In Praise of Plain Text

A recent blog post by John August (here) got me thinking again about my own recent appreciation for working in plain text. When did it start? For me it was getting back into web design and an awesome text editor, Sublime Text 2.  For decades most computer users have relied on word processors for all their needs, whether a simple to-do list or a long novel manuscript.  Yet for as long as computers have been around, so has the text editor.

Text editors

With the example of the to-do list, a word processor is obviously overkill. It should have been a bigger deal in the past, when hard drive space was so much smaller; using a word processor inflates the file size of all documents, even a simple list. Comparatively, a text editor adds none or very little overhead to saved text files. Of course, for things such as a to-do list I may still suggest using pencil and paper (yes really).

While for me it was web design and Sublime Text 2 that got me interested in the power and simplicity of plain text, I would be remiss if I didn’t give an honorable mention to a few other text editors that I used before settling into Sublime Text 2. The first would be Window’s Notepad. This program is about as simple as you can get: open, type, save. Not much else, and easy to use. An equivalent was Apple’s TextEdit; however, it includes the choice of either plain-text or rich-text, so in a way it’s a combination of Windows Notepad and Wordpad. Both TextEdit and WordPad are fine as a poor man’s word processor, but I digress…

When I got back into programming and designing websites, these simple text editors were my home. I could type, save and not worry about any excess features or a cluttered interface. But, I also couldn’t easily see what I needed to. In other words, I needed text highlighting. There were some features in Mozilla/Netscape for it, and there were big programs such as Dreamweaver, but none of those were what I wanted. This was before I dabbled in Linux, so I knew nothing of those options. But I did want something free, something easy. The first thing I found, since I was mostly using a Windows desktop system, was Notepad++. It had what I wanted, and something I didn’t know I needed: tabs. Just like tabbed browsing, introduced first by Opera but popularized by Mozilla, tabs in a text editor was a god-send. It wasn’t a nice feature, it was now a requirement. I couldn’t live without it now.  Notepad++ had a lot of features I never needed, but luckily they stayed out of the way.  And when once in a blue moon I needed to print something, Notepad++ could do that (something Sublime can’t do, but not as crucial as my need to print goes even further down).

So why didn’t I just stick to Notepad++, instead of moving on to Sublime Text 2 where I am today?  It was something superficial: appearance.  There were plenty of themes in Notepad++, and the colors could be customized, but I just never found something I really liked.  Also, the theme wasn’t consistent from file to file, or even in the same file when re-opened later.  I could never figure out if it was a fault of my own or not, but it became a big enough deal that I started searching again, and that’s when I discovered the buzz building up around Sublime.  Once I had downloaded the beta and opened it the first time I knew my search was over.  It looked clean and simple and the default font was easy to read. It had the simplicity of Notepad and the tabs and text highlighting of Notepad++. I also really liked that it ran on all 3 major OS’s, so no matter what system I might be running Sublime is always an option.

What language/markup would you like to use today?

Using a text editor, you have the option of simply typing in words and save to a .txt file, or you can dive into a language and save with that appropriate extension, bringing text highlighting into the mix. While I’m not a heavy programmer, there’s quite a few areas I dabble in: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, C, and Fountain. In regards to “simply typing in words”, whenever I work on a novel or script I prefer to start in a text editor, so that I can immediately get words down. I don’t want to worry about formatting or anything else. Of course if I’m writing a script in Fountain I will have a little bit to worry about, but nowhere near what I’d be dealing with in Final Draft. And again, I can work in this format on any system, while Final Draft is tied to both an OS and being activated. Normally that’s not an issue for me (at least at home), but still. The same thing applies to any web work or light programming I do. I don’t want to fire up some huge, slow, costly design suite or IDE just to run a few dozen lines of code. I type it into Sublime, save with the correct extension, and then open with the appropriate command, etc.

The door is never locked

The greatest strength of plain text is that it is readable on any system: any OS, any device. With my files backed up, I can access a script I worked on on my phone, let alone a computer with no chance of getting Final Draft installed on.  I can keep working on a novel idea, even on a computer that only has Notepad installed (and I may not have rights to install Sublime).  Just like an open web allows the user a choice in browser, plain text allows me to choose from so many programs.  I don’t know about you, but I like choice.