Back to the late 1970s way of plain text writing

I got my first personal computer, the Altair 8800, in 1975. It came as a kit and included only the parts to build a case, power supply, an 18-slot card cage (with four slots available), an 8080-based CPU card, and a memory card with 256 bytes of memory (not 256k or 256mb, but 256 bytes).

Oh my, those were the days. What memories! Teletype machines, paper tape, boot loaders, ADM-3 video monitors, daisywheel printers (45 characters per minute), 110 baud modems that you pressed the phone handset into; eventually 5 1/4 and then 8 inch floppy diskettes that you had to remember to mount and unmount or you would mess up the directory to your files! I soldered many boards — CPU’s, memory, interfaces.

Writing consisted of programing, either using a simple monitor program to enter machine code, or a BASIC interpreter. It was not until 1977 when Digital Research released CP/M, a 8-bit operating system, that the door open for the development and distribution of the application we are all accustom to these days.

In 1978 WordMaster, soon to become WordStar, was released and went on to dominate the word processing industry for years. WordStar famously used the E-S-D-X-centered “diamond” for cursor navigation, and modern vi-like editors encourage use of hjkl for navigation.

Word processing became the most popular use for personal computers. It started with MacWrite and Microsoft Word for the bit-mapped Apple Macintosh screen, introduced in 1984. These were probably the first true WYSIWYG word processors to become known to many people until the introduction of Microsoft Windows.

Word processing changed from plain text to WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get).

It is, for most, the standard for creative writing today!

So, why is the latest writing trend taking us back to the plain text days of the 1970s?

There are two reasons for it:

  • Writing is all about words to express thoughts. It is not about fonts, indentations, headers, footers, line spacing, and margins. Writing in plain text helps in focusing on the task at hand. Plain text can be easily pasted into other applications, including a word processor, if formatting is required for a specific purpose or publication.

  • Compatibility issues with word processor file formats. It is a well known fact that the latest version of Microsoft Word don’t open their own legacy files. Even applications that claims to be fully compatible with .doc or .rtf files sometimes have issues, especially if the document contains complex formating. I need to know that I can access my files from anywhere with any text application, use the text in other applications, and share my text without worrying about compatibility issues. There is no other file format that is as cross compatible as a plain text file.

Adopting plain text files does present some obstacles:

  • Finding a good text editor. Since most word processors can save documents in plain text one could just use them, however, since their layout is designed for complex formating, their toolbars are taking up much screen space, and their menu system is not optimized for plain text usage. All in all, not a not a good choice.

    Text editors on the other hand are designed to work with plain text. However, most text editor are made for programmers and many therefore lack features that are important to writers, such as spell checking and word count. However, because of the reversal in trend from WYSIWG to plain text, many good text editors, free and commercial ones, have become available, with more on the way.

  • Acceptability is a big obstacle. Sadly, most computer users still are hooked on using a word processor for all of their writing. I have received short notes via Word files attached to emails, instead of the content being inside the email body.

    I do understand the need for formated text, especially when developing Marketing Material, or in my case International Standards. However, as stated before, the formating should be the last step.

    Most users justify using a word processor because of the need to work with colleagues in a collaborated way. I prefer the use of an online collaboration system. Drafting documents online eliminates sending out (Word) documents for review and comments (using revision marking). Distribution of a document by email requires the editor(s) to collect and correlate multiple revised versions of the same document. By utilizing modern online wiki type system, each commentator will be aware of comments made by another members, via the notification system, and therefore these comments can address, if needed in real time. But more important, all content submitted online is in plain text, allowing users to draft their content offline using a text editor before submitting online.

    BTW, this article has been composed offline, in plain text including the simple formating, using a text editor before going online and posting it within WordPress. But more about that another time.

In summary, although modern word processing programs can do some amazing formating things, the one thing they can’t do is ensure that the words can be read in future years to come. Plain text files are not only timeless but also multi-platform. I have been burned more then once in trying to access older word processing files. That is why I now write everything in plain text format. Maybe it is time for you to think about it as well.