A Plain Text Primer

For a while now, I’ve been an advocate of plain text files for those who primarily write for the web. And like many who attempt to explain their benefits, every time I do, I come of sounding like a crazy person. Later today, I will be featured in an episode of Jason Konopinski’s “Riffing on Writing” podcast where we talk about geeky writing workflows. While I can’t say for certain, I’m fairly certain that early on in the episode I come off like a geeky raving madman.

In order to attempt to prove that I’m not insane (likely a futile endeavor), I wanted to try and clarify why I believe plain text files to be a better way to create words for the web.

What is Plain Text?

Plain text files are exactly they says on the tin, a file that only includes your text with no additional formatting. You can open these files in any text editor or word processor and they will look the same. This changes the minute you start getting into basic formatting and proprietary files such as Microsoft Word’s DOCX, or even basic, rich-text formatting such as bold and italics can limit your options. As David Sparks pointed out in his Macworld article on plain text:

Although modern word processing programs can do some amazing things—adding charts, tables, and images, applying sophisticated formatting—there’s one thing they can’t do: Guarantee that the words I write today will be readable ten years from now.

Anyone who has ever attempted to open a new Microsoft Word file in an old copy of the application knows the limitations of file formats, but what you may not know is that in most cases this limitation is self imposed and unnecessary. 

Text Editor vs. Word Processor 

A big part of the problem is that we’re often using the wrong default tool to create our words. When ready to write, the majority of computer users will open a word processor like Microsoft Word or Apple’s Pages rather than a text editor like Notepad on Windows or Text Edit on the Mac. We do this even if we’re simply drafting an email or jotting down notes to ourselves. The problem actually lies in the name. A word processor, while capable of being used for the creation of words, is actually optimized for formatting text in order to be printed or read. Whereas a text editor is more focused the creation and editing of your words.

Plain Text vs. Formatted Text

Since the majority of us often use a standard font, size and spacing on our printed documents or PDFs and have a set design on our websites, a word processor is often overkill. They can be useful for creating beautifully formatted documents, but for everyday use, they’re more of a habit than a benefit. By switching to plain text, you immediately see the benefits.

  • Plain Text is Portable – The files are smaller allowing for large libraries of text files to move quickly from a folder in the cloud (e.g. Dropbox or iCloud) to your device of choice. They also take up far less room on your hard drive than more robust file formats.
  • Plain Text is Flexible – Mac user? Windows user? iOS? Android? Palm? Word? Pages? It doesn’t matter what you chose to use. There is no file incompatibility when it comes to plain text and because of that there’s no broken formatting or files that cannot be opened.
  • Plain Text is Ubiquitous – This combination of portability and flexibility ensures that you will always have access to all of your words, wherever you are on whatever device you find yourself working on in a format that can be compactly stored both on your device and in the cloud.

Formatting and Markdown

Right about now, you might be interested. But you’re probably worried about the same thing I was at first: basic formatting. All of this sounds great, but we still need to be able to bold and italicize text. We need to be able to create headers, block quotes, lists. And we need to do so in a way that our boss, co-workers and friends can read. When writing for the web, we need to create links and we need to get it all in a format that works on any website. 

This is where Markdown comes in. According to John Gruber, the creator of Markdown:

Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers. Markdown allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML).

In other words, it allows you to write entirely in plain text in a way that can easily be exported into something formatted. For those of you who saw the word HTML and freaked out, I assure you, Markdown is easy to learn and can now be used to create more than just HTML for the web. I do not know a line of code and mastered the basics in about an hour. Markdown is intentionally limited, keeping things down to the basics that writers need and use. 

Hopefully I sound mildly less insane and perhaps even have you considering plain text for yourself. If so, come back tomorrow and I will be offering up a comprehensive 101 on how bloggers and web workers can get started using plain text and Markdown. You can even subscribe for free by email or RSS and have it delivered right to you.

Note: Here is the original plain text version of this post so you can see how easy a plain text file written in Markdown can be.

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  • http://www.jasonkonopinski.com/ Jason Konopinski

    How are you importing the text file into WordPress?

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      Are you using nvALT? If so, hit CTRL-CMD-P for the preview and then hit CMD-U (or just hit view source) to see the raw HTML.

      • http://www.facebook.com/micheal.hickerson Micheal Hickerson

        There’s also a WordPress plugin that allows posts to be written in Markdown: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/wp-markdown/

        • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

          Be very careful there. I made my data utterly unportable with these kinds of plugins. I hear Markdown on Save is a better option. It keeps both a MD copy and the correct HTML.

          • http://www.facebook.com/micheal.hickerson Micheal Hickerson

            Good word. Mostly, though, I compose in Byword (or preview in Marked) and export to HTML, similar to your process.

        • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

          Looking into this plug-in it seems it may not have the same issues as mine, but be careful :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/InklingBooks Michael W. Perry

    The problem with Markdown is that, without clever GREP-like parsing, it’s not as easy as it ought to convert from marked up text to its final meaning.

    Creating partially italicized index entries for InDesign, for instance, I hit on using the « and » characters to mark the beginning and end of italicization and wrote a S&R to apply a italic style to those markers.. That’s very easy. The start and end point are clear and unambiguous. The same isn’t true of Markdown, where an * signals both the beginning and end of italicization. You’ve got to be a GREP guru to hit on the right coding.

    That said, it’d be great if more apps supported Markdown import, particularly InDesign and iBooks Author. It’d be even better if OS X did. Apple’s been woefully neglectful in improving their text services. Text is still handled as if WordStar circa 1982 was the last word in text handling. Why not build in GREP? Why not add named paragraph and text styles? Word had that in 4.0 circa 1988.

