If there is a consistent antagonist in my writing life, it has been Microsoft Office, and specifically Microsoft Word. There are various reasons for this animosity. In academia, Office has enjoyed a tyrannical reign over our industry, and using Word has been unavoidable. While Google’s push for a bigger role in the education sector has disrupted this somewhat (and Google Docs is easily the best way to collaboratively write and edit with students), Word is still everywhere. As a free software advocate, Microsoft has always been an adversary. Word’s document format (the ubiquitous .doc) was a closed specification for decades, and the specification was only available under restrictive licensing agreements. Microsoft cleaned up some of these issues with the .docx format, but in doing so effectively squashed the movements by the OpenDocument Format that attempted to establish an international standard of a license-free open file format.

Microsoft bullshittery aside, Word also represents some of the archaic ways of thinking about content in higher education. We still produce “papers,” and the gold-standard for publication is still printed media. We then waste time teaching students cryptic formatting and citation standards that are suited for print media only. When I can provide a URL or DOI for a source, what possible use is anything else? Word processors are effectively emulators of paper, the blank page represented by the oppressive white box in Word. Its methods of representing text are only relevant if we imagine the text as printed media.

In the past few years, this has become less and less interesting to me as a way to think about content. More and more, students are submitting papers in their classes in purely digital forms–they upload them to Canvas, instructors provide feedback in Canvas, and nothing is printed in this exchange. Yet, they produce writing in document formats meant for a media that seems utterly foreign to them. When I have asked students to print a copy of a paper for class, I have become aware that they are sent off to college typically without a personal printer or a stapler. Why teach students to write in a format they will never again produce? Why isolate our ways of thinking about writing to the traditions of the slowest-to-evolve discipline imaginable?

In a hope to evolve the kind of writing that I teach, I have been trying to evolve my own habits of writing away from document-centric methods.

Markdown is an extraordinarily simple markup language. This simplicity is both an asset and a burden. If you are looking to do anything beyond what Markdown standardizes as its features, you are likely out of luck. Since Markdown is typically rendered as HTML (as it is here in this document), some of the shortcomings of the format can be worked around with basic HTML (text alignment especially). Still, a cursory glance through student writing will show you how limited our formatting requirements really are. 99% of what I find is: bold, italic, bulleted lists, and indented text. That is doable very simply in Markdown:

+ Bullet
+ Points
    + Are
    + Easy

> And so are blockquotes.

Which when rendered looks like:



  • Bullet
  • Points
    • Are
    • Easy

And so are blockquotes.

What more do I really need?