Eight Questions For William Hern

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.

In this edition, I talk to author and occasional technology journalist/conference speaker William Hern. More than a few of you might know William from this article on his blog about how he lived his life inside a single plain text file. You might not know that his article also planted a seed or two for what became The Plain Text Project in my mind.

While William doesn’t use plain text as extensively as he used to, it’s still an important part of his workflow.

Let’s hear from William:

When did you start using plain text?

It was quite literally decades ago! I was at university in Scotland, studying for a degree in Computer Science.

Why did you start using plain text?

The Sun workstations we had at university were very locked down and so we had no access to fancy applications for writing documents and reports. As such we became very adept at using the text editors we used for programming to write anything that we had to submit.

Eventually, we were trusted enough to use the departmental laser printer and we could use LaTeX macros that would process our raw text and generate a half-decent looking report.

What do you use plain text for?

Today I use plain text when drafting early versions of my novels. I write in Ulysses, a distraction-free writing application on my Mac and my iPad in order to crank out the words for the early drafts. Only in the latter stages of writing do I move the text into Scrivener. Inside Scrivener, I can handle rewrites and suggested revisions from my reviewers all the way through to generating the final product, in both ebook and printed form.

Fifteen years ago, I was much more all-in with plain text. I did practically all my work in plain text, in a single, very large file. This worked surprisingly well and made it very easy to ensure that I was carrying everything around with me.

I did find, though, that I had to rely increasingly on keyboard macros in my text editor to keep things manageable. For example, I used a macro to generate a timestamp to ensure that all dates and times were in a consistent format. Text files which are several megabytes in size are very challenging to keep structured enough that you can find things again!

What keeps you using plain text?

Writing in plain text forces me to focus on the words that I am writing — there’s no opportunity to get distracted by the presentational aspects. Also, the simplicity of the text format makes it easy to maintain access for archival purposes. You don’t have to worry about getting locked into proprietary file formats for applications that are no longer supported.

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

I learned LaTeX thirty odd years ago. I learned wiki notation about a decade and a half ago and in more recent times I’ve learned a bit of Markdown. All of them are quite minimalist in their syntax and so don’t impose a lot of mental overhead. This allows me to focus on what really matters: the actual words that I’m writing.

What are your favourite plain text tools or applications?

I like Ulysses very much and use it on both my Mac and iPad. Dropbox plays a vital role too, ensuring that my text files are kept in sync on all of my devices.

Data synchronisation might seem like a simple problem but in fact it has lots of gnarly edge cases, particularly when mobile devices are involved. Dropbox has never lost any of my data whereas the other options — iCloud and OneDrive — have let me down on occasions.

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

I’m a die-hard Emacs user. I find its scriptable macros capability very powerful — it’s an incredible Swiss Army penknife for text manipulation that I can automate. The keyboard shortcuts for Emacs are hardwired into my fingers so I make sure that every computer I set up has it installed.

And one of the nice things about Mac OS is that the basic Emacs shortcuts work in virtually every modern Mac OS application. They’re great for keeping my fingers on the keyboard, rather than having to reach for the mouse!

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

Let me tell you a story. About five years ago my uncle sent me an email with the text of a letter from my grandfather, while he was serving in the British Army during World War II, to his mother, written on VE Day in 1945. The text was interesting and I certainly got insights from reading it.

However, a few weeks later he sent me a scan of the actual handwritten letter. What a difference that made! Seeing his handwriting, that I knew well from the letters that he had sent me decades later, made the letter come alive for me. I could see where he had scored out text and chosen to write other words. I could see where he had paused in writing, perhaps thinking about what to say (and what not to say). There’s a whole lot of meta-information that gets lost when you reduce something to plain text.

As a result of this experience, I’m now trying to handwrite more of my personal letters and notes to close family and friends, rather than just send them an email. It’s slower to write and there’s the added expense of postage but I think that it makes for much more meaningful and sincere communication.

You can learn more about William at his website, which contains links to just about everything that he does. That includes the article on doing everything from just one single text file which many is popular with many of you).

If you’re interested in William’s fiction, check out his novel CHRONOS. It’s a techno-thriller set in a world where cryptocurrencies have become all pervasive. According to William, it’s available as both an ebook and a printed hardback book. An audiobook edition is coming soon, too.