As academic physician, a large part of my work involves writing. I write emails, meeting notes, drafts of manuscripts and books, blogs, ideas, grant applications, and more. I’ve owned every version of Microsoft Word for the Mac. But over the last two years, my workflow for writing has changed dramatically.

For me, writing can be very difficult. I find I write best with minimal distractions. I need to be in a position to get into a flow state and type whatever comes to mind. I’ve found it best to get the stream of ideas down on the page as quickly as possible, then come back later to edit. Software features, whether for formatting, editing, or reviewing often become a distraction. Over time, I’ve found I do my most productive writing in a program that offers few options (and thus very few opportunities for distraction).  Knowing this about me, you won’t be surprised to learn that I have all but forsaken Microsoft Word (and Apple Pages) in favor of plaintext.

You might find this odd coming from someone who writes manuscripts and grants for a living. You’re probably wondering how an academic can survive without Word? And why would a tech-savvy nerd like me choose something so basic as plaintext?

Please let me explain. If left to my basic inclinations, I might flail for hours trying to construct the perfect sentence. For a long time, this “perfectionism” would leave me stuck-often on the first page of a large writing project. Only recently did I learn to overcome this impediment. For me, the key to productive writing is for me to minimize distractions.  I need to control distractions in my environment, distractions on my device, and distractions within the writing program itself. Once I start writing, I try to keep my words flowing freely, saving the editing for my second (and third, and fourth) pass.

Word no longer met the demands of my workflow. I resented Word for its proprietary format, the size of its documents, its complexity, and the worst of all: auto-formatting. I commonly found Word getting in the way of my writing rather than getting out of the way and letting me write. Pages was not much better. And with either program it was difficult to keep versions synchronized between my Mac, my iPhone, and my iPad. After I wrote something I wanted the text to be immediately available on every device I owned.

I started looking for alternatives to Word and Pages. And there was a plethora of minimalist writing programs for the Mac and iOS to choose from. Most had only a few features–just enough to enable writing and to do minimal formatting. My favorite programs seamlessly synchronized to the Cloud, allowing me to write once, but access the text on any device. Because I write text bound either for a word processor or the web, I needed a single way to write in in words and in HTML. Plaintext combined with Markdown-a plaintext formatting syntax developed by John Gruber-allows me to write once and then move my words either to a word processor or to the web. Fletcher Penny’s MultiMarkdown adds many additional capabilities to Markdown and is especially handy for academics. If my note isn’t going to stay in its native plaintext form, I usually run it through Marked-a program that imports Markdown/Multimarkdown and exports formatted text in the end format I desire (whether it’s for a word processor or the web).

These days, I do the majority of my writing on my iPad or Mac using use a Markdown-enabled text editor. I use Word or Pages only in the very final stages of a writing project (after the bulk of the writing and editing is complete).

But there’s more. I spend about 30 minutes commuting in my car each day. I now occasionally use this time for “writing.” The addition of voice recognition to the iPhone 4s gave me the ability to dictate during my commute. I dictate into SimpleNote Notesy or the Dragon Dictation app on my iPhone. If I use Simplenote Notesy, the text automatically syncs using Dropbox and is immediately available on my Mac or iPad. If I use Dragon, all I have to do is mail myself the dictation and import the text into my writing application. I find myself drafting emails, letters, and even beginning long manuscripts while commuting. Then, when I arrive at the office, I just need to polish my prose rather than start writing from scratch.

Once I’ve written the document, plaintext is easy to share across operating systems (Windows, Mac, Linux) and devices-negating the need to buy proprietary software or other converters. Plaintext documents are tiny, taking up a fraction of the space of a proprietary word processing file. Plaintext is flexible-serving as notes in its native form, or as the early stage writing / editing platform for larger writing projects.

My current workflow for most short documents is to write or dictate them into plaintext (I use Writing Kit on my iPad, SimpleNoteNotesy or Dragon Dictation for dictation on my iPhone, and Byword on my mac). Although I can’t dictate Markdown on my iPhone, it’s a simple task to add once I reach my destination. I use Dropbox to keep all my notes in sync. If I’m writing a document, I can used Marked to copy my formatted text directly to Pages or to Word for final formatting. For a blog entry or web page I can export my Markdown document to HTML using Marked.

There are numerous writing apps for the Mac and iOS. I suggest you try several (most are $5 or less each) to find the best fit for your personal style. Brett Terpstra recently wrote a blog entry comparing the different features of writing programs for iOS. Features important to me in the editors were: (1) built-in TextExpander, (2) import Markdown and Multimarkdown files, (3) synchronizes to the Cloud or to Dropbox.

For large academic projects, I have a more complex workflow that includes several other tools. I’ll cover this more complex writing workflow in a future entry.

Cheers, Jeff

Appended June 17, 2012: I was taking a look at @MacSparky’s Twitter feed. He recommended this blog post by @yuvizalkow : I’m A Failed Writer #13: Beyond Microsoft Word… Or Not on the same topic.

Appended March 2, 2013: Read this entry on why I switched from SimpleNote to Notesy.

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Why I Use Plaintext by Jeff Taekman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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4 Responses to Why I Use Plaintext

  1. Weng says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for taking the time to post this great and relevant post. As I get more involved in academic writings, my frustration with MS word increases. While the minimalistic feature of text edit is appealing, how do you go about doing citation as you write? Does Papers2 support TextEdit?
    Thanks.

    • jeffrey.taekman says:

      Yes. Papers supports citations in any application. I merely invoke the Papers meta interface by hitting my control key twice. I can then search for and insert a citation (or multiple citations) into the document using ANY program.

  2. rgadler says:

    Very helpful post, Jeff, and I appreciated your comments on the MPU 100 show. I’ve downloaded Papers to try out!

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