Plain truth

Prose needn’t be deathless to survive.


I still have stuff I wrote fifty years ago.

It’s not any good, mind you, but I have it.

Whether we’re talking about an op-ed I wrote in a school newspaper or a pitiful attempt my almost-fourteen-year-old self made at a novel in the ensuing summer of ’69, the now-dingy sheets of typing paper on which they exist have long since seen their better days, but I can read them again any time I want.

Will today’s kids be able to say that in 2069 about things they’re writing now? For that matter: will you be able to say it in 2029 about your current work?

Exaggeration? Perhaps. But think about it.

Reading your own writing?

Let’s say you still have a file from something you wrote in the early 1980s on the original, MS-DOS version of Microsoft Word1, introduced in 1983 and hailed at the time for how WYSIWYG it was.2

First of all, hats off on your diligence over the years, not to mention extraordinary defiance of the odds, in safely moving such files as storage realities evolved: from their original 5.25-inch floppy disks to 3.5-inch microfloppies to multiple hard drives on multiple computers (and perhaps a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM along the way), and finally to the probable safety of The Cloud.3 You should be out buying lottery tickets, or playing the slots in Las Vegas, instead of wasting your time reading this.

But, back to my point: what can you do with that 1980s Word .doc file today?

And I don’t even mean editing it. A file that old might be precious and you wouldn’t want to change it.

No, I mean: can you flat-out open it to read its contents?4 Well, for starters, you can’t open it in the current version of Word. Microsoft says so.

That version, and indeed every version going all the way back to Word 2003, can open only those .doc files originating from Word 97 and newer Word versions. At least, that’s true unless you do some geeky stuff with third-party file conversion utilities and, even then, nothing’s guaranteed, as some of the comments on that page suggest. Moreover, the continued existence and availability of many of those utilities and services depend on the good will of developers who typically are being paid little or nothing to maintain them (or, so I would gather from looking at one website after another that hasn’t been updated in years). Do you feel safe in counting on such capabilities for the long term? On the other hand, the ones in that list that aren’t free are, well, “additional purchases,” and that’s putting it gently.5

The point is: even if you can read that file with any version of Word since Word 2003, when Microsoft adopted the current .docx format, it ain’t gonna be easy.6 And you may not care for the results.

Hey, .doc, got a pain right here

In the 1980s and a good part of the 1990s, before Windows caught on in the workplace, the business word processing market had little resemblance to the Word-dominated landscape we’ve known since. Back when all the word processors ran under MS-DOS, it was a completely different ballgame.

Remember WordPerfect?7 Or WordStar?8 Or PFS:Write? Or even DisplayWrite?

Ah, nostalgia.

Ahem. Not really. I can’t say I liked any of them — and I freely confess that I have never actually used WordStar or even known anybody who did — but, back then, there at least was competition.

What changed? Simple. The first version of Windows that many offices considered worth their time, Windows 3.1, came out in 1992, and the non-Microsoft word processing applications just didn’t have suitable versions for it at the time. By the time they did, it was too late: Word for Windows, which had been around since well before Windows 3.1 and — obviously — had any number of baked-in Windows advantages the non-Microsoft competition couldn’t boast, had won the battlefield. (Another key factor was the adoption of suites, particularly Microsoft Office.)

With the loss of realistic competition, Microsoft dictated the format for word processing from there on. There have been four different versions of its .doc format, followed by the .docx format that has been standard since Word 2003 was introduced.9 And, the older a file is, the greater the likelihood that you won’t be able to read it now, except without difficulty.

So what? Well, we have no way of knowing that similar compatibility problems won’t crop up in the future with files that are perfectly readable now — at least, those that are in proprietary formats like Word’s10, not to mention the equally proprietary formats of those competitors it all but wiped off the map.

Now, let’s think about permanence.

First, let me tell you how I created those documents that I retain five decades after writing them.

The Royal treatment

One night in 1964, my father bought a 1940s-vintage Royal typewriter secondhand from some neighbors (it had been sitting unused in their garage), so my sister would have a typewriter on which to do her tenth-grade typing homework.

