You need to consider plain text as a means to future-proof your written work. Why plain text? How hard is it to do? What are the advantages and disadvantage? My suggestions? Let’s find out.
Why would you bother to work with plain text files? Why would you convert to plain text?
Before we dive in, let me preface this post by stating I use most of the major tools in the indie publishing space except for Vellum, and that’s true only because I don’t own a Mac.
I use Scrivener during manuscript drafting and Word during revisions. I also use Microsoft Word extensively because Track Changes works well for me as a freelance editor.
If there is a tool like Scrivener to make rearranging scenes and chapters incredibly easy and track your stats and you cannot imagine writing without it, then by all means, use the tool. I’m not proposing we bring back clay tablets.
I have nothing against word processing and writing programs. However, most of these proprietary applications produce proprietary file formats. There’s the rub. For longevity, nothing beats plain text. Now, on we go.
Back to my programming roots.
I admit, I was late coming back to my roots as a programmer. Yes, for many, long years I worked in the code mines, but then I escaped and ran far, far away. Recently, J. Thorn mentioned an article by Derek Sivers (see resources), and when I read it, several things crystallized in my mind.
- First, my words are my legacy. When I’m dead and gone, I want to make sure my twenty true fans can find my work. In a vault. On a thumb drive.
- Second, plain text files are the most durable, flexible, resilient way to store digital information.
- Third, I do not want a software change to mean my files are difficult to open and convert. That means I need to use a non-proprietary format.
- Fourth, plain text files are useful and easy to manipulate, manage, and store.
- Finally, You can encase your text in MORE text to proudly display your words online by using a markup language or gasp, you can CODE a program to do whatever you like with the text. You could, but let’s not.
The result of my ah-hah moment was a true desire to get away from word processing and concentrate on writing and notetaking instead. And, oh yeah, I made the decision to convert and save my manuscripts to plain text files for posterity.
Strengths of plain text:
- Anyone with a computer can open plain text files.
- Plain text format is non-proprietary, but proprietary applications can open text files.
- Text files are smaller to store and load faster than bloated rich text files.
- You can copy text into any program.
- If you work in a text editor without all the menus and gizmos, work gets done. And you will still have a spell checker.
- Text files always look the same; no weird stuff gets displayed.
Weaknesses of plain text:
- Plain text is not as pretty as formatted text to look at.
- There are no tables or images, pagination, or other layout features in plain text. However, there are ways to overcome this; more in a minute.
- The absence of headings of varying sizes removes one of the tools to understanding written material at a glance because the structure is not immediately apparent.
- Formatting information must be stripped from MS Word files or Google Docs files, etc. to download a text file. This is easily accomplished. But you cannot reverse engineer the formatting that is lost.
Future-proof your written work with plain text.
Make text backups of your finished work. This should have been a step in my post, Shields Up: Take The Five-Day Security Challenge. This is how to save a text file from Word or Google Docs:
- Microsoft Word, you may simply save your file as a .txt file. Make sure you choose Unicode. Easier still, Select All, copy, and paste into Notepad, then save your new file.
- Google Docs, got to File>Download>Plain text (.txt). Put your new file somewhere safe.
Consider working in a simple text editor during development; it is worth the time to experiment. Who knows? You may discover your new favorite working mode. More about text editors below.
How can you make plain text look better without using proprietary software?
You can easily make text information look more presentable by including tags in addition to plain text, such as Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), Extensible Markup Language (XML) for online display or in LaTeX, which is especially good for formatting scientific information to be printed.
Markup languages make it possible to include tables and links.
If you don’t want to learn HTML or XML markup languages, then check out Markdown.
Markdown is, in fact, a lightweight markup language that has been around since 2004. I love Markdown language, with apologies to HTML. I don’t type well enough to enjoy using HTML, plus HTML/XML is visually confusing; fight me in the street.
- It is fine to include HTML within a Markdown document.
- Markdown is easily converted to HTML, so for the average human being, this is the way to go.
- Markdown has a file extension of .md; however, you can still save it with a .txt extension.
- Using Markdown can significantly speed up your writing. Keep your fingers on the keyboard and type without mousing around. Use easy Markdown syntax to indicate the basic formatting you need, like heading levels, italics, bold font, etc.
- Word processing applications like Microsoft Word and Google Docs can accept text files that include Markdown with help from add-ons. This is mostly outside the scope of this post.
In March 2022 Google added light Markdown support in Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
Two things to know:
- You must turn the option on. Start a new Google Doc, go to Tools>Preferences and turn on “Automatically detect Markdown.”
- Take advantage of Google Add-ons. Go to Add-ons in the menu of Google Docs and search for Markdown. Add “Docs to Markdown” and give it a try.
How to work in plain text to draft your books.
Necessary hardware and software.
- Use any old machine. No, I am serious. Dust off that TRS-80 if you can still find 8″ floppy disks to feed it. Barring that, don’t be proud; use your college daughter’s laptop from 2015. When you don’t need the latest software and you plan to work offline, you are not chained to the vicious. computer-upgrade cycle.
- You need a text editor program. There are dozens of choices; some are for purchase, and others are free.
For editing Markdown, I can recommend Notepad++ which is free. You can use MS Word and Docs, and save your work as a text file. Why not? For Mac owners, there is Brackets, Vim, and TextWrangler, just to name a few.
I own Typora ($14.99 USD before tax, one-time price), and I like using it.
There are so many other options, so look around for an editor that appeals to you.
Leverage your notetaking.
Why not leverage your research with a notetaking application built for Markdown? I will return to this topic at a later time because notetaking is a powerful tool for authors.
You have probably heard of Notion and Roam, but I am using Obsidian because it is based entirely on—you guessed it—Markdown files. It is not open source, but it is free to use. There are memberships and other services you can pay for to support the developers. I appreciate this business model so much.
Personally, Obsidian very much appeals to me. It’s sort of like having a mind palace, a la Sherlock Holmes.
Returning to my roots makes me appreciate the enduring nature of plain text files.
I started using computers in the early 1980s, back when nerds built personal computers in their basements or garages. That means I am getting old, but it also means that for the foreseeable future, using plain text is a great way to future-proof your written work and notes.
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What is your favorite text editor or notetaking app? Leave your answer in the Comments below.
- Athow, Desire. 2022. “Best text editors in 2022: for Linux, Mac, and Windows.” TechRadar. https://www.techradar.com/best/best-text-editors.
- Sivers, Derek. 2022. “Write plain text files.” Derek Sivers. https://sive.rs/plaintext.
- n.d. Edit Pad – Online Text Editor & Wordpad (Notepad) for Notes. Accessed April 7, 2022. https://www.editpad.org/. (offers a plagiarism checker)
- Collins, Bryan. n.d. “Plain Text Vs Rich Text Files: Explained.” Become A Writer Today. Accessed April 7, 2022. https://becomeawritertoday.com/plain-text-vs-rich-text/.
- Dillet, Romain. 2022. “Google adds limited Markdown support to Google Docs.” TechCrunch. https://techcrunch.com/2022/03/30/google-adds-limited-markdown-support-to-google-docs/.