Plain Text for Students and Researchers

I write in plain text whenever I can for several reasons, but you might wonder how this actually works for something like a paper for class, a journal article, or a dissertation.

Can You Write a Dissertation in Plain Text?

Sure, why not? I recommend using plain text when you are writing drafts, blogs, class notes, book notes, research journals, and other things for yourself that don’t absolutely require complicated formatting. If you are in the sciences, you may also want to take a look at LaTeX.

When you reach the end of a project, and you get to the point where you need to produce something for public consumption, then plain text is less useful, and you’ll want to bring in the more versatile word processors like Pages or Word. Until then, though, plain text is perfect.

Hardware: The iPad

Of course, you can use any desktop computer to write, but in recent years we have a new alternative available with the iPad. I wrote most of my dissertation on it.

If you go this route, you’ll want to consider getting an external keyboard. I recommend the Apple wireless keyboard. It is a work of art, and incredibly durable. Familiarize yourself with the keyboard shortcuts, you’ll be able to write almost as easily as you can with a traditional mouse and keyboard.

The virtual keyboard on the iPad is a great feature, to be sure, but for extended writing, pounding your fingers on a piece of glass is less than ideal. My typing speed is roughly halved, and I produce many more errors with it.

In addition, I think you’ll want to get some kind of case/stand for the keyboard. In the photograph above you can see the Incase Origami Workstation opened up as a stand. In the photograph below, you can see how low-profile it is when folded up.

Why Not Get a Macbook Air or Ultrabook?

Computers are far more versatile than that iPad, but if you are writing in plain text, they are functionally indistinguishable from it. In fact, the iPad has several benefits:

  • Battery Life. The iPad will last about twice as long as the 11" Macbook Air. On a long flight of 10 hours or more, you can bring an external battery pack along (they cost about $50 and are about the size of an iPhone) to give the iPad another few hours of battery life. You cannot do this with the Macbook Air.
  • Price. The iPad costs about half as much as the 11" Macbook Air.
  • Portrait Mode. The iPad can function as both an e-reader and a computer. I don’t think I have read an entire book on a computer, but I have read many on the iPad. A laptop is stuck in landscape mode, and you cannot see an entire page. In fact, with the iPad in portrait mode you actually see more of your writing than you would on a 13" Retina Macbook Pro display.
  • Weight. Even with the external keyboard, it is about the same size and weight as the Macbook Air.
  • Ease of Use. It is a simple matter to pull the iPad out of your man bag and read on the train, write some notes with your finger or a stylus, or even compose a few emails. It is not so easy to get out your Macbook Air, find a place to set it down, and get to work.

Drafting and Gathering Data: Evernote

I used Evernote for the initial brainstorming, random thoughts, notes on secondary scholarship, and document translations for my dissertation. I mainly write without formatting on it, and the iPad recently gained a new plain text mode that strips away formatting, but technically speaking Evernote uses a forked version of XHTML (called ENML) to store data. Basically, it is plain text marked up with “tags” that tell your browser how to display the content. Plain text purists might not like it, but I have had no problem exporting my notes as HTML and converting them to plain text files.

Evernote’s syncing is unparalleled, it has great customer service, there are a lot of apps that integrate with it nowadays, and it conveniently brings together any file type (audio, video, images, etc.) with text in one location. For short projects, it might be fine to write everything in Evernote, but for the dissertation I found it inadequate. I’ll cover the problems I had (and solutions I devised) in another blog post.

Writing and Organizing: Notesy and Scrivener

When it came time to turn those notes into paragraphs and chapters, I moved everything to notesy. This app syncs with Dropbox, and from there you can work with the files on your Mac using Scrivener. I did the writing on my iPad, and used Scrivener for the organization (moving parts of the dissertation around) and export of chapters (printing out copies for my advisor and so forth).

How do you deal with footnotes? You type them inline and use double brackets {{ }} around them to tell Scrivener to treat the text as a footnote, and if you are in Scrivener making a footnote, it will appear with the double brackets in notesy. That’s it!

Final Revisions and Formatting: Pages

After I completed the first draft of my dissertation, I moved into Pages on iOS and the Mac. At this moment, it is the only app I know of on the iPad that can create, view, and edit footnotes. This means that for plain text there are dozens of apps you could use on the iPad, but if you need formatting for academic papers, there is only one app that is suitable.

I would estimate that maybe 90% of my dissertation was done on the iPad in plain text, and about 10% of the time spent on the project was with Pages. For complicated formatting in the final stages, the Mac was definitely a huge help. The iOS version of Pages was buggy at times (text entered after a superscript footnote, for example), and having the Mac available alleviated some of the frustration.

Why Not a Word Processor from the Start?

In theory, it might seem more practical to start out with Pages (or Word if you are on a laptop) and keep writing there until you are done. Maybe some people work that way, but for me, the writing process is full of fits and starts, with lots of material that gets moved around or removed entirely from the project. I also don’t want to have to think about formatting and all of the other things that come with a word processor.

I like how Zachary Schneirov describes his app, Notational Velocity: “It is an attempt to loosen the mental blockages to recording information and to scrape away the tartar of convention that handicaps its retrieval. The solution is by nature nonconformist.” I would add that working with plain text strips away all of the distractions for me, and allows me to focus on what I think matters the most; namely, the content.

Other Applications

For my research notes, I used bLADEWiki very early in the project. Later, I spent some time with nvALT, Elements and VoodooPad. All of these applications have their strengths and weaknesses. You’ll want to pick the one that best suits your use case. Brett Terpsta’s feature comparison list may help.