Text Files

If you use computers, you’ve probably run across the phrase “text file” before. Unless you spend a lot of time using computers, you probably don’t know for sure exactly what a text file is or why it is important.

Most people compose documents with applications like Microsoft Word or Google Docs. When those applications save your document, it is put in what developers call a “proprietary” format. Only Word is supposed to be reading and writing .docx files. They aren’t text files. They are Word files. Google Docs has its own formats. So does LibreOffice.

When an application like Emacs or Notepad saves a document, it is saved as plain text. This means there is no formatting, no tables, no fancy fonts or images. It is just the alphabet, numbers and punctuation. Developers sometimes call this “plain ASCII text” because it uses only characters that appear in the basic ASCII table, which is numbers, letters and punctuation.

ASCII is the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. ASCII tells a computer which arrangement of bits correspond to each letter of the alphabet. It has been the PC standard since 1981.

Why is text important? It is important because text files contain only the data. There is no extraneous information like “put an image here” or “change the font there.” It’s just the raw data in the absolute simplest possible format.

Now you might think that raw data in a simple format is pretty boring. It is. That’s the whole point. When things get fancy, they tend to get broken and start wasting huge amounts of time and money. Ask any programmer which is better: simple or not simple?

The fact is boring works. The entire world wide web runs only on plain text. Usenet runs on plain text. The entire global e-mail system runs on plain text. UNIX and Linux are configured with plain text. Google runs on plain text. The source code for every application you have ever used was originally written as plain text. The entire Perl programming language was designed to work with plain text.

That’s why ASCII is still around and is still running all the world’s electronics after 37 years. If you’re an author, I strongly recommend you consider storing your manuscripts as plain text. If at some point in the future you decide to put your work into a proprietary format, you can, but you’ll always have the plain data to fall back on. Going from proprietary back to plain text is never a sure thing.

Plain text is the universal data format. Everything can read it. Everything can write it. Plain text is safe.

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