Plain Text Story Format

So, I have thing with file formats. Call it a rocky past, if you will. Lately I have been, as much as possible, using plain text files for my writing.

(I still use Excel for Excel things because plain text spreadsheets aren’t really a thing–which is a shame. But I do use plain text for my to-do list, which is turning out well.)

I use a format called Markdown, which I’ve rambled about before, but I wanted to post about how I organize a file overall.

The nice thing about this format is this will work in any program–Word to plain text–as it is just a manner of organization. Now to be clear, this is primarily my working file, and while you can use this as a final with some tweaks (for a later post), for now think of this as what you are using to draft.

The layout is simple, really. I put the infonotes at the top, break, and the story, with a slight tail of word storage at the end. A blank layout would look like this:

Title: (title here)
Author: (my name)








To use this, all you would need do is copy/paste that into a fresh document. These headings (which I usually format as Heading 1 just for visual effect), provide a skeleton to the file, and some guidance to the chaos that usually filled my stories.

The To-do section is as it sounds. I’ll make a list of items for the future. If I am feeling proper, I’ll use todo.txt formatting. I’ll mark done items with an “X” in front

# To do 

- change main character’s name
- move the setting from Mars to London
- look up fashion from 1870’s @library
X read about Inuit and Aleut +mythology

I use the same formatting both for the Characters and Locations sections: a Heading 2 style for the name of the character / place, and then followed by a description (or important details)

# Characters

## Victor Frankenstein

Smart guy, but kind of a jerk. He knows what he wants, and isn’t afraid to go get it. Love interest of main character. 

Blue eyes, tall, hiding a bald spot. 

## Jean Renee 

Lone wolf type character, she is traveling but won’t say to where (Stockholm). carries a blade in her umbrella. (or really an umbrella on her blade.)

likes crepes

# Locations

## Victor’s House

London, 85 Baker street. There is an exit out the side only he knows about, and a secret basement he doesn’t

## Warf

Three pubs, Ego Alley, Jones’ and The Lost Lady

For characters, you can set them up in groups. I had a military story, for example, and had them sectioned off by fire squad and rank to keep the names straight. Have ships? group them based on who is on what boat.

Locations, same idea–organize by city, then location; by planet, then continent; chronologically by when they come up in the story. However you want.

Notes is free form for a reason: sometimes you need free form. I’ll usually try to space them out by headings or white space, but overall, anything goes here.

Story is just that. Write here like you always do.

Archive is for things I wrote which, naturally, are brilliant, but for whatever reason don’t fit into the story. This is an archive of deleted sentences and paragraphs I want to keep, but not be a part of the published text.

And that’s it.

This structure allows me to have the spread of information I want. I can open a file and world build, or I can write away, knowing that I can keep things that don’t work as well.

The best part? This isn’t a program. So if something isn’t working, it is easily adjusted. For example, you are writing a short story, set in a single location, BUT the main character is a chef, so you have to keep recipes handy? Scratch ‘Location’ and ‘Recipes’ it is. Change things to work for you.

Now some may say, isn’t this what Scrivener does? Why not just use that? And yes, there are similarities in ideas. I do own Scrivener, and while I love it, not everything I write fits into its scope. Scrivener is a big app, and offers a lot of functionality, and sometimes you just need a single file.

This text file I can store in my dropbox and work on anywhere–on my phone, my computer. It is small, light, easy to read and future proof and completely customizable. I don’t have to fight a program to get something I want, just change a header.

And then get back to writing.

Byword App

I’ve been a fan of Byword for quite some time. At first, I rejected the idea of plain text as a viable format to use for writing. This, now, I blame largely on the programs that deal with plain text files.

Notepad is perfectly serviceable, and I have written many a website on it, but for fiction, it leaves something to be desired–presentation.

And it is this that Byword excels on. Byword is a markdown editor, which is a text editor that used Markdown syntax. It is also distraction free. For example, right now my entire screen is just a blank canvas with words, and a small stat menu at the bottom which updates with the umber of words and characters.

When you are writing, very rarely do we need to format. Primarily we are dealing with two basic items: paragraph breaks and italics. For Markdown, italics are created with astericks. This means that this is now this. And, even in plain text files paragraph breaks work about the same.

