Structuring and Formatting Your Plain Text Files (Without a Markup Language)


Having been in the trenches as a technical writer for … well, longer than I care to admit, I’ve come to understand the importance of structure and formatting in documents. As many of the fives of people who read The Plain Text Project know, you can easily add structure and formatting to anything using markup language of your choice.

Those of us who use markup languages with our plain text files can get caught up in those languages. We can wind up thinking that they’re useful for everything and useful to everyone. I’m reminded of the saying about having a hammer and seeing nails wherever you look …

Some people find this hard to believe, but there are folks out there who aren’t interested in using a markup language (no matter how simple or lightweight) with their plain text files. They have no need for them, even if they want to add some structure and formatting to those files.

Let’s take a quick look at how to structure and format a plain text file without using a markup language.

Do You Need Structure and Formatting?

That’s the first question you should ask yourself, whether you plan to use a markup language or not. As I keep pointing out, not everyone uses plain text in the same way. Some are all in with plain text. Others use it only for certain tasks.

If you’re only using plain text to manage your tasks or to collect snippets of information, then you don’t need much (if any) formatting. If you do more, give this careful thought.

How to Add Structure

Without a markup language, I mean.

Several years ago, one of my side gigs was technology coaching. One of my clients was a university student who wanted to use plain text for his class notes (among other things). He tried using two or three markup languages with his notes, but none worked for him. Instead, we came up with what I’m going to outline in the next few paragraphs. That not only worked for him, but for a few other of my former coaching clients as well. It might work for you, too.

Let’s start at the beginning. Literally. What you’re working on might need a title or something to identify its context. You’ll want something that stands out, that smacks your eyeballs. The easiest way to do that is with all caps, like this:

NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND

Don’t tell me that Dostoevsky wouldn’t have used plain text …

I agree that’s a bit shouty, but it only happens once in a document.

Going back to my former coaching client, he needed a little something more. That was adding a header like this to the document:

COURSE: Ocelet Wrangling 102
TOPIC: Advanced Guiding and Herding
DATE: February 33, 2066

That offers quite a bit of information which you can absorb at a glance.

If what you’re working on is of any length, you should probably divide it into distinct sections. You can put the title of a section in title case — for example:

Apropos of the Wet Snow

If you’re not bothering with section titles, mark the border between sections using dashes or asterisks. I recommend using three and to centre them (as best you can) in a file.

How to Add Formatting

Again, without a markup language. But you probably figured that out already …

There’s not a lot of formatting most people need. I’ll be focusing on adding:

  • Emphasis
  • Lists
  • Quotations or excerpts

Emphasis

Emphasizing words and phrases makes them stand out. It highlights an important point. Here are three ways you can do that:

If you only need to emphasize a word or two, put them in all caps:

It’s FAR too easy to make plain text more complex than it needs to be.

That technique is a bit shouty, so try not to use it too often.

The second way is to surround a word or phrase with single or double quotation marks:

It’s "far" too easy to make plain text more complex than it needs to be.

I’m not a big fan of doing that, for a variety of reasons. While using quotation marks for emphasis doesn’t work for me, it might work for you.

Some people who send me plain text emails surround words that they want to make stand out with asterisks:

It’s *far* too easy to make plain text more complex than it needs to be.

Reminiscent of Markdown, isn’t it?

Lists

We all use lists for something. Those are usually bullet lists or numbered lists. Bullet list you can create using asterisks or dashes, like this:

* Item 1
* Item 2
* Item 3

or:

- Item 1
- Item 2
- Item 3

Use numbers to create a numbered list:

1. Item 1
2. Item 2
3. Item 3

I know what you’re going to say: that’s the way to create a list in lightweight markup language x. And you’re right. But guess what? People were doing that long before the advent of lightweight markup languages — for example, I used asterisks and dashes as bullets in the 1980s when writing with an electric typewriter.

Quotations and Excerpts

This is a technique I introduced to a couple of students and writers I coached over the years. They needed a way to make a quote or an excerpt stand out from the rest of their notes. Something along the lines of using a blockquote in HTML.

The easiest way to do that is to indent the quote or excerpt. Many text editors enable you to do that by highlighting a block of text and then pressing the Tab key on your keyboard. Certain other editors have a toolbar button that you can click to do the same thing.

The other way, which is used with Markdown (and which has been used by various email clients for years), is to add the greater-than sign (>) in front of each line in a quotation or excerpt:

> writing with a pencil (or a pen) doesn’t let your hand race ahead 
> of your thoughts

Final Thought

Not everyone needs or wants to use a markup language to structure and format their text files. While the simple techniques I’ve just shared aren’t as all-encompassing and efficient as using a markup language, they work. For some people, that’s all they need.