The Church of Plain Text

Jon Bell
2 min readDec 26, 2022

Every single one of my tech friends has come to the same conclusion, some quicker than others: if you write, you need to save your content in a way that can’t be locked into a proprietary format. So we spend time doing everything in Markdown, committing each file to version control, and feeling vaguely smug about ourselves as proud acolytes in the Church of Plain Text. It works for a while, but then doubt and regret sneak in. Because the fact remains that proprietary formats are actually pretty awesome for some scenarios.

Take photos, for example. Most people use something like Apple’s Photos.app or Microsoft Photos. But if you didn’t like how those apps are proprietary, you could choose to export everything into a giant folder of JPGs. And that would work for a very narrow use case, where you just wanted to see everything in a simple directory structure. But what about editing, or search, or storing things automatically in the cloud? What about adding tags or albums, easily sharing with others, or seeing metadata? None of that works. It turns out a great photo experience is a lot more than storing the photos themselves. Storage is trivial. Everything else is hard.

Text has similar limitations. When I write a book, I am designing things meant to be held in your hands or read in an ebook reader. Pouring a bunch of ASCII text into a page is only about 5% of the work. Adding line numbers, inserting line, page, or chapter breaks, assigning typefaces, adjusting leading, using dropcaps, designing a cover, dealing with hyphenation rules, the list goes on and on. There’s a reason why entire suites of products exist to help people design and publish books. The Church of Plain Text is a cute idea but it doesn’t scale beyond blog posts.

And it doesn’t even do those very well! What if you need to add an image to your post? With something like Medium or Microsoft Word, you can drag and drop an image directly into your canvas or press command-P to paste an image directly from your clipboard. But the Church of Plain Text makes you a) figure out a way to host the image somewhere else outside the editor window b) type some arcane commands to get the image to show up. That’s not a full credit solution. It’s a clumsy hack that only barely meets the bar for an editing experience.

Keeping things in plain text is great for some scenarios. It’s un-great for others. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between the two without getting too dogmatic about your chosen religion.

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