The obvious and plain (text) solution

After a writer I follow on Twitter experiences a Scrivener meltdown, I conclude the only safe harbour for a writer's work is plain text.

The obvious and plain (text) solution
Photo by Patrick Tomasso / Unsplash

Overnight, I was tagged in a Twitter thread about a writer’s horrifying problems with Scrivener, and since I in the past evangelised Scrivener for long-form writing, I was asked for my thoughts.

There’s the thread if you care to read, but in summary, the writer fell victim to a nasty bug in Scrivener’s licensing system, as provided by Paddle, which seems to affect Scrivener for Windows. With much finger-pointing on all sides, there wasn’t a solution palatable or easy for non-technical users.

What struck me most profoundly is the realisation that writers cannot and must not trust their words to proprietary formats and tools. As much as I love Scrivener,  its file format and source code are proprietary. Yes, I know Scrivener files are comprised of XML and Rich Text, but neither offers comfort to hapless users when a project corrupts or, case in point, the software’s activation system locks out a registered user. There are plenty of horror stories on social media about writers losing years of work to file corruption, and poor backup strategies (a story for another day).

If you invest months, years, or decades in your creative endeavours, you need the assurance that your work will be accessible, no matter what, without the fear of digital obsolescence, paywalls, or vendor lock-in.

The obvious and only long-term solution is to adopt open formats, and the best, most indestructible format for writing prose is plain text, optionally sprinkled with Markdown. Plain text predates personal digital computers, and it will endure long after Scrivener is relegated to a footnote of digital history. Plain text is supported on every operating system and is readable by every text editor. I can still access plain text files I created on DOS in the 1990s.

I won’t bore you with the technical reasons; suffice to say its robustness is due to its simplicity. Plain text encodes character codes representing letters, numbers, and whitespace — nothing more. There are no binary blobs like images, no formatting or styling information, and no macros — just text.

Since plain text is just character data, it’s much smaller than proprietary formats, making it well suited to network transfer, mobile devices, use in cloud storage services like DropBox, or version control systems and services like Git and GitHub.

Another perk is the malleability of plain text. Since it’s simply a stream of characters, it’s easy to search, manipulate and transform into other formats. For the technically literate, there’s no limit to what you can do with the scripting languages and utilities that are baked into your computer’s operating system.

Plain text is the foundation upon which markdown is built, and markdown has become the de facto format for web and technical writers. Markdown, and markdown-aware editors, make plain text more functional for writers who need to format their documents with inline styles, lists, and tables.

Adopting open formats makes it easier to move between tools. There are dozens of top-quality writing-focussed editors on the market, including many that are open source, cross-platform or web-based. And even if you adopt a proprietary, feature-rich editor like iA Writer or Ulysses, their use of plain text won’t lock you in if they disappear, or you decide to move on.

Ultimately, open formats, like plain text and markdown, put users in control of what they create, while offering stability and longevity that proprietary formats cannot. When you commit your thoughts and stories to bits and bytes, ask yourself this — is your writing ephemeral, or do you want it to stand the test of time, stored in an accessible and robust format?

I know where I’d rather store mine.