One of the Achilles’ heels of weblog software has always been formatting. For the most part, people use their web browsers to update their sites, typing their words into little text boxes. These text boxes don’t provide much flexibility in terms of showing authors any character formatting that they add to their posts, nor do they provide much lattitude for determining line breaks or other paragraph-based formatting that we’ve all grown so accustomed to controlling in modern-day word processors.
The first problem is the easier of the two to manage; so long as you’re running Internet Explorer, most weblog software deals with it by providing a formatting bar allowing at least for bold and italic text. While this suffers from a few problems — it doesn’t let authors actually see their formatted text, and it obligates authors to use presentational tags rather than logical ones — it does show them a crude derivative version of their formatted documents, and that’s a step in the right direction.
The second problem is tougher, though, mainly because software has to employ a predictive algorithm in order to figure out how authors want to break the lines in their text. Should the software adhere to the strict meaning of whitespace in HTML, and ignore it? On the other hand, should it carry the word processing paradigm over to HTML, and translate carriage returns and double carriage returns into line breaks and line spaces? Manila never has handled this right, offering no choice to the author and using terrible HTML markup which makes compliance with XHTML standards or proper use of CSS an absolute impossibility.[*] Many of the other popular weblog software provides a “convert line breaks” option, but ends up stomping on an author’s occasional attempts to explicitly control a paragraph’s formatting.
One thing I love about Movable Type, however, is that programmers can extend its functionality with plugins, and one of the more prolific plugin authors, Brad Choate, has done so in a way that allows a great deal more paragraph formatting flexibility for authors. Today, I installed the plugin, and using the “smart_xhtml_p” mode, I’m able to combine MT’s ability to format a post for me with the ability to override the formatting on certain elements. Now, I can maintain XHTML compliance while still being able to apply alternate block-level styles, and that’s a good thing.
[*] And while Manila can do plug-ins, too, they can’t fix its paragraph formatting problem. The way that the relevant code is written, there’s no way to override the auto-paragraph thing without doing some serious modification of Userland code, something that’s generally met with the personal wrath of the software’s author.