Taking a Look at Some Plain Text Myths

by: Scott Nesbitt | 17 August 2022

Over the life of The Plain Text Project, I’ve received more than a bit of feedback. That feedback has been a mix of supportive, constructive, negative, and just plain … well, I’m not sure how to politely describe it.

In the latter bucket are emails that propagate what I consider myths surrounding plain text. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

You Need a Text Editor Packed With Every Feature to Use Plain Text Effectively

Usually, an editor like Emacs or Vim or VS Code is mentioned when someone states something like that. An editor that does so much, or can do so much, that people are always finding ways to push those editors to their limits.

I don’t believe that a powerful, feature-packed text editor is essential part of the plain text life. At least, not for everyone. More than a few people can do what they need to do in plain text, comfortably, using a simple text editor. And, anyway, what using plain text effectively means will vary from person to person. One size doesn't fit all.

Unless You’re Using pandoc, You’re Not Using Plain Text Properly

In 2019, I received an email pointedly telling me that 1) the site's list of tools didn’t include pandoc, and 2) the list was worthless without pandoc. I’ve heard that more than a couple of times since then.

And I’m calling you-know-what on that. There are some folks who might find this difficult to fathom, but not everyone needs to convert from plain text to other formats. There are, believe it or not, people who use only unadorned plain text. No markup languages. No conversion to anything required. Why would they need to use pandoc?

You Need More Than One Tool to Get the Most Out of Plain Text

Even before I started The Plain Text Project, I noticed that some people had built complicated toolchains and processes for their work with plain text. Sometimes, I think they’re making things a bit more difficult and a bit more fragile by introducing that much complexity into something that should be straightforward.

Those toolchains and processes might be what they need, but going back to myths above, they’re not essential for everyone. There are people who only need one or two tools to do what they want to do with plain text. That could be text editor and simple note taking tool. It could be plain text todo list manager. It could be an all-in-one application like Obsidian. It could be something more.

You Need to Use Markup Language x

Not necessarily. Some folks don’t want or need to learn, or use, a markup language. Working in vanilla plain text is enough for what they’re trying to do.

And one markup language doesn’t fit all tasks. Some of us only need Markdown, while others need the complexity of AsciiDoc or LaTeX. For some people, HTML is all they need. Others might need to use a couple or three markup languages, depending on what they’re doing at any one time.

Final Thought

As with just about everything, there’s no one way to work with plain text. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

How you work with plain text, and what you use to do it, is based on your needs. It's not based on the needs or methods or ideas of some so-called power user or guru. Or someone, like me, spouting off on their website or blog.