Why plain text is timeless

David Sparks
12 August, 2011
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Looking back through my old files, I’m amazed to see how many word processors I’ve used over the years. I’ve got document files in formats ranging from MacWrite to Pages and everything in between. The problem is, a lot of those old files are useless to me now: None of my current word processors can read them. That’s a shame; some of those old words were pretty good.

Although modern word processing programs can do some amazing things – adding charts, tables and images, applying sophisticated formatting – there’s one thing they can’t do: Guarantee that the words I write today will be readable ten years from now.

That’s just one of the reasons I prefer to work in plain text: It’s timeless. My grandchildren will be able to read a text file I create today, long after anybody can remember what the heck a .dotx file is.

But that’s not plain text’s only advantage. Text files are multi-platform: I can bounce them among my Mac, iPad, iPhone and Windows PC without breaking a sweat. I can also drop text into any number of programs for further processing. For these and other reasons, I now write everything – including this story – in plain-text format. Here’s how it works for me.

Starting on the desktop

I started writing this article on my Mac in Byword. Sure, every Mac ships with Apple’s own TextEdit, and it’s certainly an easy way to work with text. But I prefer Byword. For one thing, it has a bit more polish than TextEdit. Also, it has baked-in support for Markdown, which makes it easy to add basic formatting and convert text to other formats. Byword exports text – in Markdown or not – to HTML, PDF, RTF, Word and Latex formats. Moreover, Byword displays the word count, uses Lion’s full screen mode, and just looks good on the screen.

There are more advanced text editors available. For big writing projects, I use Scrivener (still in plain-text format). But for most writing on my Mac, Byword just works for me.

When I got about halfway through the story, I copied it into NValt as a new note. NValt is an impressive little text editor in its own right; it searches and edits text brilliantly. With it, I can create new text notes with just a few keystrokes. Because I’m working in plain text, I can copy whatever I’ve written between NValt and Byword easily, with none of the formatting train wrecks you can get with moving word processing text between applications.

Moving to the cloud

In this case, I wanted to use NValt because it syncs with Simplenote. Simplenote is absurdly useful for plain-text writers: It’s a bare bones text editor for iOS plus an online syncing service. The app lets me securely upload and download text files, search through my entire database of notes, and see prior versions of them (much like Lion’s new Versions). Because the data is on the web, the latest versions of my files are always available from almost anywhere.

In addition to viewing my data on Simplenote’s own website or with Simplenote’s own iOS app, I can also view and edit my notes using one of the many Simplenote-compatible text editors. They’re available on almost every platform (including iOS, Android and Windows, as well as the Mac). NValt is my favourite Simplenote client on the Mac, but there are plenty of others.

SimpleNote is free but you can purchase a premium subscription for US$20 per year that removes ads and provides some additional features, including Dropbox syncing. Syncing Simplenote text files with a Dropbox folder makes a lot of sense, particularly if you want to use an editor that doesn’t have built-in Simplenote support; there are plenty of Dropbox-compatible editors for the iPad. (My current favorite is Notesy.)

With NValt and Simplenote, I’m always working with the most current version, no matter where I am or what hardware I’m using. Those tools give me the reckless freedom to write anywhere.

Having synced this story to Simplenote, I wrote the rest of it in the Simplenote iPad app while enjoying a taco at a nearby restaurant. I then proofread the whole thing on my iPhone while drinking tea the next morning, again with Simplenote. Finally, I went to my iMac and copied the text from NValt back into Byword so I could give it one final proofread before submitting.

If I were going to print this article on paper, I would have copied the final text into Pages to apply styles and formatting before sending my precious text into the world. But I find I print less these days and share electronically a lot more. For the latter, text is best. Even better, if 50 years from now I want to read these words again while riding in my hover car, I’ll be able to open the file on my iPhone 23. After all, it’s just plain text.

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