Screenshot of the Ulysses text editor showing this page being edited

Plain Text

Plain Text: Data which consists only of human-readable text, as opposed to machine-readable binary data or formatting markup.

plain text – definition and meaning

In computingplain text is a loose term for data (e.g. file contents) that represent only characters of readable material but not its graphical representation nor other objects (floating-point numbers, images, etc.). It may also include a limited number of “whitespace” characters that affect simple arrangement of text, such as spaces, line breaks, or tabulation characters (although tab characters can “mean” many different things, so are hardly “plain”). Plain text is different from formatted text, where style information is included; from structured text, where structural parts of the document such as paragraphs, sections, and the like are identified; and from binary files in which some portions must be interpreted as binary objects (encoded integers, real numbers, images, etc.).

Plain text – Wikipedia

As hackers and writers, we spend a lot of time in text editors. Almost everything we write starts in our favorite text editors. A text editor is our thinking space. It is a place for moving around blocks and tinkering with parts. It is a place to explore our minds and write them the way we want them to read. Iteration and ideation happen in our editors. Our notes are not just a record of our thinking process, they are our thinking process. Text editors are extensions of mind that facilitate thinking.

All of this happens in beautiful, wonderful plain text.

I love that with plain text the focus is on the words, not the formatting. I love that it’s portable and can be used anywhere and everywhere, in any piece of software that edits or displays words. I love how easy it is to create beautifully formatted documents when needed. Most of all, I love how fast it is. I simply work more efficiently since switching to plain text.

Removing the Word shackles: getting started with plain text
Writing this post in fullscreen mode in the Ulysses app, a plain text editor for macOS and iOS

In the age of distributed collaboration, we are constantly writing. Equip students with the writing tools and flow popular with hackers, writers, scientists, and screenwritersplain text & Markdown. Let’s infect education with the love of plain text. It’s portable, durable, flexible, ubiquitous, and humane. It is indie ed-tech that is not captive to an ed-tech business model or the whim of shareholders.

With blogs, plain text editors, and team chat, we have a wide selection of often free tools that enable the cultivation of authentic writing for authentic audiences. Instead of ELA rubrics that kill the joy of writing with remediation and formulaic prescriptions, students can write about what they care about and share that writing collaboratively with real audiences. Relax control over the writing process. Encourage revision and tinkering without the red ink of assessment. Don’t define and model students into the stilted, joyless unreadability typical of rubric writing. Get out of the way, let kids write, and write alongside them. Let them write not for grades, but to share their lived experience, share their passions, and affect their worlds.

Keyboards, spellcheckers, and assistive tech encourage writing and editing. Let students fill their toolbelts and start writing without shackles.

Plain Text

A big part of the problem is that we’re often using the wrong default tool to create our words. When ready to write, the majority of computer users will open a word processor like Microsoft Word or Apple’s Pages rather than a text editor like Notepad on Windows or Text Edit on the Mac. We do this even if we’re simply drafting an email or jotting down notes to ourselves. The problem actually lies in the name. A word processor, while capable of being used for the creation of words, is actually optimized for formatting text in order to be printed or read. Whereas a text editor is more focused the creation and editing of your words.

A Plain Text Primer

Plain text writing (and marking up text elements for later formatting) is simple. If you’ve been socialized in Word (like me), you may disagree at first. But I believe that if you try plain text writing, you’re likely to change your mind and come to enjoy its purity and simplicity. As for myself, I think now that text processors are actually cumbersome, and many writers just got so used to this fact that they don’t question it anymore.

So writing plain text means to separate writing from formatting for the sake of productivity. The essential structural elements of a text are marked up while writing: You can write headings of various levels, add emphasis, add lists and more. What you can’t do: Tweak margins, or choose your first order headings to be 24 pt, and red-colored. All the layout tasks that have nothing to do with the content you’re trying to compose. Take care of layout later. This first instance should be about writing, and writing only.

