Eight Questions for Steven Ovadia

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

This time around, I chat with a person who’s been at the top of my interview list for a while: academic librarian, writer, and music reviewer Steven Ovadia. You might not know this, but Steven’s excellent interview series The Linux Setup is the influence for Eight Questions For … And what a great influence it is. If you’re a Linux user, or interested in becoming one, check it out.

Steven approaches plain text from the perspective of someone who needs to get things done. For him, plain text is the best way to do that. In most cases, anyway. When he needs to be, Steven is pragmatic and chooses the best tool for a particular job — even if it’s not specifically geared to plain text.

Let’s hear from Steven:

When did you start using plain text?

I’ve actually been trying to remember in anticipation of this question. Back before the dawn of the CMS, I always coded my HTML by hand in a text editor — so at least since the late 90s/early 00s. That’s when I became aware that plain text makes certain tasks easier (and cheaper; you don’t need to buy any software).

I remember interviewing for my current job and being asked what software I use to build websites. I told the search committee Notepad and they looked sort of impressed.

Plain text never adds anything in to what you’re writing (or HTML-ing) without your permission. It’s very respectful of your intentions.

Why did you start using plain text?

I love the simplicity. Whatever you type into plain text stays in plain text, exactly as you placed it. There’s no formatting. There’s no pagination. It’s just words. And I truly believe in the idea of focusing on words first and the presentation of words afterwards.

I begin projects in plain text as often as possible, so I’m thinking about what the words mean and not what they look like.

What do you use plain text for?

As much as possible! I pretty much draft everything in Markdown and then convert it, either using tools built into my editors or good old Pandoc.

I’ve written a book and a ton of articles in plain text. Also, memos, emails, and various workplace documents. Even lesson plans. To be clear, at a certain point, some of these documents all move into a word processor, but they begin their lives as plain text.

What keeps you using plain text?

The simplicity. It’s easy. Everything I might type on has a text editor. It’s a simple workflow for everything. I’m sure there are situations where I need to work exclusively in a word processor, but I can’t think of any at this moment.

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

I love Markdown. I wrote a book using Asciidoc and was super impressed by it. I wish I had cause to use it more.

What are your favourite plain text tools or applications?

I’m not particularly loyal. Lately, on Linux, I’m using Typora, because you can print directly out of it and it has some convenient built-in export options. I also like Remarkable. On Windows, I use MarkdownPad 2. I’m not sure how often it’s updated anymore, but it’s fine for my purposes.

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

Probably Pandoc, since it makes Markdown so flexible. Or maybe Markdown itself? In terms of editors, I love them until I don’t. But as long as there’s a spell check and the editor can render Markdown for me, I’m pretty happy.

Also, I try not to edit on the screen. I’m a huge printer. Which isn’t great for the environment, but which is great for my writing. So while it’s not really related to plain text, I couldn’t make plain text work without pens and paper. And printers. So that’s like five of the one tool I can’t live without.

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

I spend a lot of time in spreadsheets and I periodically wonder what a plain text spreadsheet would be like. Probably not very useful, but at the same time, if there was one, I’m sure I’d try it out.

Also, presentations. I’ve tried plain text presentation tools (perhaps you’ve even seen this article) but it never looks as nice as PowerPoint. And it’s like 10 times more work trying to avoid PowerPoint. This is my greatest shame.

According to Steven, his site is the Internet’s premier source for information about me. He built that site out of plain text using GitHub and Jekyll. If you’re a music lover, check out Steven’s reviews of blues, rock, and Americana in a variety of publications, including his own site, Heard Lately.