You’ve done it: You wrote something you’re immensely proud of. Congrats!

Let’s ask two questions:

  1. How many different versions of that story’s file do you have floating around your computer?
  2. How many edits did you make to the story from start to finish?

Many authors write using Microsoft Word. They draft, they edit, they use Track Changes, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. It’s a standard because everyone understands Word and the file formats are widely interchangeable. However, this approach also reflects a bit of regression to the mean; because everyone understands it, and it’s not inherently complicated, this process flow doesn’t address some important but more sophisticated ways to optimize your writing.

Consider: Computer programmers don’t write their code in Word. Instead, they write in some sort of dedicated text editor. That text editor’s files are often saved to a central location (a “repository”) and every time the file changes, a new version gets added to the repository. As such, the coder can see how the file evolved over time, because each change is preserved. And because the file is plain text, the coder doesn’t have to worry about whether the document will work on different computers or in different coding programs. This data flow is fairly standard for programmers.

Authors may find some value in working more like programmers. Instead of writing in Word, consider writing in plain text using Markdown.  Then, consider saving your working files in a repository — GitHub is a popular choice and easy to set up — so you can implement version control on the story.

What are the benefits of Markdown and version control?

  • Markdown
    • No need to worry about formatting. Just write. Stuff like margins and fonts and paragraph indents don’t matter — only the words matter.
    • Plain-text files easily support version control. (Word files, depending on the version, may or may not play nice with version-control systems.)
    • Every word- or text-processor on the market supports plain-text files.
    • Markdown (or Multimarkdown) allows for very simple additions to text to indicate formatting. For example, surrounding a word with a single asterisk makes it italic; surrounding it with two asterisks makes it bold.
    • Conversion to formats used by publishers — e.g., Adobe’s InCopy (ICML) format — is much cleaner going from Markdown to ICML than Word to ICML. This simplicity of file conversion significantly decreases the development time for books and even short stories.
  • Version Control
    • No more managing several different versions of the same file, each with a slightly different name. Only one master document!
    • The entire history of changes in a given file are preserved — what got changed, who changed it, and when.
    • You can restore to previous versions (or recover segments of previous versions) if you regret a change you made.

Admittedly, this approach takes a bit more technical savvy than just firing up Word and saving your novel to a flash drive. But a little bit of learning about Markdown or Multimarkdown and Version Control Systems will help you become a more efficient author — perhaps you’ll find the technical setup worth it in the long run.

Writing with Plain Text and Version Control
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