Wednesday 29 December 2021

This Linux-loving beta reader wants your book draft in Microsoft Word format

A friend I have known for twenty years has completed a draft of a novel. I look forward to being a beta reader for this work.

My friend, to whom I shall refer to as M, asked me earlier today:

What format would you like the book in? Word? PDF? Google doc? Pages? Paper? I can generate any output you want from Scrivener (okay, okay. Probably not markdown or LaTeX or anything ‘exotic’.)

This question from M got me asking several other questions.

I am, at my core, a book nerd. For over twenty-five years I have been paid well to be a computer nerd. Occasionally I play at being a gamer nerd hence the title of this blog, but that’s a divergent branch for another blog post. Today I’m going to take everything I’ve learned about tech for the last twenty-plus years and force what I believe about beta reading and book editing through that tech perspective. The end result is ideally a blog post but my metaphor reminds of a machine I once cleaned; it was used to make hamburger.

To squeeze out this delicious meaty repast of well-grounded answers which you, gentle carnivorous reader, will delight in consuming, I shall consider these questions.

How does a book draft get made?

Well, when a pen and a spiral-bound notebook love each other very much…. nine months later a draft emerges, crying for attention. Actually, I have completed a fifty thousand word draft in thirty days on five separate occasions, so this metaphor has fallen apart faster than an inebriated hookup.

My main point: I prefer to create a physical first draft of a book using 250 pages of spiral-bound notebook and a pen with blue ink. There’s usually two paper books, one of 150 pages and one of 100 pages. If I use fancy books, I feel pressure to produce fancy thoughts, so I use cheap spiral-bound notebooks to produce my, er, enlightened bespoke masterpieces. Call each page two hundred words. I try to complete ten pages a day. Get it done fast, get it down, don’t worry about the coherency. Capture the idea, the feeling, the passion within that concept and between those characters. Some days I only get eight pages done. Usually I get ten. If I get eight and change done in a day, then over the course of thirty days that creates 250 * 200 = 50,000 words.

The first problem after that: my handwriting makes the eyes of the reader bleed. The second problem: not all of those fifty thousand words are shining, beautiful, coherent or even worth keeping. The third problem: who wants to receive an unreadable set of spiral-bound notebooks? Probably the same number of people who want to pay to post that package: zero.

So, next comes a second, digital, draft. I transcribe my handwriting into a file in Markdown format. I do it myself because at this stage in my writing career I cannot afford the transcription service who could read my chicken scrawls. If I wait a month or two, I have a better sense of what to add (and what to remove) when creating that digital draft. I have a lot more freedom to edit and improve and revise that second draft knowing that there is a physical backup in the spiral notebook. I also adore the comfort of having a completed off-site digital backup in case my paper copies burn away.

So, a digital draft is in place. Now what?

What happens during a beta read?

The beta reader reviews the draft and provides feedback. My favourite questions to ask of a beta-reader include “Where did you stop reading?” and “Which parts were confusing?”

This process goes easier if a set of requirements is addressed:

  1. The feedback comes in the form of comments.
  2. It should be easy for the beta reader to add the comments.
  3. It should be clear to the author what part of the text is referenced by each comment.
  4. If there is more than one beta reader, there should be a plan to pull all comments by all readers together.
  5. Once all of the conditions above are met, aim for simplicity. If multiple tools can get the job done, choose the least complicated one.

As I said above, I’ve been a computer nerd for a long time. I find Linux easy. So, easy is a relative term. “Easy” is a goal we’re seeking here.

What difference does the file format of the draft book make?

Lots. Exploring the pros and cons of eight different file formats covers the rest of this blog post.

Paper sheets in a box

Paper is my favourite way to start to start a book draft. I go back to paper during later drafts, printing off a copy and reading it while annotating a second “outline book” in Post-It notes with improvements.


  1. Scale out the display. Instead of looking at my beloved book through a small laptop-sized pane of glass, I can (and have!) spread out a paper draft of a novel across the entire living room floor.
  2. Operating System independent. I can use paper no matter what OS you choose.
  3. A universal transfer format. (As long as we agree that universal here means “you write in a language I can read.”)
  4. Batteries not required. No Internet needed, neither.
    • Works well during power outages.
    • Works well during ferry trips
    • Works well at that island retreat you’re staying at where the Internet connection is spotty at best.
  5. Understood by a large swath of humanity.
  6. Well tested. Proven to work for hundreds of years for countless authors and beta readers.
  7. Arguably the lowest initial “up front” cost.
  8. I cannot tell you the last time I had to upgrade the OS on my pen because of some stupid vendor requirement.


