Why write plain text?

1 minute read


Here’s why:

  • A writing environment that models an argument, not a sheet of paper. Plain-text documents decouple writing environment from distribution format. In my plain-text documents, each sentence gets a line of its own: sentences always begin at the left margin. This makes it easier to see and edit the sequence of argument within paragraphs. Lines of text are re-flowed into paragraphs for distribution — i.e., by the program that converts my plain-text document into pdf or docx or html.

  • Persistent private comments. Like programming languages, plain-text markup languages have a syntax for comments — that is, for designating text that will not be read by the engine that processes the file. Plain-text comments can be used like the comment function in Microsoft Word or Google Docs. The difference is that comments in plain-text files are, by default, masked off and omitted from the pdf and docx files generated from them. Because the comments do not render in the publication formats, I can retain them in my working document throughout the whole life-cycle of the document, or as long as they remain useful to me. I can also comment out whole sentences or paragraphs if, for instance, I need to reduce the word count in one version of a document, but think I may re-instate the suppressed material in a later version.

  • Persistent lightweight file history. Plain-text files can be placed under git version control, just like program code.

  • Automated formatting of citations and bibliography. In a plain-text environment, I never keyboard citations. Citations are formatted by script, drawing on machine-readable bibliographies that I curate. The output must be proofed. This progressively improves the quality of my bibliographical data and debugs the scripts that format citations.

  • Exposure to command-line utilities. As text files, my documents can be manipulated with the same command-line utilities and applications that I use to interact with any other text file in my system.

For an example of a simple plain-text document, view the Markdown source for this post.