Submitting Essays In Plain Text Form

I (strongly) prefer not to use or receive Microsoft Word electronic documents—or any other binary files from word processors. (I share many of the concerns raised by Jeff Goldberg’s essay MS-Word is Not a Document Exchange Format. See also Allin Cottrell’s more strident piece at Word Processors: Stupid and Inefficient.)

Plain text files can be created and opened on virtually any computer, and hence present almost no technical difficulties when large numbers of students submit term work in electronic form. But the main reason for my strong preference is that I prefer to separate as thoroughly as possible the task of writing from the task of producing a typeset or formatted document. This is important because writing itself (especially philosophical writing), for me at least, is simply not easy work. Word processors invite their users to be distracted by the hazards of fiddling and playing around with how the document one is writing will ultimately look at the very same time one is trying to focus on what to write.

Producing Plain Text Files

Plain text files can be produced:

  • with any word processor (e.g., MS-Word or Open Office).
  • with a text editor (e.g., Notepad—or one of the two main open source (and free) editors: Vim (my favorite!) or Emacs)

(Other text editors are available, for desktop PCs as well as iPads and other tablets, that promote distraction free writing. See this article for a short list of such programs, and also this article. If you are a Mac or iPad user, check out iA Writer.)

Regardless of the editor you use, however, since in plain text the only characters available are those of a standard (QWERTY) keyboard, all formatting must be done with just the letters and characters of that you see on your keyboard (just like a typewriter).

If you generate your text in a word-processor (first option above), be sure to save the final draft of your document as “text only” (or plain text or ASCII text). This is usually done by selecting:

File–>Save As

and then under “File Type”, select “Text only” or closest equivalent.

What follows are some simple formatting instructions which should provide all of the formatting that is usually needed for editorials and term papers.

  1. Paragraphs. Block format (i.e., put a blank line between) all paragraphs (rather than just indenting the first line).
  2. Long quotations (i.e., paragraphs). Block format as a single paragraph with quotations marks at the start and the end. (These can also have their margins inset, if it is easy for your editor to do this.)
  3. Footnotes. Enter these either right in the text itself[FOOTNOTE: Here is an example.] or as endnotes.[1]
  4. Show emphasis italics either IN UPPER CASE or by surrounding the text with asterisk (splat) characters *like this*.
  5. Show titles and headings with a line of “-” or “=” or “+” characters underneath the text of the title or header.
  6. If you can, use straight quotes (’ and “) rather than”smart" quotation marks. (If you don’t know what this means or how to do it, don’t worry about it.)

That’s it! Following these simple guidelines should allow you to focus more closely on the substantive content of your work, something that matters much more to me than how it looks.


This is a Heading/Title

This is a Subheading

This is a very short paragraph.

And this is another paragraph, block formatted with a blank line
between the two paragraphs (i.e., two returns).  Notice that
a paragraph never has an indentation at the start of the
first line.

    This is an example of a long quotation which should be inset
    by about three spaces at the beginning of each line.  This
    looks like an inset paragraph quotation in most articles and
    books.  This is hard to do in most word-processors; very easy
    for most text editors.
"This is another way to signify a long quotation by putting
simple quotation marks at the beginning and end of the entire
paragraph. In a word processor this is easier to do than the
above example of a long quotation." 

This is a sentence with a footnote reference after it.[1] A
footnote will appear at the end of the text which will present
the text of the footnote.[2]

...last paragraph...


[1] This is the text for the above footnote. And this is
*emphasized or italicized text.*

[2] Another footnote.

Works Consulted

VanDeVeer, D. and Christine Pierce. *The Environmental Ethics
& Policy Book*.  Wadsworth, 2003 (3rd ed).

Taylor, Paul. "The Ethics of Respect for Nature,"
*Environmental Ethics*, vol. 3 (1981) pp. 197-218.

A Technical Note (and Acknowledgment)

Some of the plain text formatting techniques noted above are part of the simple, but powerful, text markup language called markdown that was designed by John Gruber and Aaron Swartz.

If a document is properly marked up in markdown, it is usually quite presentable completely as it is. Conversion programs are widely (and freely) available, however, which will allow you to convert a markdown document easily into HTML, RTF (for use in MS-Word and related word processors), and other formats. (John MacFarlane’s Pandoc is an good example of this.) Also, some distraction free editors—iA Writer, for example—use markdown as the data entry markup, and can export the plain markdown text into either RTF or HTML.