Plaintext and Markdown - A Primer

My little sister is headed for her freshmen year of college, and so of course she asked me the classic question, "Should I get Word or Pages for my Mac?". I told her to get Pages and call it good, but inside I wanted to tell her go get a copy of Byword, iA Writer, Write Room, or any of the other fabulous text editors on the Mac and iOS. I didn't say any of these things, but I did decide to write it all down.


Plaintext is all the little .txt files TextEdit saves (but only if you're in Plaintext mode, naturally). A Plaintext file is the most basic kind of text document. The format is literally just text, there is no formatting aside from basic paragraphs and indents, and no compatibility requirements. None. Read it again. No. Compatibility. Requirements. Last year David Sparks wrote up a fantastic article for Macworld explaining the benefits of Plaintext, he wrote (emphasis mine):

Although modern word processing programs can do some amazing things—adding charts, tables, and images, applying sophisticated formatting—there’s one thing they can’t do: Guarantee that the words I write today will be readable ten years from now.

That’s just one of the reasons I prefer to work in plain text: It’s timeless. My grandchildren will be able to read a text file I create today, long after anybody can remember what the heck a .docx file is.

Plaintext will last (at least much longer than .doc will), you can count on it. If you need to apply some arcane formatting for a research paper, fire up a copy of Pages or Word and copy and paste your text in. Keep the plaintext file around though, let the actual text live on in those .txt files.


The jelly to Plaintext's peanut butter is Markdown by John Gruber. Markdown extends Plaintext by adding basic formatting such as headings, unordered and order lists, block quotes, and italics and bolding. Markdown allows you to add inline images, external and internal hyperlinks, and even tables, without compromising the integrity of your Plaintext documents.

Every post on this blog is written in Markdown. The blog engine, Jekyll, interprets the Markdown and spits out the appropriate HTML. If I ever wanted to switch to another blog engine, I have a bunch of simple plaintext files that are very portable.

If you want to see Markdown in action, or want to practice with the syntax, head over to Markdownr by the indefatigable Mr. Sam Soffes. Markdownr lets you input Markdown on the left side and instantly see the formatted text on the right side. Check it out.

If you want the Markdownr experience on your desktop, check out Brett Terpstra's app Marked.

A Few Bullet Points

Other benefits of Plaintext and Markdown are:

  • Easy for modern Operating Systems to index and search
  • Simple to backup
  • Simple to move
  • Easy to edit on any device
  • Format agnostic.

Plaintext and Markdown make a great pair, they are unrestricted by compatibility, specific software, or corporate governance. I've moved all my text-related work to plaintext and Markdown and it has added a lightness to working with text that is just perfect.

Give Markdown + Plaintext a shot, there is literally no barrier to entry. Hopefully you will realize that getting out of heavy word processors like Word or Pages frees up your text, mind, and words.

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