  1. Expensive to transport. One day, I hope to live in the same building as my beta readers, but until then, I will fling bits and use a digital file format.
  2. Difficult to maintain. A single master paper copy is easy to lose, to damage, to destroy, to misplace, or to fragment.
  3. Storage can become challenging. Child, dog, all the other physical papers crowding the shelf and The Ravages of Time conspire to hide that one draft I want.

Markdown in vim

This is what I use and love. I’ve raved about it before. It’s not a good fit here for beta readers, though.


  1. Markdown is plain text. I like plain text for editing. I really, really, REALLY cannot emphasize this enough.
    • Markdown is essentially plain text with some additions that add some (but not all!) of the structure you’d want. Headings are distinct from list items and both are distinct from emphasized text.
    • Text files are files I can take anywhere. This is extremely important to me.
      • I wrote a hefty novel in StarOffice format. When the vendor discontinued that software, I had to figure out how to export that to a different format. Eventually I got tired of tasks like that and started writing in Markdown.
      • I wrote a large wiki of facts about my novel’s setting in TiddlyWiki format. Platform independent, right? The theory is that all the facts could be stored in a single HTML file; the browser read from and wrote to that file. When the browser vendor discontinued local file system writes, I had to figure out how to export that to a different format. Eventually I got tired of tasks like that and started writing in Markdown.
    • The Page Layout, margins, widows and orphans, and all of that typesetting can come at the end, later, after you’ve decided which words to keep and which to toss.
    • Text files are going to be with you after vendors discontinue their file formats.
    • Text files can be read by any of your friends. I’ve written files in OpenOffice and LibreOffice format, sent them to friends, who then say, “I cannot read this. Can you send it to me in Microsoft Word?”
    • Don’t just take my word for it. Some stranger on the Internet :-) wrote

    These Markdown files can be edited anywhere, on any device. You’ll never corrupt or break them. They are future-proof, and infinitely portable. And they sync like butter.

  2. From plain text I can produce any output.
    • With Pandoc I can (and have!) taken Markdown input and produced output in the following formats:
  3. Vim lets me run a wiki and a text editor in one platform-independent tool.
    • I have over a million words accessible in one place.
  4. Vim works through a terminal
    • In theory, this would let someone start an ssh session to a home machine and work on a novel while somewhere else.


  1. Vim is not easy to learn.
    • After using it for over twenty-five years, I find it makes everything easier.
    • The first five years were the hardest.
  2. Comments are not easy for beta readers to create.
    • Comments in Markdown are a confused term.
    • I want comments from a beta reader. “Commenting out” a line means something different to a systems administrator.
  3. Hard to transport.
    • If my novel is 38 chapters and each has its own markdown file, then you’re sending an archive of files to someone else.
    • Kind of the opposite of the Google Docs option below.

If you’ve got a way to change my mind, please let me know!

PDF - Adobe Portable Document Format

Adobe PDF has been around since 1992 and is a great way to read documents. I’m highly confident that if you create a file in PDF format and send it to me, what I read will match what you read.


  1. Easy to open
  2. Every OS has some sort of PDF viewer
  3. Pagination and page layout is consistent across all Operating Systems.
  4. There is a way to make comments on a PDF file, in theory.


  1. No one creates a draft in PDF. One always creates a file in some other format, then creates a PDF output and sends this second file on.
    • That’s creating a second step.
    • I’m not against multiple steps in practice. Things are easier if we can avoid additional steps.
  2. The author has to have two files open: the commented file to read from, and the source file to incorporate those changes. Additional displays help here. Not everyone has the screen size to make this enjoyable.
  3. PDF comments can get caught up in OS and Adobe details.
    • The ability to write comments to a file, send that commented file back to the author, and have the author read those comments varies from OS to OS.
    • I’ve had problems with this in the past.



