Gradually Falling in Love with Plain Text

Funny thing about life-changing ideas. It can take a while to warm up to them.

First in blogger, then in Squarespace (where Prolost is now hosted), I used to write my blog posts right in the blogging engine—in that little “WYSIWYG” window with its buttons for creating links, quoted text, and text formatting.

At some point I became aware of Markdown, the plain-text writing format created by John Gruber. I totally didn’t get it. Why would I want to learn some new “syntax” for formatting text when I have a tool that does it at the push of a button, and shows me exactly what I’ll get?

Even as I was thinking this, I was living through the exact pain that Markdown was designed to address. I’d often find myself battling that little WYSIWYG text window. I’d press Return after some quoted text and it would create another quoted paragraph. I’d press the “quote” button to un-quote the current paragraph, and an extra line would be inserted. I’d try to delete it and now there was no separation between the paragraphs. I’d press “Publish” and the extra line would be back. I’d eventually go into the post HTML and try to remove the offending line break, crossing my fingers that I wasn’t destroying something else in the process. After all this, I’d be afraid to touch the WYSIWYG editor again. A typo or broken link would have to be pretty important for me to risk touching this house of HTML cards I’d created.

I began writing my blog posts in other tools before moving them over to the blog. I first did this in email drafts. Then Notational Velocity. Then TextEdit. But I didn’t dare write in rich text, because I didn’t trust that my links and italics and bulleted lists would come over to Squarespace correctly.

So I wrote in plain text. If I wanted to create a link, I’d just paste the URL below the paragraph, as a kind of reminder to build a link in Squarespace using the pushbutton tools. If I wanted to style some text, I’d maybe, I don’t know, wrap some *asterisks* around it to remind myself to italicize it.

I proceeded like this for a good year or more, still bizarrely unaware that I was painfully embodying the raison d’être of Markdown. I even filed a bug report with Squarespace, because the simple process of pasting my plain text into their WYSIWYG editor would create extra line breaks and other errors. I was close, but I was still lost.

It was around this time that I started tweeting questions about why any sane person would ever want to use Markdown.

The Funny Thing About People and Stuff

I have a few dear friends who are argumentative pains-in-the-ass of staggering proportions. I’m sure they feel the same about me, because I suffer from a condition I call overemphasitis—I am so obsessed with making my points heard that I often don’t give people time to properly absorb them.

Even smart, open-minded people take time to absorb new ideas. Especially smart, open-minded people.

And here’s the thing: the more worthwhile, the more valuable an idea you present to someone, the harder it will be for them to hear it.

Think of it this way: You’re smart. Your friend is smart. If the concept you’re proposing to them is truly worthwhile, then it falls into a rarified category of being both important, and something they hadn’t already considered—or had considered, but rejected. So there’s obviously something they need to get past in order to embrace this controversial idea of yours.

You should drink less at company parties. You have bad breath. It looks like you might be lactose intolerant. You and your husband don’t seem to like each other very much. You should try writing in plain text.

Having chronic overemphasitis, I would get super annoyed with my friends when they would push back against my carefully considered and inarguably brilliant advice.

But over time, I noticed a pattern. That same friend who rebuffed my ideas upon first hearing them, would often embrace them soon thereafter—and even pitch the ideas back to me as if they were their own.

I can’t believe people still go to Starbucks. Rendering and compositing should be done in linear-light. Of course a real Martini is made with gin. The first Terminator is so much better than the second. A spoon has no role in the making of a cappuccino.

Oh, really? Interesting. I wish I’d mentioned those things to you, like, a hundred times.

A worthwhile idea challenges us. If it really has value, then it means we may been wrong about something, or failed to realize something. Coming to terms with these possibilities take time.

In my case, I practically had to invent Markdown on my own before I realized how great it was.

Getting Lost in the Neighborhood

I once led a splinter unit in setting up a shot for a famous cinematographer. When he arrived to take over our setup, he didn’t quite love our camera position, which was limited by the geography of the set. It had been quite a puzzle to negotiate our big lens into the cramped space, but he decided to tear down our setup and start fresh. Ten minutes later, he had the camera exactly back where I’d placed it.

There’s a common understanding that in order to truly learn your way around an unfamiliar neighborhood, you have to get lost there a few times. Ideas stick more when you discover them organically—via your own process.

And then they can stick pretty hard. In my case, about a week after I embraced Markdown for my web writing, I began to think about how I could bring the same portability, compatibility, and universality to screenplay writing.

Happily I was not the only one, and now Fountain, the plain-text screenplay format, is growing strong, with new apps announcing support every month.

Take Your Time

The point of this article is simple: Don’t take my word for it that working with plain text is the best thing that ever happened to you. Or this guy’s. Or this guy’s.

The best thing I can do is gently lay out some of the reasons I love it. Go ahead: reject them. Fight back. Argue with me. This is one of those ideas that’s worth it.

Then slowly discover plain text on your own. Get lost in the neighborhood.

This post was gleefully written in Markdown using Byword, and effortlessly pasted into Squarespace as HTML.