This article describes why I use plain text for book projects and why I think you should consider it too.
This article tells you why I do it.
Why Not Microsoft Word
My family prefers using Microsoft Word. They asked me, "Why would you want to use anything other than Word?"
Given the proliferation of authoring tools available in mobile authoring applications (apps), cloud service authoring apps and PC authoring apps, there are many choices today. Each of us has our own preferences for tools. There’s no requirement for you to change. I’m just describing why I use a mature, FREE plain-text writing format. You may decide you like it too.
Commercial Tools have Restrictions
Commercial tools, like Microsoft Word, often:
Make it easy to start and difficult to finish (publish)
Cost money to license and use legally
Have licensing models that are increasingly moving from perpetual licenses (buy once and use forever) to subscription models (pay monthly)
Use restricted proprietary data formats to store your content, often binary formats, that are unsuitable for long-lasting information
Change to new versions that are sometimes not backwards compatible to the older version
Controlled by private companies that can change their tool at their whim
May not work easily across many devices and operating systems (Windows, MacOS, Linux)
Can be shut down without releasing the app to open source if their tool was not as economically rewarding as expected
Can be difficult to convert to other formats
May not support a modular writing approach
Break and stop working when you use large documents. Nonfiction books range from 40,000–50,000 words for a medium-sized book to 60,000–70,000 words for a long nonfiction book.
Plain Text is Free
Here are some of the reasons I like plain text.
Plain text is free.
There are no costs to get plain text.
There are no licensing monthly or annual fees for plain text.
Plain text does not belong to anyone, except you the copyright holder of your own ideas.
There are many free tools to use plain text. Of course you can also pay for commercial tools, if you want to.
Plain Text Lasts Decades
Here’s why I don’t use Microsoft Word to write long books. I’m old enough to have seen PC word processing apps, like Microsoft Word, change over the years and not be backwards compatible to prior versions. I watched the Word Perfect word processor app disappear from the market. I’ve had the pain of spending hours converting large and older content formats from a few years ago to the latest version. I now prefer a format for my long written work that lasts for 10 to 20 years or more. I occasionally use word processing apps for short documents.
The only easy format that I have discovered lasts decades, so far, is plain text.
I use plain text now for writing books, backup files and archived versions, confident that I can easily use my writing again in ten years if needed.
The reason I qualified with the word easy, is that for a while when I worked in technical writing professionally The technical communications industry focused on extensible markup language (XML). If you have never been involved in technical writing, and never plan to, you may want to skip the rest of this paragraph. I have used SGML, DocBook XML, DITA XML, S1000D XML and other MIL standard XML specifications for the government. These format specifications last a long time as well. But even people in the technical communications industry know that these complicated formats change over time with different versions. Another challenge with XML is having to find commercial authoring applications that validate the XML to a DTD or schema. When writing for myself, I don’t want to have to pay for all those tools. Additionally, XML can be a challenging source format to read because of all the verbose markup.
Then along came markdown. I investigated markdown and liked it for simple documents like blog entries or uncomplicated documents. But I became frustrated anytime I wrote a complicated document, because markdown couldn’t handle it. That I discovered an older plain text format called AsciiDoc That was created to get around the difficulties of using DocBook XML. It’s a lot like markdown, it handles complex documents, and the tools are free.
The single biggest source of inspiration for Markdown’s syntax is the format of plain text e-mail.
Creator of Markdown
What Does ASCII Even Mean?
My teen son asked me one day, "What does ascii mean?" I told him that when computers started in the United States that their creators used the English alphabet and Arabic numerals. The set of characters was called ASCII. I remembered it stood for something, but I had to look it up to remember it stood for the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII). Later, as computers spread across the globe, a more extensive set of characters called Unicode was developed To include characters used in all languages of the world. That was about all the information about ASCII my son cared about. I’m guessing that’s enough to satisfy your curiosity too.
Plain Text Lets Us Write Once, Publish Everywhere (eBooks, Print PDFs, Web/HTML5)
Call me lazy, but I only want to write my content once. I like formats, like plain text, that allow me to publish to Adobe PDF, EPUB for e-readers, Amazons format for Kindle readers and to HTML5 for web formats without having to recreate the content for each format. So part of my criteria for a great set of book making tools, is the capability to easily publish to all formats with the least manual effort possible. I like automation.
Now, I can hear some of you current Microsoft Word users saying that Word already allows me to publish to PDF, HTML and to print. You’re correct, many authoring apps now offer the functionality of publishing to many formats. However, see the prior section on the authoring format lasting decades.
Plain Text Means Not Worrying About Layout and Formatting While Authoring
I prefer a writing process that’s uncluttered, with minimal distractions and interruptions. In other words, I prefer a writing process where I think about what to write. William Zensner said that it takes clear thinking to have clear writing. If the authoring app forces me to deal with fonts, styles, and layout issues, it distracts me from my thinking and interrupts the writing process. After years of working with offering applications that offer what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG), I have decided to do the writing first, and the formatting second in multiple iterations rather than trying to do everything at once. This idea of separating content from display formatting can make you more productive.
Some people even advocate for authoring directly in HTML. I’ve done this and it is distracting during the authoring process. I don’t recommend it because it is another example of mixing the writing process and the formatting process.
