Writing in Plain Text: A Tutorial for the Non-Techy Writer

Cuthbert-Gospels-John-1-1Inspired by a conversation with some of my advanced literature students, I offer, here, a short set of tutorials for writing productively (especially as an academic) using plain-text tools. Unlike most of the online resources on this subject, this series of tutorials is designed for the non-techy writer who doesn’t have a lot of time. The lessons are desgned to to be extremely simple, even if you’re a technophobe, and take only five to ten minutes to complete. By the end of the series, you’ll be up and running with a digital writing process that gets the technology out of your way and puts your creative process first.

Lesson One: Why Plain Text?

I’ll admit it, I’m a tech nerd. Or, at least, as much of a tech nerd as one is likely to find in an English department.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I think medievalists bring a kind of historical awareness to tech that allows us to see it more as a collection of useful functions–where novelty isn’t necessarily the only value–than a progressive march toward perfection. This approach allows us to ask not “what’s the newest thing?” but rather “what’s the best technology for the job?” in an awareness that the best tool for the job might potentially be a very old one.

One thing scholars in the humanities do all the time is write, and taking my “medievalist mind” to the available technologies for doing that has helped me light on some tools for supporting my writing that are in some ways older and less “high tech” than other options. For the same reason, however, they are also more stable, more sustainable, and (with a little practice) faster and easier to manage than traditional electronic writing with a word processing suite such as Microsoft Office.

The Elegance of Plain Text

To understand how working in plain text is helpful, think about the tools you normally use to write on a computer. If you’re like most, you default to a traditional “word processor” such as Microsoft Word. But consider this: have you ever had a problem with Word where some strange formatting seems to have sneaked into your document and you can’t get rid of it, no matter what you do or what settings you change? Have you ever had a Word document behave in infuriatingly odd ways for no apparent reason? Well, there is a reason, which is that Word documents are actually extremely complicated beasts. For example, a very simple sentence in Word, such as:

This is a simple sentence typed in the Word .docx file format

only appears to be very simple. Underneath what you can see in Word, there’s a huge amount of code that you don’t see. Here’s that same sentence with all the underlying word code revealed:

WordCode_01

The image you’re seeing is only one out of nine pages of code Word generates to display that single sentence.

Hence the reason Word tends to misbehave, and misbehave more the more you work with a document. As you add edits, elements such as notes and images, copy text from other sources, rearrange blocks of text–in other words, most of the things an academic does with documents all the time–the more of that code is inserted, the more random and redundant strings of code interact and conflict with one another, and the more complex and unwieldy the document becomes. No wonder your document starts behaving as though it’s possessed by something unholy.

On the other hand, a plain-text file contains only the ascii characters that you type. A plain text file in which you type:

This is a simple sentence in plain text.

contains only the characters you typed, nothing else. If you make edits, rearrange things, paste in text from elsewhere, make lots of revisions over time, add sources, etc., you’re only rearranging and adding your text. Where a graphical Word processor might boast that “what you see is what you get,” a text editor can boast “what you see is what is there.” Nothing is hidden.

For this reason, plain text documents are much more stable and sustainable through the process of composition and revision than word processor documents. That doesn’t mean there’s something inherently wrong with word processors. What it does mean is that word processors are the right tools for the job when the job is formatting and processing complex documents, and not necessarily the right tools for the job when the job is writing.

A few other advantages of plain text:

  • It’s compatible with everything. You can edit plain text files on any device, with any simple text editor. You can work on your writing on any computer, your tablet, or even your phone without screwing up any formatting in the process.
  • It’s sustainable over time. As mentioned above, plain text doesn’t add tons of behind-the-scenes code the more you work with a document, so you can say goodbye to Word’s shenanigans. It’s also true that popular file formats change over time: if you wrote documents in something like, say, WordStar years ago, those documents take a lot of doing to access these days. Plain text documents have always been, and will aways be, universally accessible.
  • You can focus on your words. Word tends to be so complex, and presents you with such a dizzying arrange of options (most of which you don’t need unless you’re a massive insurance corporation) that the tool itself can distract from your writing. A simple text editor removes all that nonsense–it’s just you and your words.
  • You have more control over formatting. The basic idea behind a plain-text workflow is that you do your composing with a text editor in a sustainable, unversal format, and then, only when your text is ready to send somewhere–say, to a journal for publication–do you worry about formatting. We’ll cover how to make this work in later posts, but for now, imagine this: you’ve written an article as a text file. That file contains only universal formatting for everything–subheadings, footnotes, citations, etc. To format the file for different venues, you use another piece of software to convert that document into any format you like. One journal wants the document submitted as a Word document with citations in MLA style? You simply tell your conversion software that’s what you want, and, with a few keystrokes, ZAP! You’ve got a properly-formatted Word document ready to go. Another journal wants the same article submitted as a PDF with footnotes using the Chicago notes-bibliography style? A few more keystrokes and voila! Need to make some substantial edits after a peer review? Make those edits in the original text file and avoid all the formatting shenanigans your word processor always gives you.
  • It’s blazingly fast. Text editors are tiny pieces of software compared to word processors, so they start instantaneously, load documents almost instantly, and run like lightning even on old hardware. Nothing gets between you and your words.

In the end, the best thing about working with plain text is that it’s a technology that gets out of your way, allowing you to think and compose without distraction.

Convinced? If so, stay tuned for the next lesson, in which we will download and get started with some elegant text editing software.

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