Eight Questions For Michael Healy

by: Scott Nesbitt | 17 July 2018

Welcome to another edition of Eight Questions For …, where I where I pick the brains of plain text enthusiasts from around the world and around the web.

This time around, I’m chatting with Michael Healy. He’s a Kiwi who slipped across the ditch to Australia, where he’s a careers and employability educator at the University of Southern Queensland. Michael’s also pursuing his PhD there.

Michael isn’t the first academic I’ve encountered who uses plain text, but he’s a recent convert. By his own admission, Michael’s not a highly technical person, but he’s skilled enough to set up and use the plain text tools he’s chosen.

Let’s hear from Michael:

When did you start using plain text?

Towards the end of 2017, Zotero (software for managing bibliographic references and research) released a major update which nuked my settings and killed Zotfile, an add-on that I relied on to rename my .pdf files, move them into a Dropbox folder (and out of Zotero’s own awful storage file structure), and extract annotations from them. I was annoyed enough to dump Zotero altogether rather than trying to reestablish my settings and workflows and I had zero taste for adopting Endnote or Mendeley in place of Zotero.

Around that time I was also fed up with Word and Evernote, where I felt the features, settings, and various quirks were getting in the way of actually getting things done in them. I had read about the benefits of plain text on Lifehacker and had become aware of plain text academic writing, in the form of BibTeX and Markdown, thanks to a couple of articles I’d stumbled across on Twitter. I had a relatively quiet period of work and used it to learn the ins and outs of plain text, research and trial tools, and set up my workflows.

Though you might call me a power user of certain software, I’m not a tech expert by any stretch of the imagination. At times, the learning curve was quite steep. One of the beauties of plain text is that you can always scale back if you overextend yourself.

Why did you start using plain text?

In addition to being annoyed at Zotero and tired of Word and Evernote, I was really struggling with procrastination in my academic and professional writing at the time. I found myself endlessly fiddling with Evernote and Word, but seldom really producing anything or getting through my tasks.

I was aware of Markdown and had used it a few times for brainstorming and outlining academic writing, and found that it gave me a lot more clarity, forcing me to focus on the words, not the margins, or the format of the headings, or the line spacing. The Zotero update was the tipping point I needed to dive in and build new workflows around plain text, after long having a general preference for simplicity and minimalism, as well as a distaste for software that locks you into proprietary formats and tools.

Plaintext Productivity.net was an invaluable resource for learning the ins and outs of plain text, along with the Plain Text Project and Nicholas Cifuentes-Goodbody’s Youtube channel.

What do you use plain text for?

I mainly use it for academic and professional writing. My articles, essays, and reports start as Markdown files, into which I sketch out a skeleton and paste any starting material I have. That can be notes, quotes, braindumps, plans, emails, and twitter posts. I call this stuff compost: miscellanous text that has been sitting around fermenting and is finally proving itself useful.

I work in the Markdown file until it’s ready to be shared for feedback or collaboration, which is when I will convert it to .docx. Editing the document after that depends on the size and intensity of the edits. Minor ones just get done in Word, while more significant edits will be manually integrated into the original Markdown file. I actually appreciate this manual step as it forces me to be more intentional and careful with my edits, rather than lazily clicking accept change.

I’ve been keeping larger note files — like plans, outlines, and reading notes — as standalone Markdown files, typically in project-specific folders in Dropbox. But I’m not entirely happy with that as it means that my notes are dispersed throughout several folders and I have to manually move them into a new project if I’ll be using them again. So I’m making an effort now to keep my notes in ResophNotes.

I also have been making some efforts to maintain my todo list in plain text, which I struggle with as I enjoy some features of dedicated todo platforms, such as calendar integration, drag and drop interfaces, and filtering.

What keeps you using plain text?

It works. It has done more than anything else to kick start my writing productivity, because I am so much more focused on making words appear on the screen. It is fast to open, easy to use across devices, and I have the confidence that if one machine blows up or one piece of software fails, I can still access my files without any trouble.

The other day, I wanted to share a citation with someone I was talking to in the pub: I just opened my BibTeX file from Dropbox on my phone and found it with a text search in less than a minute.

Do you use any markup or formatting languages? If so, which ones and why?

I use Pandoc Markdown, which has all the basic functions of markdown but also includes markdown for citations, using BibTeX keys. So, if I type [@Guichard2001], the correct APA style citation will be added once I convert the file with Pandoc, along with the full reference at the end of the file.

I’ve been testing out a few markup languages in Sublime Text for my todo lists, such as Todo.txt and Org-mode, but haven’t quite found my holy grail yet.

What are your favourite plain text tools or applications?

Jabref for maintaining my bibtex files and the attached PDF files.

Sublime Text for writing, with some key packages:

ResophNotes for note taking and todos. This is a work in progress, but I am finding that I prefer dynamic searching over too-complex tagging and folder systems. It remains to be seen how this sticks, but it’s doing well so far.

Is there one tool that you can’t do without?

Pandoc, particularly its ability to generate citations and reference lists. It is what made it possible for me to ditch Zotero and Word and not look back.

Is there anything you can’t do with plain text?

There are two things, but neither is due to limitations in plain text itself, rather they reflect the limits of my own and others’ skills and workflows.

Firstly, it’s hard to collaborate on a writing project with my colleagues, most of which are wedded to Word and Endnote. I find myself working in Word in the later stages of a collaborative writing project much more than I would like to, and I often have to get someone else to add citations, because messing with Endnote fields in Word is a bad idea if you’re not using it yourself.

Secondly, I am yet to tackle using Git for version control and writing project management. There’s been a few times when I’ve lost a good bit of text due to saving before pasting, so I do think I need to knuckle down and learn how to use Git soon, especially as my doctoral research grows in complexity.

You can learn more about Michael and his work at his website or on Twitter.