    Even spell correction in OS X stinks. About a third the time, it has no valid suggestion for misspelled words. Even mistakes like ei for ie or a single missing letter can leave it clueless. Multiple times a day, I have to take a spelling that OS X is clueless about and paste it into a Google search. There, about 95% of the time, Google offers a “did you mean’ that’s spot on.

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      I see what you’re saying and may need to consider changing my frame from bloggers and web workers to bloggers and writers for the web. While some of what you’re saying is a bit over my head, I see where you’re coming from. That said, I also think it’s uncommon that the average user (which is who this is really aimed at) will ever come close into running into them. And while there are plenty of apps that don’t play nicely with it, I’ve found Marked to be a good stopgap for most of my common use cases.

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  • Cole

    At the beginning of the article, I thought “Markdown, what about markdown?” But then, you addressed markdown and I was very pleased. Great article, Michael. More people need to read this.

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      Thanks Cole! I was torn about where to put the MD info, but figured a slower introduction of it would be preferable. Wanted to make sure that people didn’t conflate Plain Text and MD syntax. Hopefully we have a few new converts from this :)

  • brett

    You’ve convinced me! Now, does anyone know a quick and free way to mass convert to txt the thousands of rtf documents I’ve created over the past decade or so and now reside in various folders on my drive?

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      I haven’t run into this myself, but I put the question out there on Twitter. I’ll be sure to follow up if I get a good lead.

    • http://jasonrehmus.net/ Jason Rehmus

      On a Mac? Like using the Terminal? Try textutil: http://hints.macworld.com/article.php?story=20060309220909384

      • Brett

        Thanks, Jason. Haven’t used Terminal much myself but I’ll give it a try if no one else comes up with another suggestion. I assume the tip will work by substituting “.rtf” for “.doc”

        • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

          Are you looking to keep the formatting intact by converting it to Maekdown or do you just want the files with no formatting?

          • brett

            Probably no formatting is fine. These are articles I’ve written or downloaded for reference, and it’s not that big a deal for me to paste a link into a browser window rather than being able to click on it. And I almost never need anything but the text itself (images etc).

          • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

            From what I understand the current techiniques a clunky. You’d need to run a script that converts the RTF to HTML and then another that turns the HTML into MD. It looks as if some people are considering trying to create an easier way. If that happens, I’ll update you here.

        • http://jasonrehmus.net/ Jason Rehmus

          rtf is one of the formats. Here’s the man page: http://www.manpagez.com/man/1/textutil/

  • Terry Westley

    Trunk Notes, a universal app for iOS, is a markdown-friendly personal wiki that syncs to Dropbox. It syncs a plain text file for each wiki page to Dropbox. Lack of a Mac version is no burden to me as I mostly write notes on my iPhone and iPad. When I do want to write the occasional note on my Mac, I use its Wifi Sharing feature. 

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      Not sure I follow. If it’s saving the files to Dropbox, you should be able to access all of those files on your Mac.

  • http://spinsucks.com Gini Dietrich

    I hate you. THIS is the reason Spin Sucks Pro hasn’t launched yet. The former development firm wanted us to upload all of our content in plain text. So, what had already been created and formatted and linked had to be switched to plain text, uploaded, and then formatted and linked in HTML.

    I HATE IT!!!!!!!!!

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      How did you do it in the first place? HTML? We need to talk about this project one of these days. Do I need to crack skulls for you?

      • http://spinsucks.com Gini Dietrich

        We had everything in Word when they told us that wouldn’t work. No matter. It’s moved to WordPress and we’re getting ready to private beta it to a select group of friends. But I see “plain text” and I start to hyperventilate.

        • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

          See… this is why you need to let me turn you into a geek. While it’s possible to get stuff out of Word and onto the web, it creates a lot of what’s known as “cruft” essentially superflous HTML crap that can really screw with a web page. There are ways to mitigate it, but it can throw a wrench. No hyperventalating from now on, just talk to your good pal Mike :)

          • http://spinsucks.com Gini Dietrich

            Well I know that now. Now I create everything right in the HTML view of the site I’m working on. But I had to learn that lesson the very, very hard way.

          • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

            As long as the lesson is learned, but I still don’t know how you do that right in the browser :)

  • Angela Booth

    I started using plain text (with Markdown) for all my writing when I lost a hard drive and TWO backups last year. It was a nightmare. Never again. A similar thing happened to me when I lost a tape backup years ago.

    Now it’s plain text for me all the way; I can convert to HTML at a click when I need to, or shovel the text into Scrivener.

    SimpleNote and Drafts make me beautifully mobile too.

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      I miss Simplenote, I just can’t trust it anymore. Swallowed too much data. I do miss their URL scheme and the approach to the app.

  • http://www.thinkinprojects.com Rafal

    Great article Micheal. I’ve been gradually moving to text based system over the last few weeks. Being a Windows user I rely on combination of ResophNotes, WriteMonkey, Dropbox and Simplenote. Although Simplenote is there just for the Android syncing and mobile capture really. So far so good. If only I could use some of those tools at work….. Also got inspired by you and few others to learn Markdown and really like it.

    • http://michaelschechter.me/ MSchechter

      I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying the early experiences. And yes, MD was a game changer for the way I work with text. It’s easily one of the best things I’ve learned over the past few years. Which is probably sad…

      • http://www.thinkinprojects.com Rafal

        I would say quite the opposite. Regardless how simple the lesson is, it’s the impact that counts and in this case MD had a profound impact.

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