Some authoring apps are now offering features that minimize distractions and interruptions. That’s good.
Plain Text Allows Sharing With Others—Non-Proprietary Formats
Another reason I prefer plain text format is that I can share it easily with other people.
They don’t have to buy the same software authoring application that I use to create it, so they can read it. This can be helpful when you’re asking reviewers to review your work, although I send reviewers a published format like PDF, or HTML. I don’t like my writing being locked up in some company’s proprietary format.
Plain Text Lets Us Write Using Many Devices
In my Granddad’s day, he wrote mostly on a manual typewriter. His mobile app was pen and paper. At one point I only wrote with a Windows PC. Then I got a linux machine. Nothing on my linux machines worked like it did on the Windows PC. Then I got a Mac. The Mac worked similar to a linux machine, but still not like a Windows PC. Now, I also use mobile devices for authoring apps, because they’re convenient to convert otherwise dead time into productive writing time. But Apple’s restrictions on file access means that plain text also helps get my content out of the mobile device and into another system.
I’ve experienced the frustrations of trying to move my writing across platforms (Windows, Linux, Mac OS, iOS). For me, one of the best aspects of using plain text to write is that plain text files transfer across platforms easily using dropbox or some other cloud-based storage service.
Plain Text Offers Easy Conversion to Other Formats
Plain text can be converted into any other format with no loss of information. Specific markdown formats may require special conversion tools.
Plain Text Offers Modular Writing as an Option
We don’t always create of a book in the order the readers see it after its published. Sometimes a flash of insight comes for topic D rather than in a linear way of A, then B, then C, then D.
I build my nonfiction books by starting with a mind map of the content. This helps me determine what goes in the book’s scope and what does not. So I may write a section or chapter about topic D first.
Some people prefer to write their entire book in one big monolithic file. AsciiDoc allows writing everything in one great big file as one way to build a book. This can make things easier for global find/replace during editing and reviews.
I prefer tools that allow me to write in a modular way. AsciiDoc allows modular building of book content as another option. Modular writing works well for teams of writers collaborating too.
Some people prefer the granularity of chapters to build up the book. I prefer sections or topics as the granularity that’s "just right" for me. Not too big, and not too small of modular chunks.
This means I build the book with my lego-like blocks of separate writing files. Sometimes I change my mind and move things around. If my authoring tool set allows me to easily move the order of these files, I’m happy. So when we buy Legos and use the instructions (like a map of where to put the blocks) to put the blocks in the right places, we end up with the intended Lego toy at the end of the process.
Modular chunks impacts editing and review a little bit, in that you have to note the section the change is in so you can find the file that chunk of content is in.
This modular approach lets me focus on smaller chunks of the book at a time.
Nonfiction books often includes glossary entries. I can reuse my glossary entries in other books without having to copy and paste them in.
I like when the tool allows me to create a map of sorts that tells the tool how to build the content from my lego blocks of plain text files. When the tool is done, I get my book in the order I specified in my map.
If you write in Microsoft Word, it’s easy to get stuck in a linear way of thinking. It’s not easy to back track and find that one spot where that one scene happened that’s now relevant four chapters later. All that scrolling.
The danger of writing with Microsoft Word—or any program that doesn’t allow you to organize your chapters and scenes or sections as you would keep a physical binder—is that your writing process changes to reflect your writing tools.
Plain Text Lets Us Fix the Styling in One Place and Have it Apply Globally
Rather than having to go back through the entire manuscript at the end and make changes in every location, I can update the style sheet and have the change flow to every instance throughout the entire manuscript.
Plain Text Lets Us Use Free Versioning Tools
I like plain text too because I can take advantage of versioning tools originally built for software developers that also work when I write in plain text.
One of the benefits of this is seeing differences between versions. I use a convention of one sentence per line in the source plain text file. The tool that renders my plain text to formatted PDF, eBook, or HTML combines these into paragraphs like normal.
Then I get to see what changed sentence by sentence. It also makes it easier to see when I have a sentence that is too long.
My Journey to AsciiDoc for Plain Text Writing
I first looked into AsciiDoc after my frustrations with markdown. I got excited about how easy markdown was compared to XML. I had a new computer and did not want to buy expensive validating editors for XML again. Markdown looked like a great solution so I started using it. Markdown worked great for my simple documents. But I had already experienced the full power of XML for documentation and markdown began to breakdown for me in more complex documentation situations. I still like markdown for uncomplicated writing.
My curiosity took me down the AsciiDoc path after markdown was found wanting. I found that AsciiDoc works. I stumbled with the setup. That part was a bit challenging. Then when writing with AsciiDoc, I hit the repeated "How do I do this or that?" questions and looking it up with Google’s search engine.
Then like a child learning to hold and write with a pencil or pen, my ability grew to where I could express myself with AsciiDoc with less and less syntax lookups and more and more focus on my thinking so I could have clear writing.
This book is the result of my learning to wield AsciiDoc quickly to make books with free tools.
The Next Best Thing—Scrivener
If I’m unsuccessful convincing you to use plain text free tools, then I’d recommend the inexpensive Scrivener (I paid $45 USD) app as the next best thing. It does many of the same things with a familiar graphical user interface. I have it on my Mac, PC, and iPad.