Off-The-Shelf Hacker: The Modern Tech Writer’s Tool Box
Documenting your thoughts and processes are an important part of any off-the-shelf hacker project.
At the very least, you’ll want to record notes, comments and ideas in some kind of lab notebook. I use a run-of-the-mill spiral-bound 6×7″, 200+ page ruled model for off-net and off-laptop doodling, jotting down important tidbits and diagramming. I like to write the date on each page. Writing things in an old-fashioned notebook is handy for jogging your memory when you haven’t worked on THAT project in a week or two.
As far as the Linux laptop goes I use several programs in my daily project record keeping regimen. Much of my writing ends up in a tech article on a web page. My tools have proven very useful for document writing on both the Web and in printed material. They are standard and have a lot of community support.
LibreOffice (LO) is my go-to office-suite application. I haven’t used Windows in ten years, so Microsoft Office isn’t even in the picture. LibreOffice works great and is available under Linux, Windows and on the Mac. I use the Writer application for all my draft documents, whether the content is going to a media outlet, into a local folder on my Linux notebook or up on my Web site. I even use Writer to fill out web forms for things like conference proposals and online text blocks. I’ve been burned too many times when my work vanished into the Ether because I clicked a wrong button or refreshed a goofy page. After writing the text I then just copy it into the web form and save it in a “letters” directory.
This article was hammered out in Writer, then saved to my /home/rob/pubs/thenewstack/otsh-04092018 directory.
LO Writer lets me run through the finished content with the spell checker tool before it moves on to the next stop. Oh sure, online editing tools have spell checking. They never seem as good as the one in Writer. It catches all of the typos and funny punctuation that inadvertently creep into my texts. Even though much of what I write ends up on a web page somewhere, I don’t include HTML tags in my draft documents.
I also don’t export the Writer doc to an HTML text file for direct posting as a web page. The conversion produces rather complicated HTML and is very tedious to edit after the fact. Instead, I put actual URLs, notes to myself and graphics file names in square brackets near where they’ll appear in the text. The brackets remind me to include those things, when editing the text in an online content manager, like WordPress. It’s easy to copy the text in Writer and past it into WordPress. I then close LibreOffice and consider the laptop version to be “frozen.”
For non-web destined documents, such as a printed report, there are a ton of LO Writer formatting tools you can use, to make everything look nice and professional.
I started hand-forging HTML code for my personal web page back around 1993. I used the Bluefish text editor for that task because it was incredibly fast and didn’t add anything. Ten years ago one of my regular clients gave me an ID to their system and asked me to submit my stories in WordPress. Soon afterward I switched over to WordPress for my personal pages. Lots of tech media outlets use the framework for production.
WordPress has a great set of built-in editing tools that make publishing online content easy. You can save your drafts, preview the page in your browser and insert images, where ever you want, in the text. There are buttons to do bold type, add a link and make lists, like “save draft,” “preview,” and “submit for review.” You can add images and insert links. One particularly useful feature is the revision history. Once you are in the editing screen click the “browse” text next to revisions, under the Publish heading (on the right-hand side of the screen) to compare what’s been changed since the last update. Also, use the “text” mode instead of “visual” when editing. Visual sometimes takes liberties with the HTML formatting, that’s hard to fix when you switch back to editing in text mode. Just use simple tags and you’ll be fine.
LO and WordPress are standard tools for text. Articles and printed material also need pictures. For that job, I use the GIMP.
The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Project) is a bitmap graphics editor. Think of bitmaps as individual pixels. Pixels have no relationship with other pixels, once they are painted on the graphical canvas. So, while you can certainly draw a line or circle using a drawing tool, there is no easy way to grab the line and make it bigger or change the color. If you want to edit “entities”, such as lines, circles, boxes, etc., you’d use what’s called a vector graphics editor. LibreOffice Draw is a vector editor, as is a popular Linux application called Scribus.
Not to worry though, GIMP is great for touching up, adding special effects or resizing photos. All the photos I use in my Off-The-Shelf Hacker column go through the program, at least for resizing. My new Galaxy 8+ super phone produces photos at around 6.2 MB per picture for a resolution of 2880 x 2160 pixels. We usually scale the graphic down to around 800 x 600 pixels or so. The photo is then exported to .PNG format using the highest available compression setting. WordPress usually likes to ingest graphics files of 1MB or less. The smaller you make the file, without losing too much quality, the faster it will load into your browser. Everybody hates to wait for a graphics file to appear on the screen. Compression and .PNG ensure fast loading.
The GIMP is available for Linux, Windows and the Mac.
There you have it, the big three tools I use to write a story.
My workflow is pretty simple. Do the draft in Writer. Copy and paste the text into WordPress. Tweak and resize the article photos with the GIMP, then upload them to WordPress. Finally, wrap up the edits, insert the photos, add the HTML tags and links, then hit “submit” to post it on the web.
Once you do it a few times, the flow is easy and straightforward to remember. You certainly can apply the process and techniques to most tech hacker writing jobs.