Why Plain Text Matters

by: Scott Nesbitt | 11 July 2017

Plain text. It’s boring. It’s unadorned. It seems so … well, so archaic. The digital equivalent of papyrus. But it isn’t.

Even in this age of documents that support rich formatting, plain text matters. It’s more than just a plain vanilla format that you’re forced to use when you can’t use your favourite word processor or online writing tool. It’s one of the best ways to create your documents, record and track your tasks, and a lot more.

So why does plain text matter? It’s a ubiquitous, almost universal format. You can easily create plain text documents on any operating system and on any device. You don’t need a specialized tool to do it, either. You can use software — like Gedit, TextEdit, or Notepad — that’s already installed on the computer or device. In a sense, you get plain text without additional charge.

Believe it or not, plain text is used everywhere. Even when you don’t see it. Where? In the source code for software, web pages, blog posts and articles (like this one), configuration files on your computer, and more. I did mention plain text is ubiquitous …

Plain text is also very long lasting. I doubt that the format has changed much (if at all) since it was first introduced. I can, for example, open a text file that I created in 1991 using any modern text editor — whether on my desktop or on the web or on my smartphone. All the information is there, and I don’t lose any formatting. Contrast that with the various word processors I’ve used over the decades. Many word processor formats used are no longer supported and it’s a pain to find a converter for them. In fact, I have writing from 20+ years ago that’s locked away in files, never to be seen again because the word processor I used to create them doesn’t exist anymore.

Finally, plain text is flexible. You can convert to any other format with relative ease. If you need to, you can use Markdown, Textile, or any other lightweight markup language to add formatting to your document.

Plain text might be boring. It might seem old fashioned. But it still matters. Far more than most of us realize.