Tommy Twardzik

On Writing Simply

Green Remington typewriter with black keys.

I wrote this piece on a combination of 1) a MacBook Pro (late–2012) and 2) an iPad Pro (3rd Gen) using a combination of:

  1. HelloEdit
  2. iA Writer
  3. Apple Notes
  4. and more…

I discovered HelloEdit via a post on, the very site which, it turns out, inspired the creation of this tool with an article eight years ago. 1

I’ve never used Word 5.1 or AppleWorks. The earliest memory of writing I have is on the family’s blue iMac when I was five or six or seven.

I must have been using the Microsoft Word of the early 2000s or an equivalent program–I remember its overwhelming (to a six-year-old) toolset, its rows of toolbars and tiny icons–because the thing that sticks with this memory is that I printed the story out on one piece of paper, front and back, in landscape orientation.

And I printed it in blue font.

I have no idea why, any of this. I also manually shaped the text on the page (using the Return key–the only way I knew how) to leave the bottom-right quarter of the page blank. In that space, I hand-illustrated the story’s first scene with crayons.

That was my first published work.

Discovering HelloEdit and reading about the simple origins of text-editing to which it pays homage has led me to realize something, in retrospect. I had never understood plain text writing until I started writing on an iPad.

Plain Text

“They [word processors] started trying to help—and helping a writer while he or she is writing is impossible.” 2

I suppose TextEdit and Notepad and Apple Notes and the deceased Plain Text on iOS were my first experiences with pure-text editing. However, the revelation came when I downloaded iA Writer on my iPad. That was when I discovered Markdown.

I’d read Daring Fireball through its RSS feed but I’d never visited the website long enough to notice John Gruber’s Markdown project. It’s the gilding for the kind of plain text writing I’d been doing in short bursts in the Notes app or TextEdit, rendered with simple, clear formatting.

Markdown is the cure for my incessant urge to format and reformat text more than I write it. It’s incredibly productive. And I enjoy the uniform beauty of watching my progress as I build a sturdy stack of paragraph blocks. Markdown makes plain text beautiful, which makes writing at length in plain text truly pleasant.

I’ve grown to like using fixed-width fonts (to which I was turned on by iA Writer, mainly), especially. Full justification is ugly. But rectangular chunks of fixed-width text make me feel accomplished—like I’ve stacked heavy weights at the gym or built a physical object with tools and sweat.

That old quote about writing being as simple as sitting over a typewriter to bleed? Writing in a word processor feels more like sitting down at a table scattered with various styles of paper, pens, pencils and erasers and having to sort through it all to choose the right combination.

Plain text writing, on the other hand, feels like an empty desk with a pen and a notebook. Or a manual typewriter. Instead of clicking past a template selection window to tinker with line spacing and the right serif or sans-serif font, I can get to work.

A word processor is called a word processor, after all. It’s better as a tool for processing text: editing, formatting, exporting, publishing.

Plain text is the writing tool.

And as a place for writing, it’s less intimidating than a document in a word processor, too. There, you’re faced with a blank page, that imposing monolithic wall in your face. That romanticized foe. Maybe it’s allowed too much power, but it has an effect on me like an unfamiliar darkness. Even with the knowledge that scary movies are just movies and that ghosts aren’t real, the right combination of sleeplessness, cloud cover and unknown noises can put the hairs up on the back of my neck and quicken my breath.

The fixed blank page is intimidating. It has a length and width and it begins empty, a sign of the work ahead.

Whereas the plain text editor is an empty creative space without size or shape. A TextEdit window is infinitely resizable and adapts without argument to different window shapes. It’s an endless scroll that doesn’t expect any amount of work. It allows you to write your thoughts with as much concision or flourish as you want, and then export without judgment.

If I’m exporting plain text to a page-based format, I’m often surprised by the number of pages I’ve written. But regardless of its final form, I feel satisfied knowing that the text I’ve written is just as long as it needs to be.


School writing, you’ll probably remember, is all about the page count. 3 Your brain in high school:

Keep those paragraphs trim and cut them at the very start of the fourth or fifth line of each one to get the most out of the next paragraph’s line break–more white space equals fewer words and fewer words equal less work. Don’t break a paragraph too close to the bottom of the page or that pesky word processor will bend the rules and fit it all into the margin.

But writing writing–it’s not about page count. It’s not about counting at all. Writing is about saying what you need to say in the way that best says it. Regardless of length, shape or line height. Plain text lets you do the essential writing with the bare minimum “help”.

It also gives you the flexibility to continue the work elsewhere, when a more complex or specific environment suits it. Plain text is the tool that you can take with you anywhere.

iA Writer and other plain text editors–the incredible Drafts, for example–provide powerful exporting options. These apps recognize that they are, by definition, merely the starting places for the work. When the writing is finished, the words move on to their destinations: to word processors, to email clients, to HTML files.

The great achievement of the writer is to have written. No matter the allure of publication or recognition, the writer’s ultimate triumph and highest joy comes from the completion of the writing. When it is finished, it is finished. The word processor blinks at an unfortunate, oddly-shaped, two-fifths full final page. The plain text editor does not judge but presents the completed structure of words, ready for what’s next.

  1. HelloEdit revealed itself to me at just the right time: my job had recently "upgraded" me from my personal MacBook Pro to a one-year-newer company MBP that had none of my well-oiled workflows or favorite apps. (But it has that extra click in the trackpad for whatever that’s for!) // Suddenly, instead of writing in iA Writer and exporting, I had Word 2011 (2011!). That’s a good way to kill a writer’s productivity for a few days while they search for alternatives. So I’m quite thankful for HelloEdit’s perfect simplicity and that I don’t have to download anything or sign up to use it. ⤴️
  1. ⤴️
  1. Page counts are an artifact of the past, like word counts for print magazines or writing a “column”. Teachers, please: we understand the need for some kind of metric that requires reluctant students to write more than a few sentences. But do the right thing and teach students to expand their pieces by asking more questions, not by fluffing up the easy answers. (Teaching is difficult, and teachers are due much respect. But for much of my childhood, even the good English teachers failed to teach most of us to write more by engaging more deeply with the subject.) ⤴️
Tagged with: