Recently, I have been seriously considering moving my WordPress account to a paid plan. It hosts my old blog with posts from ages ago — it currently acts as an archive of the un-migrated posts for me.
There is a reason why I am a bit itchy with my writing workflow. I am struggling to get stuff written across systems, mainly mobile and desktops, at home and work, with drafts kept in sync. Sure, I can use Dropbox as my file store and access the draft posts using iA Writer or other Markdown text editors. However, I am very particular with not signing into and linking anything personal on my work machine, so this workflow does not work at work.
I would have really liked something that is web based. I have been, since long, trying to find a micropub client with a satisfying writing experience for long form posts, along with drafts support. I still haven’t found one. Neither have my attempts to just create one ground up gone anywhere, mainly for the need for multiple working drafts.
I do have a Netlify CMS setup for my main Hugo driven website. However, though it works fine from a desktop, it has a terrible experience on mobile.
WordPress solves this particular problem for me. I have come to realize finally that it has a nice, clean writing interface on desktop. And with its stable mobile app, the workflow is manageable on mobile too.
But, boy I am ruined by markdown – I can’t write in “Rich Text” any more. Plus, I can’t host my posts on a website which does not have the Indieweb principles baked in. I am aware that WordPress has a IndieWeb plugin. However, one needs a business account to install plugins. And that’s too much of a cost to sign up for this casual experiment.
So my search for the online writing interface with support for sync and drafts and satisfactory interface on desktop and mobile continues. With WordPress, it’s so close, but far.
I like to write. Emphasis is important because that is exactly what I like to do. I do not want to make the writing process too complicated. I just want a blank canvas that I can fill up with some thoughts in the form of words. It should not matter then if I open it from a desktop or a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet. A blank canvas, without any bells and whistles.
But even after 10 years of the whole smartphone revolution with the iPhone launch, it is surprising why the platforms that crown themselves as champions for writers’ interests still fail at enabling them to write on the go. The interface they provide are either too loaded or are just non-existent. For example, this is where WordPress wants the writers to write at on mobile devices.
Can this be made any more clunky? Why does it need so many options? Why can’t words be interpreted as they are written1? Why does the interface still need to ask for all this added metadata – especially on a mobile device where the space is already a limited resource?
It’s just the same with many of the professional publishing platforms. They just have too clunky an interface. Squarespace, same. Wix, ditto. At least with these, it can be understood that the target user base just may not be the writers and the bloggers sort. A look at the templates that they provide and it is clear that they want to target the designers, the professionals in photography or the small businesses. However, irrespective of what sites their users own, they need to understand that they do write too, at times. And when they present their intention to do so, shouldn’t you provide the cleanest experience you possibly can? Why load them with too many choices?
Ghost comes closest to ticking all of the right boxes. It has a markdown based clean editing interface with a preview option. However, during my extended usage while I was hosting this site with Ghost, I found that the interface was a bit too buggy and a lot heavy. It tries to do a lot many things which it needn’t really do. When I write, I just do not need a constant CMS and metadata access for the post neither do I need a live preview of what am writing. Unfortunately, it just cannot sort out the minor niggles2.
And then there is the flag-bearer of writer’s messiahs – Medium. This platform impressed me with how clean the writing experience was. That was before I intended to do so on a mobile device.
Yep. No comments. “You can’t be a serious writer if you want to write from a mobile device. Get a typewriter and then we will talk. We are for the serious lot.”
“But there is an app for that,” you say. Yes, there is. But first of all, there is nothing the app does that cannot be fit in the web application. Secondly, the app itself is extremely limited. There is no support for series or publications, yet, for example.
This just makes no sense to me. I just cannot stress this any stronger – Do not neglect mobile. Today’s mobile devices (especially, the iPad) are getting a lot capable. There is nothing they cannot handle. A plain text editor should be a cakewalk. Alas, I still do hit such forced hinderances.
"Not Yet Mobile Friendly"! Sorry, in today's age that just makes no business sense. pic.twitter.com/DQjJArqNWj
— Amit Gawande (@_am1t) August 22, 2017
Anyway, as an attempt to mediate, I propose the following guidelines for writing interfaces for all the writing/blogging platforms out there, especially on mobile.
- Interfaces need to be clean. Just let the text be written without any onscreen distractions.
- No toolbars, no sections, no configurations.
- If emphasis to the text needs to be added, let the word(s) be highlighted and provide the limited options then.
- If image is to be added, provide option as a shortcut (for example, long press on new line)
- Forget 1-4. Explore and enable Markdown with easy (not live, but closer to WYSIWYG) preview mode.
- Remember, many writers do prefer writing in dark. Preferably provide a dark mode.
Yes, just roll an empty screen with a blinking cursor3. Nothing more. Let the writers fill it up their imagination.
I understand it is WordPress and hence there is a plugin for everything. But the point isn’t if a clean writing interface can be plugged into a platform. Point is why should there be a need for one.↩
Ghost is not an easy publishing platform to work with. You either need the technology inclination of a developer to self-host and roll your own instance of Ghost or pay way too much to get access to their managed platform (Pro) service. For comparison, it is cheaper to get a website with Squarespace with E-Commerce setup than to get an online blog with Ghost. That’s just not competitive enough.↩
Svbtle does it well. So does pen.io. Not sure why these services struggle to exist. They have understood what writers need the best. But they just couldn’t convince many to join them. Wish Medium and others learn from these and roll out some more writer friendly interfaces on mobile.↩
Recently I read an article by Nick Bilton that announced, or at least inclined to, the demise of the pen. “Fare Thee Well, My Pen”, the headline read.
It claimed “the pen is murdered by finger”. It claimed today’s technology driven world rarely gives us an opportunity, or rather rarely necessitates us, to use a pen. It claimed we use fingers on touch screens/keyboards, a proven superior alternative by few, to perform most of the jobs.
In the end, it made me wonder if that really is true. Do I observe this around me? Answer came, may be. After all, I rarely see a pen these days. May be that is for the reasons that Nick Bilton so succinctly puts forth.
Shall we all, then, decree the pen as dead? Shall we, then, assume this old device as obsolete? Well, may be not so soon.
I feel pen will live on; the form, though, might be unlike what is seen today.
Handwritten words reflect writer’s personality
In my list of ‘read-later’ articles lied another post from Matt Gemmell, “Handwriting”. Here’s what Matt has to say about decreased usage of hand-written words (emphasis mine).
We’ve lost something. Our instantly-delivered, electronically rendered thoughts are clean and readable, but if we’re honest, they also inhabit a sort of uncanny valley. There’s a degree of removal between the work and the author. Perfect letterforms, lined up algorithmically, standing like an eerie, emotionless army of sinister mannequins.
I really could not have put the thoughts any better. Unnecessary to say then, I completely agree with Matt.
Words penned on a piece of paper, by hand, have a personality of their own. Usually it is the reflection of the writer’s personality, even his current state of mind.
Words strung together via key-presses, on the other hand, all look the same. Does not matter, then, if they were carefully studded by a gleeful lover or were hurriedly spread across by a tear-ridden son. They all look exactly the same.
A Passing phase
Intermittent solution technologists have, currently, is fonts. Every user is supposed to select a font while putting words through. Designers try to design fonts that look pleasant, have different strokes, and heights, and distribution of weight in characters. What we are supposed to believe is we select fonts based on who we are. What we are supposed to believe is we impart personality to what we write when we select fonts.
We are fooled, I believe.
I believe this is just a passing phase when fonts represent what designers want them to. Designers, hence, craft fonts that make words look the best. Least thought is given to make them look authentically personal.
I believe the day is not far when technology will allow every person to trace his own font in simplest of manner. That day the words from different people would not be the same. That day even the words digitally rendered would exhibit authenticness, a uniqueness. That day the reader will infer the mood of the writer from his email.
Pen, in its current form, may not be saved then (and that battle is already lost, I believe). But the individuality and the personality will prevail in the words penned via its remodelled form too.
Only then, will this beloved ink-filled canister rest in peace!