Words on a Page Writings about writing

Writing in plain text

A person typing into a text editor

Plain text. Simple, vanilla, universal.

In these days of advanced word processors, both on the desktop and on the web, writing in plain text seems quaint. In fact, it seems archaic. It seems limiting.

Writing in plain text is none of that. Plain text can actually be liberating. It can make you more efficient. And while working in plain text isn’t for every writer, it might actually be right for you.

Here’s a quick look at why, and how, you can write in plain text.

Why plain text?

Instead of, say, using Microsoft Word or Google Docs? A few reasons:

Plain text is a universal format. The structure of a text file hasn’t changed in decades. And it’s not likely to any time in the near future. I know a number of writers who can’t open files they created in the 1980s and 1990s because the word processors they used no longer exist and the file format isn’t supported today. With plain text, you can move your files between Linux, Mac, the web, Android, iOS, and Windows. You won’t lose anything.

Plain text is flexible. You can convert plain text to any other format with relative ease. If you need to, you use can Markdown, Textile, or any other lightweight markup language to add formatting to your document.

Text files are easy to create and simple to use. You don’t need to install any additional software on your computer, or need to use any web-based applications. Every operating system comes with a basic text editor

There are no distractions. Plain text has no frills, so you can quickly and easily get down everything that you need down to get down. You don’t need to worry about features that you rarely use getting in the way.

Getting to work in plain text

Obviously, you’ll need a text editor. As I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, every operating system comes with a basic text editor. Those editors work, but they’re not great. Luckily, there are a number of better text editors out there — I looked at four in a post on the old version of this blog.

Next, create templates for the kinds of writing you regularly do. I have plain-text templates for:

  • Blog posts
  • Newsletter essays
  • Articles
  • Book chapters

Here’s some advice that can help you build you templates.

Then, get load up a template and get writing.

What about formatting

By formatting, I mean adding headings or bold text or lists to your document or manuscript. Obviously, plain text doesn’t support that in the same way that your favourite word processor does.

However, you can use Markdown to add formatting to your documents. Markdown is a simple language that uses keyboard symbols to denote formatting. It’s easy to learn and very flexible — you can use Markdown with a number of blogging platforms and even convert it to common word processor formats.

If you’re interested in learning Markdown, you might want to check out my book Learning Markdown.

Dial back your expectations

You’ll need to do that when you write in plain text. Why? As I’ve hinted throughout this post, writing in plain text isn’t the same as writing in a word processor. You shouldn’t expect working in a text editor to be like working in, say, LibreOffice Writer or Google Docs.

Yes, plain text can fall flat. In several areas.

Instead of focusing on the constraints of plain text, embrace those constraints. Revel in the ability to focus on your words and ideas, rather than worry about when and where to apply formatting. Marvel at how seamlessly you can move your plain text files between your computers and your mobile devices.

Writing in plain text isn’t for every writer. But you’ll never know if it’s for you or not unless you give it a try.

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