More About Offline Blog Editing

Hmm. It’s possible that my expectations for both Ecto and MarsEdit are too high. But I’m an internationally-beloved technology pundit so I’m more inclined to say that no, my standards are actually spot on the money; damn these apps for not reaching for the stars!

This point of view has the advantage of putting the responsibility for my disappointment in other people’s hands. So as you can guess, this is the one that I’m really putting my shoulder behind.

Each of these apps reflects a different approach to blogging. I’ll set that discussion aside for another day. But they seem to be geared towards fairly simple and straightforward posts. They do allow you to jazz things up with a little CSS voodoo, but it isn’t done with any particular elegance…at least none that I’ve spotted so far.

This morning, I wanted to post my latest Sun-Times column. It isn’t a hugely complicated deal. These columns are all BBEdit documents, so the apps ought to have no problems dealing with the content. All I need to do is add a couple of lines of CSS-ified text and then write the “Bonus” material.

Neither editor did a particularly fantastic job of turning that text file into a nicely-formatted blog post. That really surprised the hell out of me. I can get the results I want, sure. But if I use friendly, word processor-style editing (a mode in which I don’t have to throw tags around every individual element), I get funky and unpredictable HTML. If I use the HTML-style editor, I get perfect, reliable results…but jeez, if I’m going to do all of that stuff by hand, I might as well be using BBEdit.

There has to be a good middle ground. The whole experience left me thinking that the optimal solution is to just write an AppleScript that can transmogrify a Sun-Times column automatically and then pass it to my editor of choice.

Reasonable reactions to this lament:

“Andy, you’ve absolutely no idea how to properly use [editor whose logo you had tattooed on your ass a month after downloading the first beta].” That’s a fair cop. When evaluating a new app, I intentionally avoid looking at documentation during the first week or so. This gives the very best apps a good chance to distinguish themselves. With ecto and MarsEdit, it’s entirely possible that a quick and handy solution is just a Command Option Shift F7 Right-Click-And-Drag away.

“It’s unreasonable to expect an editor to be both as easy to use as TextEdit and as powerful as a dedicated CSS-aware code editor like BBEdit.” Maybe. But I should point out that there are golf balls and recreational vehicles on the surface of the Moon. The Humans are an exceptionally clever species; we really ought to be able to find a way to make this happen.

“Well, duh, Ihnatko! The best and easiest answer is always to customize an app to your personal needs via AppleScript!” We’re on the same page, m’friend. So, cool: I have my solution. But what about folks who won’t see this as an “easy” answer because they don’t know AppleScript?

It does look as though when I choose one of these apps for my personal use, the decision will largely come down to figuring out which one has the best support for customization. I was awarded my AppleScript 10-Year-Pin in 2005. As a user, my natural attitude is that an app with sparser features but fantastic AppleScript support and integration is almost always more useful than a more feature-rich one that barely acknowledges scripting at all.

ps – I still haven’t figured out how ecto’s bulleted-text feature works. Humbug!

7 thoughts on “More About Offline Blog Editing

  1. Matt

    I agree with you totally about these aps. I seems that blogging with wordpress is so big that there would be a offline editor that was as sharp as just about every other mac app. I have found that ecto stepped back with the newer version of the app which i assume you are using because the old version did not work in leopard for me. I Love blogging but darn it i am not an HTML guy hell i am not a coder at all. I am doing good to not have a bunch of misspelled words in my posts. (thank God for the little red line under the ones i do misspell) I just want a good offline editor that works as well as rapidweaver does for designing websites!!! have a good one. I love the new blog by the way!!

  2. Daniel Jalkut

    I love your vision. RVs on the moon are a great metaphor for what we should be able to accomplish (well, maybe on Mars ;) ). But I think you’ve also nailed the problem with that metaphor. What did it take to get an RV on the moon? Essentially, the priorities of a nation had to be full-throttle thrown at the goal. Now consider that you, Andy, are a person who writes for the web, and who has done so for many years. You’re a cutting-edge future-facing individual and yet December, 2007 marks the first time you’ve given this class of application, this future-RV-on-the-moon type of magical creature, a test spin. What does this indicate? Does it mean you’re lagging? That you’re the last to the party? Au contraire: it indicates an extremely young market. The vast majority of people has yet to be turned on to this idea, but it’s spreading quickly and the market is expanding beyond the early-adopter blog-geeks who made up most of the market.

    So desktop weblog editors should be much more than they are (I also shouldn’t have had to manually put <em> tags around my emphasis in a WordPress comment, but progress has its own timetable). What we’re stuck with in these early days are the results of several distinct yet pragmatic approaches to solving problems associated with writing for the web in a browser.

    You’re right that Ecto and MarsEdit take a fundamentally different approach. While Ecto aims for a “style in the editor” approach that appeals to you, MarsEdit has historically taken an approach that is more conducive to the “style belongs in CSS” attitude. That is to say, MarsEdit starts from the premise that you want a convenient way to quickly and efficiently send semntically-marked-up text to your weblog, where it will be styled upon presentation to users.

