Apart from the obvious solutions like MS Word, there are many systems that accept the simple (plain) text along with formatting markup. Some of these like Groff are historical, but others like AsciiDoc are rather new and in active developoment. If you do not do much more than dividing into chapters, the markup itself seems trivial to learn. I used them for technical documentation at work.

The proponents of these systems say that writing just plain text allows to concentrate on the text itself, not formatting and presentation that a "user friendly" editor immediately requires from the first word. Also, there are multiple versioning tools that would work well with plain texts but not with the binary files of the usual text exitor. These tools, normally used by software engineers, allow to compare past and current versions side by side, create and merge branches and things the like.

Because of these potential advantages, I started to think about using one of such systems for my creative writing projects. To help me with this decision, I would like to know if any notable writers have used such systems recently, or if there are any notable pieces initially written using them (by the original author, not by the technician in the process of preparing the publication).

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    This is really a Your Mileage May Vary question. There's no way for the community to judge if you would work well in this kind of environment. You have to try it and see. Dec 6, 2016 at 10:40
  • I don't think the community can judge whether it will work for OP, but if others have made the attempt and then written or spoken about their experience, I could see that as worthwhile. But yeah, it's kind of borderline - even phrased like that, it's a request for references and links, not an answer that stands on its own.
    – Standback
    Dec 6, 2016 at 11:10
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    I will say: you're pointing to two very different possible advantages here. One is the ability to focus on "just plain text" (which any editor should be capable of; and which you'll probably prefer, if you're writing for standard manuscript format). The second is the use of versioning tools, which is a worthwhile topic, but still very much a matter of personal preference.
    – Standback
    Dec 6, 2016 at 11:18
  • Bottom line: you're still likely to mostly get answers of "You can do that if it looks good to you; try it and see." If you're looking for more than that, you need to figure out what information you're after that isn't "Is anything preventing me from writing in this particular manner"; the answer to that one is always "no."
    – Standback
    Dec 6, 2016 at 11:19

3 Answers 3


I am a visual person, and although written text is often thought to be no more than a visual encoding of verbal thought, to me the visual aspect of reading is an important factor when I compose my narrative: text does not just have to "sound right" – which is why I read aloud or subvocalize while I write –, it also has a visual rhythm that must "look right" to be pleasant and effortless to read. To control the visual aspect of writing, I need to see the text that I write in a "print-like" representation – not exactly, but in some relevant basic aspects.

There is one kind of markup that you will most likely need for creative writing: italics.

Certainly you can use some kind of plain text markup to signify cursive text, such as asterisks (*italic*) or underscores (_italic_) or HTML tags (<i>italic</i>), but having to type these is cumbersome and replacing them later is error prone.

I also need to indent my first lines, have some white page margins around my text, and a line length of around 60 characters. These help the reader to orient herself in what would otherwise be an unbroken wall of text, and just like the reader I too need them to not get visually lost while I write. Some plain text editors allow such changes to the layout of their editor window, others don't. The size of the margins (I use the word processor's default) and indentation (I use 1 em) are irrelevant, and I don't waste time with finetuning these, but they have to be there for me to help me "see" the text I want to write in my mind's eye.

There are some other visuals that I need (such as an easily readable, non-monospaced font), but italics are the one basic need that makes all plain text editors unusable for me. I tried, but the forced plainness feels unnatural and is an obstacle to me.

Try, if it works for you.

An afterthought.

No editor "requires" that your format your text. You can type plain text in Microsoft Word.

  • Managing markups can be facilitated by using a keyboard macro processor to add and delete them (especially when they come in pairs). Windows - AutoHotKey / Linux - AutoKey / Mac - Automator
    – Joe
    Dec 6, 2016 at 19:43

Although it's not a part of your question per se, there is one place where you absolutely need to use plain text if you hope to publish traditionally: submitting to literary agents. Most, maybe 80%, require pasting in 1,000-10,000 words of plain text after the body of your query letter. I'm not sure why, but that's the way it is. Italics go in CAPS, and all font sizes will appear as 12 point Courier (I think). Illustrations are not possible in the plain-text query, and my experience is if the agent wants to further deal with you, they will want originals mailed to them to put in a format they feel is best for each individual publishing house.

Yes, you can save documents in MS Word twice, one in plain text. Review the plain text document before submitting, as Word sometimes gets confused if you are writing as a .doc, and you'll have to change italics to CAPS "by hand."


As a proxy for writers using markup languages, we can take writers using an editor like Emacs l, which includes at the very least Neal Stephenson, source.

We should remember that wordprocessors that include display of font, layout, etc. are a recent invention. In the past of typewritten and handwritten manuscripts the relationship between the written and printed page was much closer to that between markup and printed than a word document and printed.

And even today, there is rarely a neat correspondence between what is displayed in the writers word processor and what gets printed: publishers may set margins, fonts, etc.

So I think there's no necessity to using a word processor. Why might you want to anyway?

  1. Word processors are ubiquitous. Most everyone can open a doc or an rtf file and most publishers can handle these.
  2. Learning a mark up takes time.
  3. Word processors frequently come with other features (ability to add annotations, versioning, collaborative editing, bibliography management) that are nice to have.

That being said, I think it's reasonable and more productive to use plain markup if you are already familiar with the format and are comfortable working with plain text. Here are some advantages:

  1. Text editors like Emacs or Vi offer more efficient editing than word processors generally.
  2. Plain text is even more ubiquitous: every computer of whatever capacity or operating system is capable of opening and editing a plain text file in a decent editor. Not every computer has the latest word processor.
  3. Most markup formats can publish easily to a variety of output formats, so you can get a PDF or a word doc if you need it.
  4. The tooling around plain text is incredible, if you are already comfortable with it. Versioning in particular is solved by mature tools like Git and plain text has good stories for keeping your work organized (you can split say chapters into separate files and compile then together with a simple program).
  5. For certain uses, like documents that include mathematical notation or inline source code, the plain text setting is just orders of magnitude nicer than any word processor I have come across.

I personally do both technical and creative writing in markup (usually Pandoc's Markdown) and vastly prefer it, but I also am familiar with all the tools that make that experience nice. I don't think it's something I'd recommend to people not so familiar.

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