18.519 editing and composition

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005 09:52:23 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 519.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: Alexandre Enkerli <aenkerli_at_indiana.edu> (84)
         Subject: Power of Plain Text

   [2] From: Erik Hatcher <esh6h_at_virginia.edu> (32)
         Subject: Re: 18.515 mouse, editing and composition

         Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005 09:42:35 +0000
         From: Alexandre Enkerli <aenkerli_at_indiana.edu>
         Subject: Power of Plain Text


Russ Hunt described some of the problems that students in composition might
have with word processing and HTML formatting.
Patrick Rourke and others (including yours truly) have offered plain text
and/or email messages as alternatives to word processing and/or HTML formats.
This discussion leads to interesting ideas about the power of plain text.

Even without any formatting niceties (especially bold and italics), a text
can be well-structured and correctly presented.
Email messages, for instance, fit an interesting genre. The message header
and contextual data are quite informative. For instance, in the context of
a class assignment, the timestamp of a message can be very meaningful.
The structure of replies in a thread is usually represented by some
typographical device, often by series of '>' characters to designate the
"level" of reply (reply of a reply of a reply). This structure of dialogue
formatting is very specific and certainly has an impact on our conception
of verbal communication. "Citation" formatting represents an easy and fast
way to provide as much context as possible while leaving this context easy
to ignore. Mailreaders which represent levels of reply in different colours
make the task of reading a thread much easier.
Of course, email messages can be sent in different formats, including HTML
and RTF. But plain text certainly remains the dominant format for most
email messages. Even messages sent in HTML or RTF rarely take advantage of
formatting features not available in plain text. For email messages, plain
text is almost as powerful as other formats. It is also much more
compatible than any other format.

But email messages represent a very specific genre with a unique structure.
For actual compositions, it might be necessary to use additional formatting
devices to represent other dimensions of text such as structure and
emphasis. Interestingly enough, several of these formatting devices are
available through simple markup of plain text documents. Some of these
include conventions such as surrounding text with '*' to represent
emphasis/boldface or using a single line to represent a section title. Some
of these conventions are well-established and are supported by word
processors. It might be a matter of opinion but text using these
conventions might in fact be easier to read than the word processing
version because the markers set clearer bounds than changes in typeface or
text style. Obviously, these conventions are rather limited but they do
serve most purposes for typical texts.

Text markup can be taken to the next step without resorting to a complex
formatting language.
Among the many features of Wiki systems are simple markup methods.
Unfortunately, these methods aren't standardized across different systems
but they all serve the purpose of making formatting easy.
Similar systems exist for forum and email formatting, including BBCode and
All of these markup systems are meant as easy methods to produce (X)HTML or
other formatted text. Yet markup principles can apply to text which will be
kept in the plain text domain.

Obviously, plain text can easily be edited in text editors, which often
have more features than word processors. Line numbers, word count, syntax
colouring, timestamps, customizable keyboard shortcuts, balanced
parentheses, automatic indentation, complex sorting, regular expression
searches, incremental searches, access to scripts, etc.
Given the power of plain text and these editing features, it seems that a
good text editor is often a better choice over a word processor. Granted,
several text editors are seen purely as "geek tools" and are "not for the
faint of heart" (emacs and vi). But other text editors are more
user-friendly than most word processors. In some cases, the boundary
between word processors and text editors has been blurred to such an extent
that the old concept of word processing seems antiquated. Also, most
programs use text editing in one way or another and a dedicated application
is often superfluous.
On Mac OS X, for instance, all applications using the Cocoa framework share
many editing features, including a common spell-checker (which can check
spelling as you type) and customizable modules ("Services") allowing users
to change capitalization, insert timestamps, or find selected text in a
thesaurus. These features render word processors unnecessary for most
common tasks. People who type email messages in Microsoft Word miss out on
the power of plain text.

Convincing students to use plain text as much as possible isn't merely a
way to prevent file incompatibilities. It's a way to get them to think
about text in a new way.

Now, the next step will be to have them use outliners... ;-)


Alex Enkerli, Teaching Fellow, Visiting Lecturer
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Indiana University South Bend, DW
1700 Mishawaka Ave., South Bend, IN 46634-7111
Office: (574)520-4102
Fax: (574)520-5031 (to: Enkerli, Anthropology)

         Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005 09:47:09 +0000
         From: Erik Hatcher <esh6h_at_virginia.edu>
         Subject: Re: 18.515 mouse, editing and composition

On Jan 22, 2005, at 4:41 AM, Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard
McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>) wrote:

> Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2005 09:31:52 +0000
> From: lachance_at_origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)
> >
>I think Richard Wareham's essay points towards not so much mastering the
>mouse or the arrows on the keypad. It suggests perhaps that the first
>step is recognizing the curosr as a point of power. And distinguishing the
>cursor from a pointer is a crucial step in mastering mouse movements. It
>further suggests that an interface could be developed (and perhaps has
>been by creators of adaptive technology) where the pointer contolled from
>the keyboard in ways similar to expanding the point of power through set
>mark and variations thereof which usually provide feedback to the user via
>reverse video or its GUI equivalent, highlighted text.
>Do any of the subscribers to Humanist have any thoughts about the history
>of line breaking/word wrapping and what linkages there may be between that
>history and the history of how mouse behaviour came to map:
> selecting (via a pointer) onto double click, roll, click
> simply moving a cursor to a pointer position onto roll, click
>Something is eluding me. It may be in the shape or nature of a prompt
>/homes/lachance %

Some related reading...

A fascinating read is "In the beginning was the command-line":


And Jef Raskin's Humane Interface work is interesting:


And a screenshot of THE here:


Received on Sun Jan 23 2005 - 05:02:47 EST

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