If you want to publish your text more than once, but in different formats, plain text is very effective – thanks to the use of markup, you can easily convert it. Ulysses, as an example, can use one and the same text to create a formatted PDF, an e-book or standard HTML – with just a few clicks.

Why Plain Text Will Boost Your Productivity as a Writer | Ulysses Blog

There are a lot of reasons to like text files. The large adoption of the iOS and Android platforms and increasing success of Mac OS X means writers are now using multiple platforms, and they need a simple way to keep their precious words bouncing between their phones, tablets, and computers without losing bits and pieces along the way. Every platform has a selection of quality apps that read and edit text files. There is nothing proprietary in the Markdown format, so Byword (iOS App Store) (Mac App Store) (website) on your iPhone has no trouble reading something you wrote with iA Writer (Mac App Store) (iOS App Store) (website) on your Mac. Writers are free to use whatever application scratches their particular itch. Nobody controls the content except the writer.


Once you start working with plain text documents, you realize the power of their infinite portability and compatibility. You can edit them anywhere, on just about any device, and never break anything. It’s addicting.

Fountain FAQ – Fountain | A markup language for screenwriting.

Briefly, plain text is a great format to use because (1) it can be read by any computer or device; (2) it’s future proof, since computers will always be able to read it; (3) it can be synced to all your devices; (4) it can be converted to virtually any format.

Markdown: The Syntax You (Probably) Already Know – ProfHacker – Blogs – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Plain text is ubiquitous. It works on every operating system, and on every mobile device, regardless of who makes it. A wide variety of apps can read it. You’ll never run into file compatibility errors. You can take what you write from one app to another without a thought.

This matters because the tech industry likes to remind us that nothing lasts forever. We see apps shut down all the time. They add in a subscription fee. They lock that one feature you want behind a paywall. It’s annoying, and if you’re invested in an app, whether it’s a notes app or a to-do app, you’re often forced to pay out the nose for a bunch of features you don’t want. Plain text doesn’t suffer this problem because it’s universally readable across platforms, not to mention a bedrock of well, computing as we know it.

Likewise, plain text will never change. Where an app might get updated with new features and a new user interface, plain text is pretty much always plain text. I will never open up an app to find a new design that I hate, or a new user experience I have to learn. Text editors may change, but there’ll always be another, and they’ll never all go subscription-only. This is really important to me. I use plain text every single day for simple tasks. I don’t need anything getting in the way of me capturing text as quickly as possible.

I Still Use Plain Text for Everything, and I Love It

Walk into a room of coders and ask what the best tools of their trade are—keyboards, text editing software, etc,—and you’re bound to start a war.

But in a world where programmers are fanatically divided, advocating fiercely for their favorite window managers and text editors, there’s one thing many engineers agree on. It’s called Solarized, and for four years, it’s reigned supreme as the color scheme of choice for many coders and the text they have to stare at all day.

After all, coders have, well, rather extreme thoughts about things like color schemes and text editors.

“This is close to people’s hearts,” Yale Spector, a senior developer for WeWork, told the Observer. “People take this shit real seriously.”

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “Why, why do these people care so much about the most minute details?” It’s because coders, who are also just very particular in nature, have no other tools of their trade but their computer and their mind.

“Text editors are where we live, where we spend so many hours in our day,” Mr. Spector said. “It’s so personal to us, it’s our home. When you get a house, you spend time making it comfortable, because you’re going to be there a long time.”

And, as Mr. Brocken puts it, it’s not just hot rodding—or tricking out your equipment for the sake of ostentatiousness. No, this is about building the perfect tool.

Developers may be overly opinionated, but they are also, by virtue of their work, obsessed with efficiency. For programmers who are building programs and designs right from their imagination, every additional advantage in their work environment is one less barrier between their mind and the machine.

“It may looks ridiculous to the outside observer, but it’s about eliminating that invisible barrier between you and the tool that you’re using,” Mr. Schoonover said. “It’s the carpenter making his own work bench.”

