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.