The joy of plain text

These days, I write pretty much everything in plain text. This is driven by two main things:

  1. Annoyance
  2. Paranoia

How I write pretty much anything of any length (blog posts, reports, proposals, longer emails) is to write them in a text editor – I’ve settled on WriteRoom – using the Markdown markup language.

I then also preview them in Marked so I have an idea of how they look when published – which I do by either copying the HTML into a WordPress post, or exporting a PDF to send on to someone else.

I’m sure you can get equivalents to these tools on other platforms like Windows or Linux, if you need to.

Using Markdown in a plain text document provides the answer to both of my issues I mention above.

My main annoyance with word processors is the lack of control over what they are doing, particularly with regard to formatting. In most cases, complexity gets in the way. Ever been editing a Word document, and find you can’t change the way a bit of text is formatted?

Maybe you’ve found yourself in the wrong section, or maybe the styles are broken from when someone else edited the document before you. Who knows? It’s annoying.

Far better to be able to see the source of all this formatting, which is what MarkDown provides. Obviously I’d much prefer using WordStar under CP/M but that’s probably not possible these days.

Markdown is a super simple markup language that means you can make words italic or bold just by wrapping them in asterisks, or you can set heading levels by using hash symbols. Even inserting links is an easy process with square brackets and parentheses.

Plus, plain text is a super portable file format – it can be opened on any system in pretty much any editor. This answers my paranoia problem. Nobody can stop me opening or sharing my work!

Adrian Short wrote a nice piece a while ago about plain text and how wonderful it is.

You can write plain text in any text editor or word processor. You can read plain text in any text editor or word processor. There’s no formatting to get screwed up. No-one owns the format. It’s completely interoperable. You can send plain text to anyone knowing that they’ll always be able to read it, no matter what computer they’re using or which software they’ve got installed.