Great Blue Heron with Fish, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio NM

On Writing in Plain Text

In A Mobile Writer’s Kit I wrote a few words about some hardware and applications that make a mobile writing workflow practical in a connected world.

Why plain text

Here is why I write in plain text, why I keep my files small, and where I file them.

Why do I write in plain text? Because it’s a simple file format saved as human readable files that can go anywhere and be read and edited with any text editor on the planet. It’s just words.

Obsolescence Happens

Because plain text is such a simple, ubiquitous format it should be with us forever. By saving my work as plain text (files with a “.txt” extension) I don’t run the risk of losing it because it got stranded in a proprietary file format that later went out of fashion and became obsolete and eventually unreadable. I’ve had it happen. I’ve lost stuff to that kind of obsolescence more than once.

When that happens those files are gone.

They’re not even history. They’re just gone.

Plain text

What I write in plain text is stored as the characters (ASCII or UTF-8) I see on the screen. There is no special coding embedded in the file, no special formatting instructions, no nothing - it’s just the characters. Those characters can be read with any text editor and any word processor can translate plain text into it’s proprietary format when needed for a publishing project. Meanwhile those simple, small, text files are totally portable and can go anywhere and can be read on any computer or portable device.

Mac guru and attorney David Sparks explains why plain text is important to him in his article, The Joy of Text, on his excellent MacSparky website.

Why small text files

I keep my notes and research and early drafts in small text files, one file for each topic or idea. I have nearly 1,000 of these small files, all in one folder, all easily found and grouped together as needed by a simple search.

Small text files make searching for notes by name and content really easy.

The search function in most text editors can search both the file name and the contents of the file but not all of them can do an in document search to locate my search term within the note after I have opened it, however, so I keep my notes short, generally under a page or so, to make finding things by eye in the body of documents easier.

File naming

I find it helps to use a file naming scheme that contains a nugget of the idea within to make it easy to pick out the note I want from a list of search results.

I have a file naming scheme, based on the work of Merlin Mann and David Sparks and others, which I use to organize my notes but that’s a subject for another day.

Keeping it simple

That’s it. I like to keep the file format simple and keep the notes themselves small and easily searched. They all go in one Dropbox folder on my MacBook Pro. That folder is automatically synced to my Dropbox account online where it is safely backed up and available to me everywhere. Simple, really.