Joseph R. Johnson

Medieval Studies; Theory; Digital Humanities

Getting started with a plain-text workflow in the humanities

I wanted to share a piece by Dennis Tenen and Grant Wythoff that has completely changed the way I think about conducting research in the humanities: Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text using Pandoc and Markdown.

Tenen and Wythoff address a general scholarly audience, but this article can be of particular use to medievalists. The most commonly used technologies in humanities scholarship today (Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, etc.) constantly intervene in your writing in order to ‘help’ you write correctly. Any pre-modern language looks like a protracted typo to these programs, and they will constantly fight you in your attempt to write them out accurately. The problem is all the more urgent for anyone who works directly with original manuscript material: even something as subtle as a wrongly formatted space, punctuation mark, or capital letter can completely undermine the accuracy of your transcription, creating headaches when you return to your work and wish to rely upon it later.

Taking the step to disable AutoCorrect is a good preliminary move, but what happens when the software updates and settings are reverted to their defaults without you knowing about it? Tenen and Wythoff describe a viable alternative – in their words, a more ‘sustainable’ solution – and it’s well worth a read.

I recommend slightly modifying the pandoc command referenced in the article to guarantee proper formatting (this will make sense once you’ve read their piece):

pandoc main.md -f markdown-smart --filter pandoc-citeproc -o main.pdf