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The Art of Plain Text

April 20th, 2015

As noted in RFC2223[1], many users read

    documents online and use various text oriented tools
    (e.g., emacs, grep) to search them.  Often, brief
    excerpts [...] are included in e-mail.

That is, even though many user interfaces nowadays may well
support more "advanced" formatting, ASCII text remains the
universal interface[2].

Plain text is portable, flexible, light-weight, and doesn't
require any special tools to generate; it looks the same on
different platforms, lends itself to trivial processing or
quoting, yet allows you to present even complex ideas in a
manner that lets users quickly and easily absorb them.

Plain text thankfully puts away with distractions, but being
able to create text documents that are easy to read is a
subtle skill, all too often lost on those who grew up with
HTML emails, online forums, and wiki pages.

Below are some recommendations on how to craft your text:


The two most important ways to make your text easy to read
are a short line-length and the copious use of paragraphs.
Viewing a single large block of run-away text with no line
breaks immediately puts stress on the reader, as absorbing
the information provided therein requires a high degree of
concentration and eye movement.

Text without line breaks may also be presented to the user
as a single line of text, possibly requiring horizontal
scrolling.  End your lines at between 60 and 75 characters,
or so.  (There's a reason[3] that newspapers and magazines
do not use the whole width of their page and instead create
much shorter columns.)

Breaking up your text into smaller paragraphs similarly
helps the reader relax and facilitates reading
comprehension, speed, and ease.  Write the text as you would
read it out aloud, with paragraphs allowing the reader to
catch their breath for a second.

(Since plain text is often represented using fixed-width
fonts, using two spaces after a period, as inserted by
troff(1), still makes sense.)

If you are writing a longer technical document, you can
further structure it using headlines, numbered sections,
subsections etc. using different ways to underline or
emphasize the section titles.  Similarly, you can use
itemization, bulleted or numbered lists, or indentation to
make your text easy to read.

Use short sentences, even (and especially) if you're German.
Just like one single block of text is hard to read, so are
never ending sentences with multiple conditionals and
subclauses.  You are not writing Molly Bloom's Soliloquy.

Use proper punctuation.  A period will almost always
suffice; semicolons may be used as needed, but exclamation
points are rarely called for!  (And please, do use a
question mark at the end of a question.  "Can you send me
those TPS reports." is a clear sign of psychopathy.)

Use only plain ASCII text.  You don't know how the text will
be processed or what systems will be used to display it.
The lowest common denominator -- i.e. ASCII -- will do just
fine.  Use a simple text editor.

Resist the temptation to use images.  If you are unable to
distill the concepts or thoughts into language, then you
have likely not fully understood the problem.  Use
illustrations as supplementary, not instead of information.


That's it.  You should find that you soon will spend a lot
more time on defining your thoughts and putting the
important information forward rather than fiddling with font
faces, sizes and colors.

And remember, if it's good enough for RFCs, the standards
used to define the internet and just about everything
running on it, then it's quite likely to be good enough for
you.


[1] http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2223
[2] http://www.faqs.org/docs/artu/ch01s06.html
[3] http://www.humanfactors.com/newsletters/optimal_line_length.asp

April 20th, 2015


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