Return to Plain Text

In the beginning there was plain text, and it was good.

Computer jockeys worked with words in plain text before WordStar led a procession of so-called word processors including WordPerfect to ClarisWorks on the Mac and the behemoth Microsoft Word. While the geeks argued over vi and eMacs and fired a few warning shots over Redmond, it seemed that Real Writers sought the best word processing application.

The New York Times recently published Jennifer Schuessler’s “The Muses of Insert, Delete, and Execute,” a literary history of word processing. It includes a wonderful quote from Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland who has has led lectures titled “Steven King’s Wang” in reference to the famous author’s first computer.

“The story of writing in the digital age is every bit as messy as the ink-stained rags that would have littered Gutenberg’s print shop or the hot molten lead of the Linotype machine,” Mr. Kirschenbaum said, before asking a question he hopes he can answer: “Who were the early adopters, the first mainstream authors to trade in their typewriters for WordStar and WordPerfect?”

It’s interesting to me that while scholars are documenting the rise of word processors many Real Writers are returning from years on a fool’s quest (while geeks still squabble over vi and eMacs) back to plain text, particularly plain text formatted in Markdown. The simple markup language is easy to learn and effortlessly translates to HTML for the web, typesetting languages such as LaTeX for more complex documents, rich text for further editing in a word processor, or straight to print as a PDF. Markdown’s versatility continues to astound me.

A corollary benefit to Markdown is the consistency it brings to document layout. Because it is plain text, the writer doesn’t have to learn about styles or remember what point size is right for second level headings. It’s all taken care of by the markup. Here’s a quick sample where plain text like this:

# Headline
This is your text
## Subhead
- This is a bullet point
- This is another one.

Yields formatted text like this:


This is your text


  • This is a bullet point
  • This is another one.

Markdown-formatted plain text can help you design beautiful documents in anything from nvALT on Mac OS X to the oft-overlooked Windows accessory Notepad) not to mention the bevy of text editors for the iPhone and iPad. The writer armed with these simple tools can focus on weaving their linguistic magic to tell a story instead of worrying about the fiddly bits.