Why should researchers give up Microsoft Word and write in plain text?
Author: Jingjing Lin
“As a beginning graduate student in the social sciences, what sort of software should you use to do your work? More importantly, what principles should guide your choices? …The short version is: you should use tools that give you more control over the process of data analysis and writing. I recommend you write prose and code using a good text editor…minimize error by storing your work in a simple format (plain text is best), and make a habit of documenting what you’ve done.” – Kieran Healy, Duke University,
This is not just one scholar’s voice. Many others have agreed such as:
- David Sparks: Forget fancy formatting: Why plain text is best.
- Michael Schechter: Creating Content with Markdown: Learn by Video
- Lincoln Mullen: Grab a Web Page in Plain Text with Markdownifier
- W. Caleb McDaniel: Why (and How) I Wrote My Academic Book in Plain Text
- Dennis Tenen and Grant Wythoff: Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text using Pandoc and Markdown
- Others. Van Ittersum and Ching compiled a long list of bloggers who are advocators of writing in markdown or plain text. Read more into Composing text/shaping process: How digital environments mediate writing activity.
Let me list some apparent advantages offered by plain text to see if you really understand this rather under-used tool by researchers.
Microsoft Word is not free. Plain text is free. It is simple to understand. No matter what laptop or operation system you use, the plain text editor is a default free app that you can directly use without any purchasing behavior.
The term of future-proof means the ability of something to continue to be of value into the distant future. Your work will not be readable one day if it is not future-proof. Let’s say Microsoft died one day, which is not impossible considering all things have a life cycle, if all your work was written and saved in .docx or .doc format, it will be a big trouble. Plain text files, instead, are like printed books. We can still appreciate the writings of very ancient authors because they were preserved by future-proof medium – printed in paper.
As said by David Sparks: “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. 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.”
No matter it is Windows, macOS, or Linux, the plain text files are borderless and can be used by all different operation systems. No matter what software, the plain text is fully compatible with them and no matter where and using what to open, it will give you the same look.
Free of format
As expressed by Lincoln Mullen, “One thing I’d like to be able to do with plain text is this: Often I’d like to grab some text from a website in plain text. Copying and pasting into a text editor loses links and italics, while pasting into a word processor brings a lot of junk formatting with it.”
Focus on content
Isn’t it common for you that when you are facing Word interface, you cannot help thinking of the formatting and somehow feel that you can be inspired to start writing or writing better with the right look? I often fall in this type of trap – “confusing the process of typesetting with the process of composition” as described by W. Caleb McDaniel.
Journals and academic presses generally want manual submissions in Word documents, not as text files. But it does not mean that you have to write in Word documents. There are plenty of typesetting tools to convert a plain text file into any file format for you including into a .doc file.
Below I am only listing some tools that can be used to take plain text notes, write articles, and formatting the plain text files.
- Byword: markdown app for writing in plain text efficiently, available for Mac, iPhone and iPad.
- Scrivener: a word-processing program and outliner designed for authors. It provides a management system for documents, notes and metadata. This allows the user to organize notes, concepts, research, and whole documents for easy access and reference.
- nvUltra: searchable, portable, MultiMarkdown notes taking app.
- Simplenote: a note-taking application with Markdown support.
- Pandoc: a free and open-source document converter, widely used as a writing tool and as a basis for publishing workflows.
I certainly have learned much from writing this article and hope you are as inspired as me to plan on learning more, and setting up your own flow of writing in plain text.