As far as I can remember, she rarely if ever used it for anything else, but nine-year-old me was agog. I was one of those kids who liked to write stuff all the time and would turn it in for my teacher to critique. It wasn’t for extra credit; I just wanted someone to read it. My writing jag started about midway through the third grade.

Now, with the hulking Royal typewriter in-house, I could write as long as I wanted11 without getting writer’s cramp, sweating on the paper12 as my hand wrote furiously above it, and suffering the other nuisances of trying to produce content with handwriting — especially lousy handwriting such as mine.

Even before my sister had finished with the typing class, she basically let me have the typewriter, perhaps sensing that I’d begun a lifelong love affair with punching out words from a keyboard.

An amazing number of the sheets that went through that typewriter, as well as those that followed it over the years until affordable computers became an option, still survive and are quite readable.

The same is not true for most of the things I wrote from the mid-1980s, on a variety of computers, until about fifteen years ago. That’s because I didn’t save them in formats that would still be readable today.

I wasn’t thinking about the future. I wasn’t thinking about permanence.

And that, brothers and sisters, brings me to the altar call of this particular sermon.

Plain and simple

The arc of my writing journey in recent years has taken me back to the very beginning: plain text, easily saved.

The difference now is that the plain text exists not as ink on paper but as bytes saved to solid-state drives and quadruple-archived on hard drives as well as online.13

Documents saved as plain text, even relatively long ago, are as readable today as they were at the beginning, and will be so for as long as we can imagine. They will survive operating system changes, file format changes, the rise and fall of vendors as well as attempts at lock-in by the more successful vendors, and all the other bugaboos that keep you from viewing files from the early 1990s and before — as if you’d never spent any time or energy creating them.

I refer to my “deathless prose” only with great sarcasm, and I assure you I don’t take it too seriously. That said, I would like to believe that, in my dotage, I’ll still be able to pull up my past writings and read them without difficulty. They may mean nothing to anyone else, but I cared enough at the time to type them, and I hope to keep revisiting them in the future, unencumbered by the issues that plague files that aren’t in plain text.

Bottom line . . .
if you care about saving your work for the future, save it in plain text.

But, you say: what about formatting? And what about sharing files with people who insist on receiving Word files?

Ah, yes. Well, this looks like a job for Markdown.

More on that in a future post.

  1. I could make it far more difficult by mentioning something like Scripsit, but let’s not. ↩︎

  2. The following year, with the introduction of the Mac, the world began to learn how real WYSIWYG should look; but the original Word was pretty cool for its time if you were stuck in MS-DOS. ↩︎

  3. Shameless plug: might want to see my most recent post↩︎

  4. Incidentally, just because it’s a .doc file and from the 1980s doesn’t guarantee it came from Microsoft Word, although .doc files did come to be commonly understood as Word files. For the sake of our example, we’re assuming this is a Word file. ↩︎

  5. Yep, first I chide you for depending on unpaid or underpaid developers for these capabilities, then I rip you for perhaps needing to pay a lot for them. However, neither is a great option, and that’s my real point when it comes to the reliability of accessing documents locked in old file formats. ↩︎

  6. Some third-party apps, notably LibreOffice and its forebear, OpenOffice, have been known to get to old DOS Word files, but — again — with headaches and, often, less-than-satisfactory results. For example, check out this forum discussion↩︎

  7. Before you say, “Hey, just a minute, bucko: WordPerfect is still around”: true, it is. But, in terms of market share, it’s a ghost of its former self; and God help its users if they can’t share files with Word. WordPerfect only barely exists, and in the dark shadow of the conqueror from Redmond. ↩︎

  8. I know, I know; George R. R. Martin and all that. But he’s not exactly your average word processing software user, now, is he? Hmm? ↩︎

  9. Here’s a handy list↩︎

  10. Think .docx is sufficiently open that we don’t have to worry about that? Think again↩︎

  11. Well, at least, I could write as long as I wanted within the limits of what my pudgy little fingers could stand to do on that Royal manual, although, through sheer repetition, I got pretty fast at it, eventually reaching over sixty words per minute despite being essentially a two-finger typist. ↩︎

  12. In the dark ages, even we folks south of the Mason-Dixon Line didn’t all have central air, y’know. ↩︎

  13. Ahem, again, a plug for my most recent post↩︎