An essay on why plain text is ideal for writers, and the secrets it can hold that become a biographer’s dream.

As the 21st century navigated the tumbling waters of adolescence, technology started to become more and more of a focus of a human’s daily life. Somehow, as technology began to replace human interaction with the Real World, people started to bang the coding drum. It’s necessary to learn how to write code, they say. It’s important for kids to learn how to build technological things.

Meanwhile, houses fall into disrepair.

Human fail to learn how to Live.

They don’t know how to cook, to sew, to build Real Things in the Real World.

And as the parents of my generation begin to leave the planet and go back home to their other realms, they take with them the knowledge of how to patch holes in walls, know where to drill hooks into walls, to fix flywire on windows, to build things, to grow gardens.

And everyone else is left wondering, or paying /​400 per hour for specialists (ahem, “plumbers”) to do the job for them.

Yet paradoxically, to the writer, learning code has a different meaning altogether.

It means learning how to treat your docs, your writing, as if it were code. It means being able to escape the clutches of technology companies that want to lock your work into proprietary formats, to force you to use their tools, that stop your work from lasting longer than your lifetime.

There are three things that all writers ought to learn, that all students ought to learn.

The first is how to write with a pen.

The second is how to type.

The third is how to treat your docs like code.

Treating docs like code allows you to create lightweight text files, that don’t carry any additional garbage.

It allows you to treat the version control, the save history, the ‘commit log’, as a form of writing journal: What did you do between your last committed save and this one, and why?

This then turns the versioning into a readable artefact on its own, a real and meaningful history of what you did and why. And if you want to roll it back, undo it, ‘revert it’, you know exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it… and then saving those decisions too.

It’s not the way that any nerdy docs-as-code person would use the commit log. It’s not the way that anybody working in a team of software developers would use the commit log.

But for you, as a solo writer, working on your own, why wouldn’t you do this?

It allows you to keep your writing journal inside the thing that you’re writing; synchronous, part of it, yet separate from it.

No longer keeping diaries or books or separate files; it’s just one process.

Create your creation; keep your decision-making in a secret log that you can make available whenever you want to.

It’s a biographer’s dream.

The docs-as-code methodology allows you to write simple files that can be saved as, exported into, ‘compiled into’ beautifully typeset books, too.

There’s a methodology called ‘lean books’ which allows you to publish beautiful ebooks as minimum viable books, following the startup bros’ methodology. It might not be for you; it’s not for everyone; but it allows you to update the books over time, to add or remove things; to keep non-fiction books up to date with changes in a field; to allow fiction books to improve over time.

It’s not everyone’s ideal of a book, which is traditionally an artefact that is fixed in this point in time; but it might be your bag.

And if it is, why wouldn’t you leverage it?

Treating your writing as if it were code has so many advantages.

Not least is staying off the internet.

Well-meaning developers create ‘writing platforms’ that force writers to work while logged into the internet. Even though the internet is one of the world’s greatest sources of distraction, and many of us strive to keep ourselves offline as much as possible, lest our brains’ crazy dopamine addictions force our eyes and zombie-minds down rabbitholes that don’t matter.

There are loads of ways around this.

Plain text is the simplest of them all.

This is one of the reasons why notebooks and pens are still winners, even in a technological age. They don’t need power. They work as long as they’re not in a fire or wet. They don’t require you to have intervening technology to use them, even after 5000 years, provided that it’s been kept in the right conditions and hasn’t faded, and your language isn’t too different.

Technology forces you to be attached to power.

It forces you to stop when it stops.

So you are never truly in control of your life.

Nevertheless, plain text is simple. It doesn’t require an internet connection. It doesn’t have any inbuilt distractions. Editors are only as complex as they need to be, which is typically: Open, Save, Close, Exit, Help (you know, in case you can’t work out the others yourself).

That’s it.

Plain text forces you to become self-responsible. To save your work. To back up your work. To print and keep your work, if you want to store your writing in the most robust and long-term type of storage that exists. Its small files means you can keep your writing even on SD cards if you want to: A technology with zero moving parts, that won’t crash, that is highly robust. More so than a solid-state, powered drive, I might add.

So why wouldn’t you do it?

More to the point, why don’t people teach it?

Because it’s writing.

And because everyone can write, they don’t care.

It isn’t extraordinary.

It doesn’t build applications, take us to space, or allow us to make megabucks and become unicorns.

Technology has “made it easier” (which really means, “made people stupider”).

All of this despite writing being that one thing that allows you to go into other realms, into yourself, to gain the empathy and insights that are so necessary for this strange and complex thing we call Being Human.