Cuttings: Why Plain Text Why Plain Text | Cuttings
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December 31, 2018

Why Plain Text


Excellent justifications for use of plain text.

See the Programming Historian’s Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text using Pandoc and Markdown:

Inspired by best practices in a variety of disciplines, we were guided by the following principles:

  1. Sustainability. Plain text both ensures transparency and answers the standards of long-term preservation. MS Word may go the way of Word Perfect in the future, but plain text will always remain easy to read, catalog, mine, and transform. Furthermore, plain text enables easy and powerful versioning of the document, which is useful in collaboration and organizing drafts. Your plain text files will be accessible on cell phones, tablets, or, perhaps, on a low-powered terminal in some remote library. Plain text is backwards compatible and future-proof. Whatever software or hardware comes along next, it will be able to understand your plain text files.

  2. Preference for human-readable formats. When writing in Word or Google Docs, what you see is not what you get. The .doc file contains hidden, automatically-generated formatting characters, creating an obfuscated typesetting layer that is difficult for the user to troubleshoot. Something as simple as pasting an image or text from the browser can have unpredictable effects on your document’s formatting.

  3. Separation of form and content. Writing and formatting at the same time is distracting. The idea is to write first, and format later, as close as possible to the time of publication. A task like switching from Chicago to MLA formatting should be painless. Journal editors who want to save time on needless formatting and copy editing should be able to provide their authors with a formatting template which takes care of the typesetting minutia.

  4. Support for the academic apparatus. The workflow needs to handle footnotes, figures, international characters, and bibliographies gracefully.

  5. Platform independence. As the vectors of publication multiply, we need to be able to generate a multiplicity of formats including for slide projection, print, web, and mobile. Ideally, we would like to be able to generate the most common formats without breaking bibliographic dependencies. Our workflow needs to be portable as well–it would be nice to be able to copy a folder to a thumbdrive and know that it contains everything needed for publication. Writing in plain text means you can easily share, edit, and archive your documents in virtually any environment. For example, a syllabus written in Markdown can be saved as a PDF, printed as a handout, and converted into HTML for the web, all from the same file. Both web and print documents should be published from the same source and look similar, preserving the logical layout of the material.



 

 
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