practicum: plain text notes and handouts

A recently sent some tips to a colleague about using plain text for typing up everything from lecture notes to seminar handouts to dissertations, and I thought it would be wise to re-post some of those tips here for other academics. While some of this advice will sound very techy—and admittedly, it is to a certain degree—it may be helpful for you if you share my frustration with Microsoft Word. Bearing that techno-disclaimer in mind, I write the following advice from the perspective of a humanist whose primary task is writing prose efficiently, whether for myself or others.

  • In my last two years of graduate school, I made a habit of writing all my teaching notes in plain text—that is, in a .txt file without any formatting. You can make such a .txt file by typing something up in Windows Notepad or NotePad++ instead of, say, MS Word or Apple’s Pages. Perhaps the most significant advantage of using plain text files is that any device can reliably read and edit them: your new laptop, the clunky desktop next to your department’s printer, your phone, your parents’ dusty Bondi Blue iMac. In New York, for example, it was very useful to be able to review and revise teaching notes on my phone whether on the subway, in the park, or waiting in line at the supermarket. This kind of portability is not possible with PDFs or even Word files.1

  • While your phone can handle .txt files much better than it can handle, say, a .doc or PDF, there will come a time when you’d like to distribute a document in a format more handsome than the Courier New typeface allows. That is, you’ll want to share files as Word files or PDFs. To help you here, you’ll want to download Pandoc, an incredibly useful piece of software written by John MacFarlane of Berkeley’s Philosophy Department. This software lets you convert pretty much any document type (text, Word, ePub, HTML, you name it) to pretty much any other document type.

  • Converting your .txt file to a Word document (for example) is straightforward. Open Terminal/PowerShell, move to the folder where you saved your .txt file, and run the following command:2

pandoc YourDocument.txt -o DocumentOutput.docx
  • And you’re done! You should have a Word Document version of your original text file in the same folder.

  • A little bit of computer sorcery in these next tips, but: I love using LaTeX, a piece of software that produces beautiful academic documents even when faced with complex citations, strange typefaces (like Polytonic Greek), or mathematical formulas. If you’re familiar with LaTeX and already have it installed on your system, you can use Pandoc to create very nice PDFs quickly from your plain text files. For example, I produced this PDF of paper-writing guidelines for undergraduates from a plain text file with the help of Pandoc.

  • The section headers and footnotes in the above PDF were formatted with Pandoc’s extension of Markdown. Even if you are making a Word Document or HTML file instead of a PDF, Markdown is helpful for formatting your text with bold or italic characters (for example) using only the text editor on your phone or old computer.

  • To convert my text file of paper-writing tips into the PDF linked above, I include the following specifications at the top of my text file (including triple-dashes)…3

---
title: How to Write a Paper for Contemporary Civilization
author: Charles J. McNamara, Columbia University, cm@charlesmcnamara.com
date: July 2016
geometry: margin=1in
mainfont: Linux Libertine O
---

… and then run the following command:4

pandoc document.md --latex-engine=xelatex -o document.pdf
  • This is as complicated as I let things get for my own work. Again, the point is to facilitate writing and reviewing prose, whether notes or handouts, with whatever technology you have on hand. For more information on writing full academic articles with Pandoc and tweaking the appearance of your documents, see Kieran Healy’s extensive documentation at http://plain-text.co/.

  1. It’s helpful to keep these text files in Dropbox or some other cloud storage folder so that you can access them from anywhere. 
  2. The “-o” stands for “output,” and when you end the “DocumentOutput.docx” filename with .docx, pandoc automatically knows to make a Word Document. If you were to use “-o DocumentOutput.html” instead, pandoc would know to make an HTML file. Pandoc’s website has a detailed manual about the various options you can use. 
  3. The header here just passes arguments and variables to LaTeX. By including “geometry: margin=1in” you can force LaTeX to use the whole page. The title/author/date variables are responsible for the document header seen on the first page of the PDF. 
  4. I use the .md extension is for Markdown files, and any device (Grandma’s computer, your phone) that can read text files will be able to read Markdown files, too. –latex-engine=xelatex is important for rendering certain fonts (e.g., Polytonic Greek). I almost always use the Linux Libertine font (which you can read about on my Resources page).