    I think the big disconnect you’ve experienced with MarsEdit is that, in taking this approach, it fails to even give lip service to the alternative approach: what-you-see-is-what-you-get inline styling. So if you launch MarsEdit and that’s what you expect, it’s liable to give you a “what was this crazy developer thinking” reaction. I take that criticism seriously, and actually I make no bones about the fact that this type of WYSIWYG editing has a future in MarsEdit. But it hasn’t become the TOP priority, because the “let me write plain text and let it be styled in the browser” approach has coincidently resonated with and made happy very many people, who are all demanding other features first.

    There are several approaches going on right now when it comes to providing a kick-ass desktop blog editor. No matter which approach we take, we leave a substantial portion of the crowd screaming. But the good news is there is a crowd. And it’s screaming. Many of us agree that writing from the browser is insufficient, and demands improvement, but we’re prioritizing differently on what is most broken and most in need of fixing.

    So – a hopeless cause? Destined for disappointment? Yeah – I think there will inevitably be some disappointment in the short term. It comes back to your self-evaluation of expecting too much. You ask for a good middle-ground between between BBEdit and the browser. Well that’s exactly what Ecto is. And exactly what MarsEdit is. With an infuriating amount of missing functionality in each, perhaps, but I think it’s over-simplifying the situation to suggest that you might as well just use BBEdit (well, you should, but probably not for blogging!).

    In the end whether you decide to use MarsEdit, or ecto, or go back to the blogging interface in the browser, will come down to what functionality you value most. People who use MarsEdit seem to value the clean interface, compatibility with a variety of systems, and the way it “removes friction” for writing frequently and easily to your blog. People who use Ecto seem to value its powerful capabilities for “live HTML editing”, its advanced handling of image uploads, and its blogger-friendly plugins such as the Amazon link helper. People who use the web interface value its omni-presence and the implicit guarantee that 100% of the blog’s features will be accessible at any time.

    I do appreciate your continued attention to the products, and I can sense that your views about both apps are starting to normalize as you take in what they can or can’t do. I hope my perspective at least helps explain some possible reasons behind what can be an infuriating experience to the user.

  3. Ihnatko Post author

    Well, for the record, I think a visual blog editor that loves and supports CSS and HTML is several notches below “open a Starbucks on Mars” in complexity. It really seems like something that’s well within our technical and creative powers.

    Let me throw this out here: when a blog post is added to the WordPress database, should the body be properly-formatted HTML in which each paragraph is surrounded by the proper tags? Or is it appropriate to just give it a block of paragraphs and leave WP’s PHP scripts to do their thing when it’s time to stuff that text into a webpage?

    That’s sort of the hitch. I feel most secure when I see P tags around everything. I feel least secure when I open a post in the editor and see a big block of mushed-together text, even though it all displays properly on the webpage.

    It’s part of this ongoing experiment. When ecto and MarsEdit see three paragraphs of plain text, and then a line that contains a DIV block with CSS selections, does it know to leave that line completely alone? Or does it feel the need to “fix” it?

  4. Daniel Jalkut

    MarsEdit doesn’t *fix* anything, with the highly unusual exception of line break (br tags) on Blogger. This is actually one of the points where MarsEdit’s agnosticism with regard to content is really pleasing to a lot of people. You type stuff. You send it to your blog system. Your blog system sends something back, and that’s what MarsEdit shows you.

    So the responsibility is entirely in the blog system’s hands. This works especially fantastically-wonderful for people who prefer, for instance, to write their blogs entirely in Markdown, to store their blog content in Markdown in the database, and have that converted as-needed into HTML at display time in browsers. There are WordPress plugins to do this, and I believe it’s included as a standard option in Movable Type. MarsEdit makes a good interface to these systems, because you can type in 100% Markdown, and use the built-in Markdown “Preview Filter” to simulate what your blog will make it look like later.

    Now all that said, it just so happens that HTML-in-the-database is the most popular format in existence among blogs today, so I’m not going to stick with this idealistic “content only” approach. The “blog editor makes it easy to produce portable standalone HTML code” feature is a good one, but it’s not one that MarsEdit excels at today.

    But as far as your concerns about the block with CSS content, etc. You’ll find that MarsEdit leaves it alone. The only way that stuff can get messed up via MarsEdit is if the server decides to manipulate it. If you ever get skeptical about this, you can confirm it by examining the Network Log from MarsEdit. It will show you exactly what content MarsEdit sends to the server, and what content is returned.

  5. Daniel Jalkut

    By the way, to follow up on your comments about paragraphs and WordPress, you’ll find that if you feed paragraphs separated by double-newlines (a blank line), you’ll find that it actually does insert tags on your behalf. When you write the post in MarsEdit, you’ll see no tags unless you add them, but when you send to the server, and MarsEdit fetches the result back, you’ll find magically inserted tags. There are differing nuances on every system, but this is one of the default behaviors of WordPress.


    Speaking of AppleScript and blogging &c., since you’ve “semi-officially” launched this blog by linking from the main page of CWOB the First, don’t you think you should post something at so the unfortunate & unenlightened that are still following the RSS over there know where the party is?

    Man, that as a long sentence.

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