word and character count. Why would one employ this kind of a devilish device to count words? Why, for efficiency, of course!
More often than not school writing assignments are along the lines of “Write a 1000-word essay about the Romans and their unbelievable mischiefs’’. This is just a prelude to that later, more advanced academic writing. While still just a small problem during your time at the university, the word count becomes a saint and uncrossable line for press articles. The number of words or characters constitutes a column, a feature, but also a linage. And one of the first things a novelist and their publisher share is the actual (in the rare case of a novel already written) or more often the designed volume (in the rather common event of ordering something that still needs to be typed in). A technical writer publishing their documentation online may not be constrained by space, but nobody likes the grumpy Mr TL;DR, especially when the main aim of the existence of documentation is to be read and to be read effectively.
Another case could also use some help from our little friend the word counter. Let us assume you took time from Monday to Thursday and wrote some 10.000 characters. The deadline is Friday afternoon and your projected volume is 20.000 characters. Just one glance will immediately make you realize you are, well, pretty well behind the schedule and much coffee and little sleep can be expected for the night. And yet sometimes you will be surprised to find how much of the content is already there. Just like I did, when I looked at the counter that helped me.
# Write like they code: autoformatting
Another tool that I personally deeply love is a very specific one. Being a technical writer, I love it due to the docs as code philosophy we employ at CKSource. It is a very efficient approach anyway, so I recommend getting familiar with it. The feature I want to mention may be employed at all stages of writing — on the go, during the initial creation process or later on at the editing and structuring stage, while hyperlinking, bolding or turning loose lines into lists. This is the Markdown input processor that deals with a syntax commonly recognized by the technical community. In fact, the original document bearing these words is also formatted with Markdown. It speeds up the process and makes it more comfortable by reducing the need to resort to toolbar buttons usage. It also makes the file more portable, as the syntax is widely accepted by a large number of specialized editors used by programmers, documentalists and other technical personnel and may be easily parsed in most systems.
The Markdown syntax is also supported by the source editing feature, which lets the user, depending on the configuration, access either native HTML source or a simplified, Markdown version of it.
# On the run: autolinking and keyboard shortcuts
There are more writer’s little helpers to employ during the very process of creating content. One of those most graceful if you write for the internet would be the autolink feature. It is exactly what the name says — it turns any URL or link you type into the content into an active one on the fly. No more selecting, copying, clicking and pasting on every single link… If you don’t need it in some particular case, simply unlink it using one of the many functions of the link feature or by using the Backspace key.
There is one more feature I should mention and it is the mother of all conveniences. The keyboard shortcuts (already mentioned in the first part of this story) are the hots and I don’t only mean the ones invented by Larry Lesler. CKEditor 5 provides a wide range of keyboard support toward both productivity and accessibility. Use them for your own benefit.
# Safety dance: autosave function
The absolutely necessary and inevitable feature of any editing software nowadays is that it must be reliable. Backup is the only reliable solution to prevent the disasters of having to rewrite the whole text again. Files, like people, need love and care, too. Maybe even not so much the love but more — the care. We live in the days of cloud solutions, mirrored redundant systems and fail-safe power. Stay safe. Never cry again. Be wise. Back up. Use an online editor with an autosave function. Even if the power fails this will not be much of a problem, as the file may be easily accessed again once the online access is available back.
CKEditor 5 will provide that safety. This and much, much more.
Remember to always take a moment before writing to ask yourself a question. What would make my work easier and more efficient? But also: what would make me struggle less, turn the process into something at least a bit creative and nice, even if that is an ingredients list on a soap wrapping paper.
# Coming next
There is more to it, but we will shift now. So far all the story was about a writer’s writing. Next we will look at the writer taking their work out — sharing it with editors, proofreaders, maybe writing as a team and publishing what was written. Be here soon!