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

Writers have a vested interest in the tools they work with and the preservation of their work. Today, almost all writers use a computer at some stage of their work, but in the age of ubiquitous word processors, few have considered the benefits of plain text. When you use a word processor or save a file in .docx, .doc, or even .rtf format, your file is unreadable without the software to decode it. It might look something like this if opened in a text editor:


or this:


Good luck reading your brilliant work. In contrast, a .txt file (plain text) can be opened in a readable format by any text editor or word processor on any platform. It can even be accessed from a command line.

Without getting too political (software companies control the decoding of your information), or philosophical (WYSIWYG is not what you think), or ideological (plain text is free text), the following will argue for the use of plain text for writers on the basis of its simplicity and content oriented focus, cross-platform compatibility, and benefits for long term archiving.

Writing is the logical and artful arrangement of words to express thoughts. It is not choosing fonts, indentations, headers, footers, gutters, and margins. Formatting is best done when preparing a document for a specific purpose or publication. Writing in plain text offers a simple environment focused on the task at hand. Your manuscripts will stay clean and free of unnecessary code. Plain text can be easily pasted into other applications, and can always be formatted later using a word processor.

Everybody knows there are compatibility issues with word processors. Even software that claims to be compatible with .doc or .rtf, for example, sometimes have issues. Writers need to know that they can access their files from any computer or device, use the text in other applications, and share them without worrying about compatibility issues. No other file format is as cross compatible as plain text.

Now more than ever, master documents are likely to be stored in electronic format. Not only are plain text files more compatible than any other file format, they take up less disk space and avoid a lot of the data storage problems encountered with other file formats. Say you need to access a short story you wrote on a computer in 1985? If you saved it in plain text, it’s no problem. Want your files to be readable in the year 2185? Again, save them in plain text.

Alas, there are some obstacles to using plain text as a writer. The first is finding a good text editor. Most word processors can save documents in plain text, so you could really use anything, but a text editor is designed to work with plain text. Most text editor are made with programmers in mind though, and many lack features that are important to writers, like spell check and word count. There are some good free ones though, and some even better commercial ones. I recommend NoteTab Pro for a feature rich environment and Q10 for simplicity.

Acceptability is also an issue. Standard manuscript formats are based on typewritten manuscripts and can only be formatted using a word processor. Unless plain text formats are adopted, editors are still going to want manuscripts as an .rtf in standard manuscript format. This means it’s necessary to format the text file before sending it out. An extra step, but it’s easy to do, and worth it for the benefits of working with plain text.

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

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

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