Plain Text is a Design Pattern

May 11, 2008 / E-mail clients would be improved by losing “formatting” features and gaining basic text editing tools.

The weakest feature in most e-mail clients is their set of text manipulation tools: Outlook, Thunderbird, and Eudora (not to mention any webmail client) all provide substandard options for working with plain text. But where e-mail clients fall down is where a good text editor really shines. My favourite is TextWrangler.

When writing e-mail I need it to be succinct, structured and relatively comprehensible when read out of the context of a discussion thread. I don’t want my document to look like the page of a journal or novel, or to have subtle formatting variations such as italics or indents. I want well-structured, basic content in plain text.

John Gruber has a great article about the problem of top-posting: quoting the entire message and replying above it. A more readerly approach is to excerpt relevant parts of the message (and even then, only if necessary), and to reply below. This creates e-mail messages that are meaningful long after the fact, and better concentrates keywords for later retrieval.

So although I use Outlook at work (my organisation moved to Exchange server last fall), I compose all but the simplest messages in TextWrangler and then copy and paste the text. Cleaning up messages is simple. TextWrangler’s recording function is sweet and easy to use. I quote a selection with a few keystrokes based on the following script:

tell application "TextWrangler"
    strip quotes selection of text window 1
    remove line breaks selection of text window 1
    increment quote level selection of text window 1 quote string
        "> "
    rewrap quoted text selection of text window 1 width 65
        indentation none with paragraph fill and relative
end tell

I use the same script when composing messages for webmail. This probably seems like a huge amount of work to most people. It is work, but not “huge,” and certainly worth it. The biggest difference it makes to the work of communicating by e-mail is that it saves the reader time (whether that is the person I’m replying to, or me at a later time). This is important for anyone who deals with a lot of e-mail, and especially when collaborating on projects.

The reason it’s so efficient is that plain text is a design pattern: a familiar method of text presentation with little variation across implementations. When your e-mail client renders a message in plain text you don’t need to spend much time adjusting to the typeface, the type size or weight, the line height, the line length, any first-line indentation, non-standard colours, or paragraph alignment—because they are the same every time. The amount of idiosyncratic presentation controlled by the message author is dramatically reduced because when you’re writing in plain text you don’t have many options: line breaks are about it.

Succinct, bottom-posted, plain text messages will, to most recipients, display the same way every time, will wrap nicely to the width of their message display window, and—if they’re stored in a database—will mostly likely come out of it looking the same as when they went in.

Update: Searches appearing in my referrer logs jogged my memory of short, sweet and a nice corollary to the plain text argument.

Update 2: See also: “How to respond to email messages that contain multiple questions” by Roger Johansson.

† Using Synergy to copy between machines.

2 responses

  1. Elena

    Okay so I am finally starting to understand why you do that. Can somebody make a mail client that works just like TextWrangler so you can have that kind of functionality without all the copy and pasting Barry? Oh wait, that’s kind of like going back to the old way of reading email when we used to use Pine or vi or whatever and a lot of people just couldn’t use email because they couldn’t understand it (or even execute a simple series of steps that they didn’t have to understand, they just had to do). So now we’ve progressed so far that all those people can use The Email and they can even use The Photoshop, but people like us (well, you) have to cut and paste like maniacs? Is this the world that the technologists (we?) have created, one where we can’t even use tools that work perfectly well, because the organization doesn’t think that’s important, but our bosses can color-code and highlight the very detailed lists of tasks they email us?

    July 15th, 2008 at 11:40 am #

  2. Adrian

    Can somebody make a mail client that works just like TextWrangler so you can have that kind of functionality without all the copy and pasting Barry?

    Nice timing! Scott Bynum told me this morning that you can compose mail in TextMate and send it to Turns out TextMate can be made to work as an external editor for Mail in OS X 10.4+ and you can switch quickly between them using key commands.[1] One thing though: it works using an input manager hack, meaning that it uses a process that was intended for one thing to accomplish something else.[2] So this functionality is not supported by Apple and the developer cannot provide the normal assurances.


    July 15th, 2008 at 5:36 pm #

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