Public Services > Central Government

The future of text is plain

Published 02 March 2017

Mark Foden considers the future of text and believes it’s plain, not rich


This is about the future of business writing. And about plain text.

As I type, I'm conscious there will be millions in offices around the world doing the same. Apart from deciding what to write, many will be doing things like: choosing what colour to make their headings; adjusting the font size a bit so the text fits neatly on the page; and getting slightly tetchy that the line spacing between the headings and the paragraphs looks a bit odd because someone has recently updated the template. These things are important: documents must look good, especially in government.

But, with the possible exception of my good friend Sir Bufton Tufton who insists that "it's so much easier to read when one has the actual paper in one's hand", most of us just don't print documents any more. We read text on screens: why do we format it for printing?

It's much easier to read something that looks like a web page than an electronic document - especially if we are using a phone or assistive technologies. This is because web pages are formatted by computer code called a stylesheet and are designed specifically for the screen they are read on. Electronic documents are formatted by well-meaning but typographically-maladroit humans and are designed for a piece of paper unlikely ever to come into existence. 

We are clearing physical paper from our desks but not the idea of it from our software or our ways of doing things. This is adding unnecessary complication and cost that we mostly don't notice because it's how we've always done things. There is a simple way we can fix this: switch from working in "rich text" to "plain text".

Rich text is a technology, used in word processors, that lets us format documents for printing. It contains information, hidden from us, that defines the nature of the characters, paragraphs and pages in a document. We've been using it since the 1980s.

Also since the 1980s, people writing web pages have written in plain text: for example Wikipedia is exclusively written in it. Plain text does not have a native facility for formatting like rich text; but it is possible to introduce simple formatting using a convention of special characters called "mark-up" that are part of the text. Using a stylesheet, these characters can subsequently be interpreted by display or publishing software to create formatted output. Here's the difference:

It's not easy for ordinary business writers to switch to using plain text because their word processing software isn't designed for it. It can be done, but it's too hard to be practical. Equally, the software that is designed for working in plain text doesn't do everything ordinary writers need to do. (Also markup takes a little getting used to.) It's hard to move between the two worlds.  

But this is beginning to change: for example in WhatsApp it's now possible to make text in a message bold by enclosing it with two asterisks - the most basic example of mark-up. There are also several firms experimenting with mark-up editors designed for collaborative writing by ordinary business writers. TextThing, a company I am involved with, is one of these. 

TextThing, currently at trial stage, has demonstrated that it is possible to make the transition. For example, one of TextThing's features is a dual-mode editor that allows writers to work in what looks like a normal rich text editor but actually produce marked-up plain text. A consulting firm are using it to produce all of their tender documentation. They estimate that it reduces their work by 15% and say their people find it easier to use than the online office suites. TextThing is also being trialled in both central and local government. There is interest in its ability to produce output in multiple formats from a single source efficiently - such as a consultation document needing to be published both as a web page and as as several formats of pdf.  

Once text is stored as plain text, there are new possibilities for automation and integration with other systems. It will be much easier to manage and search text; and also to keep records. This will improve corporate memory and so reduce wheel-reinvention; enable people to find and learn from others with common interests; and reduce the time spent handling multiple formats or moving files around. The benefits for government will be significant.

The future is plain text.   

Mark Foden is a change management specialist, facilitator, writer, speaker and a founder of TextThing

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