Why write plain text?

1 minute read


Here’s why:

  • A writing environment that models an argument, not a sheet of paper. In my plain text documents, each sentence begins a new line. This makes it easier to see and edit the sequence of argument within paragraphs. Lines are re-flowed by the program that converts my plain text documents into pdf or docx for distribution.

  • Persistent private comments. Like programming languages, plain-text markup languages have syntax for designating comments, that is, content not read by the program 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 must 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 a simple example view the Markdown source for this post.