Using WordPress as a Book-Writing Platform

I’ve had a few people ask about the writing environment I’m using for The Ivory Tower and the Open Web (introduction posted a couple of days ago). I’m writing the book entirely in WordPress, which really has matured into a terrific authoring platform. Some notes:

1) The addition of the TinyMCE WYSIWYG text-editing tools made WordPress today’s version of the beloved Word 5.1, the lean, mean, writing machine that Word used to be before Microsoft bloated it beyond recognition.

2) WordPress 3.2 joined the distraction-free trend mainstreamed by apps like Scrivener and Instapaper, where computer administrative debris (as Edward Tufte once called the layers of eye-catching controls that frame most application windows) fades away. If you go into full-screen mode in the editor everything disappears but your text. WordPress devs even thoughtfully added a zen “Just write” prompt to get you going. Go full-screen in your browser for extra zen.

3) For footnotes, I’m using the excellent WP-Footnotes plugin, which is not only easy to use but (perhaps critically for the future) degrades gracefully into parenthetical embedded citations outside of WordPress.

4) I’m of course using Zotero to insert and format those footnotes, using one of the features that makes Zotero better (IMHO) than other research managers: the ability to drag and drop formatted citations right from the Zotero interface into a textarea in the browser. (WP-Footnotes handles the automatic numbering.)

5) I’ve done a few tweaks to WordPress’s wp-admin CSS to customize the writing environment (there’s an “editorcontainer” that styles the textarea). In particular, I found the default width too wide for comfortable writing or reading. So I resized it to 500 pixels, which is roughly the line width of a standard book.

11 thoughts on “Using WordPress as a Book-Writing Platform

  1. Bruce D'Arcus

    One thing I’ve found intriguing about some open draft book projects is the ability to leave inline review comments. Is that possible with WordPress? Desirable?

  2. Derek Bruff

    Thanks for these tips, Dan. I used WordPress while working on my book a few years ago, but only for taking notes on the interviews I conducted, not for writing the book itself. The built-in search and category tools worked well for me. For instance, since I categorized notes as I took them, the table of contents for my book more or less emerged organically from the category list on the sidebar.

    I just tested out the full-screen mode on the latest WordPress release. It really is pretty sweet. Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. Brad Berens

    Dan, my wife @kathiiberens tweeted about this post… I’m starting a new book project too and found this helpful. Might I inquire what theme you’re using and whether you’re setting up a separate domain for the book?

  4. Dan Cohen Post author

    @Brad: I have a custom WordPress theme that evolved from the days when this blog ran on my own blogging code. I will indeed be putting this book on its own domain once it’s done.

    @Bruce: I should have noted in this quick post that I’m avoiding inline or paragraph-level comments for now (e.g., CommentPress, Highlighter). I may use them once I’ve got a full draft, but I think end comments are fine for overall assessments and suggestions, and people don’t seem to have trouble pointing to specific paragraphs or lines when they want to.

    @Derek: Interesting about WordPress for categorized notes. Thanks.

  5. Peter Sefton

    I’d like to look at make the citation dragging from Zotero use microdata, and build the CSL-based citation formatting widets we need, authors should not have to worry about footnotes at all in 2011.

  6. Jim Groom

    It’s awesome that you are blogging your porcess with WordPress and your book writing. I can;t agree with you enough about the maturity of WordPress over the last year or two. What’s more, UMW is set to move it’s entire website to WordPress, and then slowly integrate the things we do on UMW Blogs into umw.edu. Which could mean your book could be published by and on the gmu.edu site. How crazy would that be? I mean, and it doesn’t have to be the only place it is published either, as we know.

    I love the idea of a university website the can expose the generic info along with teaching, research, personal tidbits, and more. It makes a university website would it should be, the life of the mind of a community.

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