Plain Text for Writers, Part III: A Quick Guide to Working with Plain Text

So you’ve decided to use plain text in your writing endeavors. It’s a great choice. You’ll be able to read your files on any device and they will never become obsolete or unreadable by the next generation of word processors. Best of all, the simplicity of plain text will help focus your creative efforts.

For the most part, plain text could not be easier to work with, but there are a few things you will want to know. What are some good text editors? Can I use features like spell check, copy/paste, and search/replace? How do I format plain text manuscripts for submission or publication?

Word processors are able to save and read plain text but they’re really designed for formatting. To enjoy the beauty and simplicity of plain text, a text editor is the tool of choice. Text editors are programs designed to work with plain text. Your computer probably already has a simple text editor. Windows has Notepad and Macs have TextEdit. These programs are fast and easy to use, but lack sophisticated features, like word count and spell check, that writers have grown accustomed to.

Many text editors are designed with computer programmers in mind. However, with a little searching, you can find text editors that are ideally suited writing. Some of them are free. My favorites are Q10 and NoteTab Pro. Q10 is a full screen, bare bones editor, while NoteTab Pro has a powerful, feature rich environment. They both allow for spellchecks, wordcounts, copy/paste, search/replace, and other features very helpful to writers. If you’re working on an iPad or even an iPhone, I recommend Nebulous.

One of the keys to working with plain text manuscripts is understanding that each paragraph is technically a single line, and will appear so without an active word wrapping feature. Across platforms, Windows, Macs, and Unix, have traditionally used different control codes to indicate linebreaks, LF (linefeed), CR (carriage return), or both. Most modern text editors deal with this seamlessly, but should you find a document created on one platform suddenly doesn’t have line breaks on another, this is probably why. Don’t panic. The problem is easily remedied using the save options in most modern text editors.

Eventually, you will want to learn how to convert your plain text manuscripts into standard manuscript format for submissions or into formatted documents for publishing. It’s relatively easy using the formatting features of a word processor. The exact procedure, of course, will vary depending on your intended output and what word processor you’re using. However, the following step by step guide will show you how to convert a plain text manuscript into standard manuscript format using MS WORD. Even for a novel, this only takes about 1 minute once you understand the steps.

1. Copy your entire text document and paste it into MS WORD.

2. Set your margins to 1″.

3. Select all, and set Font to 12 pt. Courier New or Times New Roman.

4. Select all, right click to get paragraph settings, and set line space to “double” and special indent to “first line” at .5″.

5. To remove extra spaces between paragraphs, use the replace feature to replace “^p^p” with “^p”.

6. To format for italics, use the replace feature again. Check the box “use wildcards” and replace “_*_” with nothing but formatting: underline. (Note, for publication you will want to format for actual italics.)

7. Now, to remove the underscoring used to indicate italics in the text file, replace “_” with nothing.

8. To center your section breaks, replace “#” with “#” with formatting: center, no indent.

9. Insert page numbers in the upper right, with no numbering on page 1.

10. Click inside your page 1 header. Type your contact information in the upper left and your word count in the upper right.

11. Click inside your page 2 header. Click right before your page number and type “your last name / title / “.

12. Finally, select your title and byline. In the paragraph settings, center the alignment and choose no indent.

That’s it. Your plain text manuscript should now conform to standard manuscript format and be ready to submit to any number of markets. Additionally, by altering these steps a little, you can format manuscripts for publication. Hope you enjoy working with plain text as much as I do. Best of luck in all your writing endeavors!

Plain Text for Writers, Part I: An Argument for the Use of Plain Text

Plain Text for Writers, Part II: A Proposal for a Plain Text Manuscript Format

Additional Information:

2 thoughts on “Plain Text for Writers, Part III: A Quick Guide to Working with Plain Text”

  1. Just a couple of suggestions for reducing the amount of work involved in all of this. Create a document in your word processor that contains just the formatting and the text in the headers that does not change. Then save it as a template.

    Once saved as a template, create new documents based on the template. This will save you from needing to set margins, spacing, and indents; it’s already done for you.

    As an alternative to copying the text to the clipboard from a text editor, use your word processor’s feature for inserting an entire file at the cursor, and select your text file in the dialog that pops open. Advanced users could also create macros for the search and replace procedures in steps 5 through 7, and most word processors will store these with the template. In fact, the entire procedure, from inserting the text file to replacing underscores and italicizing, could be assigned to a single-click tool bar button.

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