Meet the Man Behind ‘Solarized,’ the Most Important Color Scheme in Computer History

Authors and writers of all stripes can learn a lot about creating and managing words from computer programmers, beginning with an appreciation for the simple, durable efficiencies of plain text. Anybody running Unix, Linux, or BSD already knows all about text, because it’s the third prong of the Unix Tools Philosophy:

1. Write programs that do one thing and do it well;

2. Write programs that work together;

3. Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.

If Unix is the geek Gilgamesh epic, it’s a tale told in plain text.

Plain Text For Authors & Writers – Richard Dooling


How could a nearly ten-year-old writing technology continue to grow in professional and enthusiast spaces but also be largely absent among those who teach and research writing?

Writing Workflows | Introduction
Markdown cover art resembling a Bible

Markdown provides a simple way of including formatting in plain text files. Originally developed for writing for the Internet, Markdown is also super useful for any type of writing where the author wants to include formatting in plain text.


Markdown remains an excellent solution for publishing to the Internet. Authors can write blog posts, articles, and anything else for publication in the HTML format while avoiding most of the brackets, symbols, and other hieroglyphics involved with coding HTML. The text is easier to read, edit, and, most importantly, write.

There is no reason to make thought capture harder than it already is. In fact, the very best thought-capture routines are those that have the least friction between the thought and the act of writing it down. We even wrote the initial outline for this book in Markdown.

As we will show shortly, the Markdown syntax for standard outline elements, such as headings and bullets, is extremely simple to both write and read. Markdown is useful even for text that you never plan to publish on the web. It can be great for taking notes in meetings, conference calls, or in any situation where you need to get text down quickly. The simplicity of the syntax has another benefit—you can use whatever tool is handy: computer, tablet, or phone.


At the 2013 Computers and Writing Conference, we (Derek and Tim) started talking about the broad Markdown affinity space: podcasts, blogs, self-published books, and social media conversations. We were particularly interested in the absence of these conversations within our field. How could a nearly ten-year-old writing technology continue to grow in professional and enthusiast spaces but also be largely absent among those who teach and research writing?

To answer this question, we designed a study in which we would interview several of these influential Markdown “teachers.” We mapped the Markdown affinity space, prioritizing those who had a significant audience that spanned multiple platforms, including blogs, podcasts, books, and Twitter feeds. In particular, we were interested in writers within the Markdown affinity space who published texts written in Markdown, taught users how to use Markdown, and made recommendations about Markdown-focused software.

When we started to analyze our data, however, we realized that this wasn’t a project about Markdown. Instead, we saw that the interviews offered insights about broader writing practices and software preferences. These writers were interested in and talked in detail about software-mediated approaches to writing practices—what they called “workflows.” We began to identify and trace a practice that we saw as “workflow thinking,” which we introduce in this book. To build and contextualize our macro concept of workflow thinking, we offer the cases of three writers.

Writing Workflows | Introduction

Unlike cumbersome word processing applications, text written in Markdown can be easily shared between computers, mobile phones, and people. It’s quickly becoming the writing standard for academics, scientists, writers, and many more. Websites like GitHub and reddit use Markdown to style their comments.

Formatting text in Markdown has a very gentle learning curve. It doesn’t do anything fancy like change the font size, color, or type. All you have control over is the display of the text-stuff like making things bold, creating headers, and organizing lists.

If you have ten minutes, you can learn Markdown!

Markdown Tutorial | Lesson 1

Plain text doesn’t change. Fifty years from now, you’ll still be able to open a plain text file. Until we all have squiggly tentacles on our faces and communicate telepathically, plain text will be a thing.

What about conversion software? Let’s say a tiny black hole swallows up every Markdown converter on the planet. You still have nice, clean plain text.

With Markdown, you don’t entrust your writing to 50,000 corporate shareholders, the companies they control and whatever features they “sunset” or add.

You control your destiny because, yes, you guessed it: It’s plain text.