You can set the veiwable font anyway you want, which is a part of the presenation. And from there, you can write.

Add in a new feature which allows for blog posting, and here I am, writing this post on my computer in ByWord. Now, why would I want to do that? Mostly, I find it easier to write these things up outside of WordPress. It lets me wander away if I want, and work on it later.

It also gives me an offline version of my blog. I have a folder with txt files from my posts, there, safe, should anything happen to the server.

ByWord lets me just work, rather than allowing me to get in the formatting parts. And, let’s be honest, formatting is, for the most part, the job of the publisher. Even if that is you, now is not when you should be doing it.

Plain text is nice and clean, but when you need it, ByWord will export to docx, rtf or PDF for you. There are other apps, such as Marked 2 (which I also recommend), which will help with formatting and exporting.

But I need…!!!

Of course. There are always needs, and just as Word cannot be replaced by Scrivener, or WordPress, Byword is a tool that has its place in your workflow. For most, it will sit with first drafts and writing practice. But you could use it for the whole thing, too.

Markdown, File formats and a new way of working

I have grumbled, if you will, in the past about my workflow. Specifically my concerns have been with file formats, having almost lost my entire back log due to outdated file types.

After that I changed to RTF, using that as my primary file container. It worked, and aside from annoyances on my computer, I had no issues… UNTIL I wanted to edit them on my phone. Apparently RTF cannot be edited on a mobile device easily.

Recently I’ve made a new switch. This time I have switched to Markdown. What is markdown? Well, what it is not is a new file format. It is a way of writing that stores the basic formatting needs inside of a text file.

For example: if i wanted to make something italic, I simply surround it in asterisks, such as *this* (which turns into this). Similarly, bolding is two asterisks, like **so** (and so)

And some other things too, such as links and images. An advanced form called MultiMarkDown includes tables and footnotes. All of this is stored in a simple TXT file.

Why is that important? Because I can edit a TXT file anywhere. My workflow has now freed itself of the specific program I am using, and allows me to use any and all of my devices for writing and editing. Also the files are small, just in case that was a concern.

So, how? I’ll not go through everything, but let’s touch on some of the big points.


Dropbox is my cornerstone, at this point, and I am not sure how I managed without it. (Mostly I used zip disks and thumb drives, actually, but you know what I mean…)

All my writing goes here. It is backed up online, on all of my devices, accessible on my phone.


ByWord is the app that started all this mess. It is a distraction free writer app, first for the iPhone / iPad, and then later came out with a Mac edition. It uses Markdown for formatting, and provides a clean, simple way of writing. Files are saved as .txt files in dropbox and boom, available everywhere.

And, since they are TXT, using them doesn’t eat into my monthly bandwidth on my phone.

I use it to write, take notes and edit on my phone and computer seamlessly.


DayOne is my journal. This was another app offered up by Apple promotions that I grabbed. At first, I simply played with it… but then!

What is it? It is a journalling app. Not a note app, though you can certainly use it that way too. Rather it is designed to put in entries based on a calendar.

For my, I used it most at first by simply logging the events of my day at the end. Sometimes with pictures. Then I started taking memorable pictures I wanted more context with and adding them.

Journalling each day is good for us as writers, and I found myself using it more and more, adding in little notes for ideas and such, eventually deciding to use it for blog entries as well.

DayOne uses XML as its base file format, but the formatting is still MarkDown. XML is still text based, so you can get in there should DayOne go away.

Other Markdown

I use markdown now in my WordPress blog, making it easier to go from DayOne, or ByWord to post (like I did with this post, DayOne -> WordPress). I have fallen for AirMail, a Mac email client that too uses Markdown as an option, allowing me to format emails quickly and nicely. I’ve added Write App to my tool box, because it allows for easier navigation of multiple files.

I’ve even started a CMS (content management system) that allows straight markdown files to be used for content, instead of a database (why? because I am a geek, that’s why)

So give it a shot, this Markdown tutorial let’s you play with syntax! Later, I’ll write up how I use these tools for my specific workflow.