Writing in the Terminal

So, I have been writing with plain text files for a while. I’ve plaid around with HTML and LaTeX extensively. Once I discovered the joys of vim, I slowly began to do all of my editing within a terminal emulator. Initially, I worked directly with the before mentioned markup languages. Recently, I learned about pandoc and that let me give up on HTML by using Markdown, but I still wrote my scientific papers directly with LaTeX. Now I think it is time to make the full switch.

Writing with Markdown ———————

So, I have come to the realization that LaTeX is not the best way to write. By the looks of it, I am not the first or second, and I probably won’t be the last. Thankfully, with the emergence of CommonMark, I can possibly make some head way. The beauty of Markdown is the readability of the source file. I am a big fan of splitting content and format. I already live in the command line so the plain text files makes my life easier. By using pandoc, I can convert to HTML, PDF, or Word, but the challenge is getting the citations in place. This documents my path to getting the citations to work with pandoc.


The first order of business is to get things installed. I’m on OS X, so I use MacPorts. To get pandoc we simply call

$ sudo port install pandoc

According to the manual, to add a bibliography, I need pandoc-citeproc, but it does not appear to be in MacPorts. Rooting around on the repository, it appears that this has been recently removed from pandoc. This would explain why it is not evident. So, we go directly to the Haskell method

$ sudo port install haskell-platform # To get cabal
$ cabal install pandoc-citeproc

And then simply add ~/.cabal/bin to your PATH.

Running pandoc

Now to try to make a test case

$ cat test.text

A Title

And they said stuff @narayanasway_thermal_2008.

$ cat reference.bib

        title = {Thermal near-field radiative transfer between two spheres},
        volume = {77},
        url = {http://link.aps.org/doi/10.1103/PhysRevB.77.075125},
        doi = {10.1103/PhysRevB.77.075125},
        number = {7},
        journal = {Physical Review B},
        author = {Narayanaswamy, Arvind and Chen, Gang},
        month = feb,
        year = {2008},
        pages = {075125},

$ pandoc test.text -o test.pdf \
> --bibliography=./reference.bib --csl=physical-review-b.csl

And this gives me a lovely PDF! Granted, none of this is really new.

Customizing the Output

Now, what if I want to use a specific format such a that for PRB? I could possibly use the --reference-docx=FILE option if the journal offers that; however, PRB does not. The -H FILE flag will be useful for adding in the preamble if necessary. I think I might be able to use the .sty file from the publisher, but that won’t let us set the options to documentclass. I think the ultimate answer will be to generate the .latex and then hand hack it to set the document class correctly.

$ pandoc --standalone test.text -o test.latex -H preamble.tex
$ vim test.latex # Fix the document class
$ pdflatex test
$ bibtex test
$ pdflatex test
$ pdflatex test

And now I should have a nice PDF in the desired format!

At the time of writing this (2014-09-17), I have not actually used this part as a work flow. I really hope this works.

Editing on the Command Line

Now that I have a way to write neat files, I need to worry about editing. This derives from my attempt to create an editing work flow for my thesis. I read through the silly thing and marked it up with my trusty red pen. I was then stuck with how to automate searching for misspellings and blatant grammatical errors. As I mentioned above, at this point I was still using LaTeX so I had a bunch of plain text files that I didn’t really want to convert to something like Word just to get the automated grammar and spelling checkers. A web search turned up this discussion and one of the answers was the Writer’s Workbench. The specific tools that looked promising are aspell and diction. And the bonus is that both are on MacPorts!

Working with aspell

Here is the real trick: how do I get spell checking to work intelligently? According to the info page, it is as simple as

$ aspell check file.text

However, the trick is the author names and technical jargon gets in the way. I could just add each one to the dictionary; however, I don’t really want to pollute a personal dictionary with project specific words that I may never use again. It’s one thing if my name is in there, but often, many names I will never reference again. So, I need a project specific list of words.

First, we tackle the author names. I am using Zotero to manage my bibliography. This allows me to keep organized and has an option to export to a BibTex file! It is plain text, so it can easily be parsed to find the author names. We just have to look for the author fields and parse what is within the {}. The trick was splitting on the and token. A blind tokenizing on and leads to breaking the occasional name. The workaround was to split at the spaces and collect the full names together. Care was needed when a name contained and, but it was manageable. I made wrote a script ztbib2spl for future use and put it in my dotfiles/scripts folder.

Now we have a word list of author names to pass to aspell to ignore! Reading through the documentation, we first need to clean the list of bad characters

$ echo 'personal_ws-1.1 en 0' > authornames.en.pws
$ ztbib2spl reference.bib > authornames.text
$ aspell --lang=en --local-data-dir . clean < authornames.text >> authornames.en.pws
$ aspell --personal=./authornames.en.pws check file.text

The first line above is easy to over look. I was banging my head against the wall for a while until I got it right. I went through a lot of effort to get a binary version or a dictionary. That personal_ws-1.1 en 0 indicates that this is a personal word list for the English language dictionary and the number just needs to be there. According to the info page, it is supposed to be the number of words, but even the documentation says the value does not matter. Don’t miss the --data-dir . flag! That tells aspell to keep the file in the current directory.

Checking the grammar

After we have run the spell checker, we can check for blatantly bad grammar with diction. The useful way to do this is to get the suggestions with the -s flag and pass it to the pager. I find it best to start at the end of the file and work backwards. This preserves the line numbers of the diction output so that I can find the sentences. The diction tool only looks for blatantly bad grammar, so we still need to do the manual revisions as well. When doing the revisions, it is best to work with either diction or the hand written notes at one time. When trying to do both, it becomes hard to keep track of where you are.


In this note, I have outlined a way to work within the command line to edit plain text files. The basic work flow is:

  1. Run aspell
  2. Run diction
  3. Print and hand annotate
  4. Run diction just to be sure (or not)
  5. Run aspell
  6. Repeat as necessary.

This allows me to remain comfortably in the terminal and working with plain text files.

Written on September 17, 2014