Why I Use Markdown, & You Should Too – Portent

Since its introduction in 2004, Markdown has enjoyed remarkable success. Markdown works for users for three key reasons. First, the markup instructions (in text) look similar to the markup that they represent; therefore, the cognitive burden to learn the syntax is low. Second, the primary arbiter of the syntax’s success is running code. The tool that converts the Markdown to a presentable format, and not a series of formal pronouncements by a standards body, is the basis for whether syntactic elements matter. Third, Markdown has become something of an Internet meme, in that Markdown gets received, reinterpreted, and reworked as additional communities encounter it. There are communities that are using Markdown for scholarly writing, for screenplays, and even for mathematical formulae. Clearly, a screenwriter has no use for specialized Markdown syntax for mathematicians; likewise, mathematicians do not need to identify characters or props in common ways. The overall gist is that all of these communities can take the common elements of Markdown (which are rooted in the common elements of HTML circa 2004) and build on them in ways that best fit their needs.”

RFC 7764 – Guidance on Markdown: Design Philosophies, Stability Strategies, and Select Registrations

Find Your Flow

We believe that a workflow-focused approach to computing tools and environments offers a pathway to agency, creativity, and confidence with computing, which is the spirit that has driven work in computers and writing research since the late 1970s.

Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

We like and advocate plain text, but choose the tools that fit your flow. Many of our favorite authors use word processors.

Others prefer Scrivener.

George R.R. Martin famously uses WordStar 4.0 on DOS.

The important part is writing. Find your flow.

I’m learning a lot about myself since my ADHD and autism diagnoses. One of the things I’m learning is that a lot of my ways of working are actually disability hacks: as it turns out a LOT of my people are very visual and a LOT of my people have poor working memory. Instead of trying to change myself to fit the ways of working I think I should have, because other people, I should maybe instead celebrate that I have, by trial and error and very little help or encouragement from anyone, kluged my way into some best practices for my particular career and set of challenges. I should congratulate myself on the self-knowledge that got me to a place that I’ve devised a whole workflow that minimizes the disabling effects of my particular forms of neurodivergence and allows me to shine.

I did it myyyyyyy waaaaay: and you should, too – Hook & Eye

Morrison’s post suggests that workflows can be an inclusive and productive concept—that we have much to gain by considering how we work, what tools we work with, and how those preferences can help us think beyond a set of default, invisible, or unstated norms. Furthermore, she points explicitly to the lack of support writers have for developing, revising, and experimenting with diverse workflows.

Writing Workflows | Introduction

In this book we use workflows as a lens to examine the often omitted tools, material conditions, and activities of writing. Although the field of Writing Studies has numerous theoretical methods and lenses for considering the mediated and socially situated work of writing, we have few descriptions how specific pieces of software and hardware mediate writing in practice. A focus on workflows highlights the importance of writing tools and allows us to consider how tools shape activity and, in turn, how activity shapes tools.

Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

We asked our building leadership teams, and we asked those Principals and Assistant Principals to ask their teachers, to experience a bit of “writing for empathy.” Medical educators have discovered that when doctors write from the point of view of their patients, empathy increases and the quality of care increases. We thought it might be worth seeing if this applied to our educators as well.

So we began, and told them not to be limited by structure – choose any writing mode you’d like – or grammar or spelling or where or how to write – on the floor, standing up, on paper, on phone, on computer – to just find the emotional path and write.

We so often stop our students from writing… we tell them that everything from how they sit to how they spell is more important than communication… and we thus raise children who hate writing.

This became powerful. People not only chose every and any place to write, every and any device to write on, they chose modes from poetry to an email exchange between high school students in class, from narrative to internal monologue to dialogue in the corridor. From tweet and text to song.

It is remarkable what happens when you stop telling people how to write and start encouraging them to write.

“Our kindergartners and first graders are natural writers,” one principal said, “and then we tell them to stop and worry about handwriting and spelling and punctuation, and they never really write again.”

SpeEdChange: Writing for Empathy

Further reading,