  1. I can specify in gory detail exactly how I want my document to look.
  2. You can find gems like the SFFMS typesetting class. As in, write your novel in any kind of plain text, then convert it to LaTeX, then apply this style sheet to handle margins and all the other typesetting details.
  3. Platform independent
  4. Free


  1. The reader has to chew through the gory detail of exactly how I want my document to look.
  2. Only typesetters and mathematics professors care for this level of detail.
  3. The SFFMS class was created in 2003. I’m dubious about how thoroughly it is used these days.
  4. Not easy to set up.
  5. Not easy to become proficient in this.


This brings us to the first product in the set of proprietary vendor tools. Pages is what Apple Incorporated calls a word processor.


  1. Free with Mac OS once you’ve bought your Mac.
  2. Can open Microsoft Word files in docx format.
    • This allows using the “Comments and Changes” function in Pages to read and write comments on a MS Word file.


  1. Not OS independent.
    • Everyone has to have an expensive product from Apple Incorporated to make this work
    • “Other than accessing iCloud through a browser, there is no program that can officially view or edit a Pages file using Windows or Linux.” - quote from the Pages wiki page.
  2. So proprietary that pandoc cannot create output in “Pages” format. Pandoc has to create something like Rich Text Format or Microsoft Word format, then import it into Pages, and hope that the formatting and “smart quotes” and such doesn’t get kicked too hard.
    • Note that RTF is itself (a) a proprietary format, and (b) released 34 years ago, and (c) last updated 13 years ago.
    • This is another reason why I like plain text for editing.
  3. Not easy to work with very very large files in Pages. Also not easy to sew together numerous smaller files.


I haven’t tried Scrivener, so I should really stop here. I’m putting forth my opinions based on what I’ve read and heard about from second-hand sources.


  1. Great way to collect individual ideas, and sort them. (“The Corkboard”)
  2. Supports numerous output formats.


  1. See “Pages” above for my rant about proprietary formats. Content in Scrivener is stored in /.scirv format.
  2. I don’t want to spend the money for the licence for a proprietary format.
  3. Personally, I think I have built part of what Scrivener provides using Vim and Markdown.
  4. To the best of my knowledge (and I confess I have not tried this), there’s no way for one Scrivener user to send a draft in /.scirv format to a second Scrivener user.

Google Docs

What if, instead of moving files around, the draft existed in a single place In The Cloud, and everyone involved in the process worked on the same single draft? Hello, Google Docs! I have used this at employers for corporate information that was, er, “internal”. (Now I’m wondering again about how “internal” your document is when it’s stored In The Cloud.)


  1. If there are more than two people involved, this provides a clear consistent method to ensure everyone is looking at the same copy of the same file.
  2. Free
  3. Easy and straightforward to use.


  1. There Is No Cloud. It’s Just Someone Else’s Computer
    • Do you trust that “Someone Else” with your novel?
  2. The editor I worked with on my first published work thought the lag with Google Docs was so slow, the editor rejected that option outright.
  3. This goes against how I think.
    • I prefer to think of First Draft, Second Draft, Third Draft, … Final published work.
    • Google Docs just extends and adds comments to one file, indefinitely, until all parties are exhausted. Or that first file is cropped and a second file is created.
  4. Google is still a vendor. This is still a proprietary product.
    • What happens if/when Google goes out of business? If you tell me Google will never go out of business, I will tell you that Blockbuster was also popular for a while, as were Compact Discs for music.
  5. Not easy to use this once your Internet connection goes out, gets slow, is spotty while you’re at that island retreat writing.

Microsoft Word


  1. Used everywhere.
  2. “Track Changes” feature is easy to use for comments and feedback.
    • If you move a block of text within the draft, the comment follows it. Nice.
    • Pages can use the same “Track Changes” feature that MS Word provides.


  1. I am not a fan of Microsoft
  2. I am not a fan of Microsoft Windows
  3. I am not a fan of the Microsoft Word GUI
  4. Proprietary file format.
    • Microsoft already changed it from .doc to .docx and you just know they’re going to change it again.

Final recommendation is Microsoft Word

As a beta reader I would like that draft in Microsoft Word format. I will open the draft in my copy of Pages and add comments, and M will see my comments when I send it back.

I also reserve the right to improve my position on this after time and experience. I mean, that’s what I’ve done throughout my life. Over twenty-seven years ago I wrote a master’s thesis in Microsoft Word, and did not enjoy it, so I started looking for different products. I will keep looking.