Living in Plain Text

After spending the last couple of years using Apple Notes to organize my life outside of my task manager, I’ve decided to move back to using plain text files again. Nothing really terrible happened in Apple Notes, but I did experience a few sync issues over the years. I wasn’t actually planning to do this, I was looking for a good markdown editor and found iA Writer. After using it for a few days I thought this would be great for organizing my life in plain text documents.

There are many reasons I’ve decided to use plain text:

  1. Plain ASCII text files should be future proof.
  2. They are small and easy to sync.
  3. There are great tools like IA Writer for organizing and managing these files.
  4. It is easy to change the software to read/write the files. If IA Writer goes away or is superseded by something better, I can easily switch tools.
  5. I don’t want my information trapped in a proprietary format, such as Apple Notes, which is what I was using before.
  6. Markdown is the perfect lightweight formatting that keeps the files small, but still allows for some structure.

One of the cool things about iA Writer is that it supports a hashtag system. So I’ve been tagging my notes which is a better and more flexible way of organizing notes. I just have 2 folders now, Reference, Archive and the main folder of active notes. Once a week I’ll review the active notes and move the ones that are done to the Archive folder.

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IA Writer is a really good app, and its inclusion of hashtags is useful. I own both the Mac and iOS apps… but I don’t use them much because I just chafe at the ‘opinionated’ font restrictions and the stark look of the themes. On the Mac I prefer the flexibility of a different font, an off-white background, and a little color so for pure text I still use BBEdit (which I’ve used for over a decade), which even in its free version is limitlessly customizable. Otherwise I use Ulysses, with a shout-out to the occasionally used Highland 2.

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@jcarucci, I should probably know this but can this be done using Drafts? I already have the non-subscription version. I try to keep my app selection to a minimum when I can. Thanks.

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I like your thinking, and use plain text files and Markdown for as much as possible for all of the same reasons you list.

In my case, I went a bit further, and extended the Markdown metadata syntax a bit, so that my notes can have any number of additional fields added to them. I also wrote my own app, Notenik, to leverage this extended format. Notenik is mostly a labor of love, and something that I wrote for myself, but it is free and open-source and available from the Mac App Store, should you or others wish to take it for a spin. It’s still in active development, so happy to hear about any rough edges you might encounter, or any enhancement requests you might come up with.

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I don’t think Drafts is really meant for long term storage. I just looked at the iCloud folder for Drafts, and the files aren’t individual plain text files. Looks like some kind of database, but I’m not sure. I personally use drafts for its original stated purpose, where text begins. But nothing lives there beyond a few days.

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Thanks, that is also how I have been using it. I’m trying to figure out if I want to keep using Apple Notes. I like the application but my primary reason for using it is for handwritten notes, which I primarily use for conducting interviews–otherwise, notes are typed. I like using plain text with Markdown for my notes but I need a cross platform solution for Apple Devices. I like iAWriter so I can certainly consider it. My only real quandary is what to do with handwritten interview notes IF/WHEN I decide I need them. Here is the scenario:

  • Apple Note has name, position and the interview questions typed at the top.
  • PDF version of Resume attached for reference
  • Handwritten notes of my interview

Ideally, I’d like a way to connect a PDF of my handwritten notes to the plain text note file. Any ideas on how this might be done?

I’m also consolidating my writing (notes, lists, longer things) in plain text files, in order to consolidate my workflow more than my apps.

Plain text has different advantages for me, like storing files in different locations that may have different requirements (security and privacy mainly: work stuff is synced encrypted, shopping lists or non-sensitive personal data in general lives in icloud and so on) and keeping different context separated (e.g. work and personal) or not (all the personal notes are in the same folder tagged for different sub-contexts).

Apps like iA Writer allow this sort of hybrid structure: i can “pin” different folders and work with tags at the same time.

For editing I use mainly the aforementioned iA Writer and BBEdit.

Right now I have two friction points in this workflow:

  • Drafts, which I have been using for years, and has become muscle memory but am thinking to keep only as a text starting point; right now I have set up different workspaces both for different things and to store notes, but i feel it is a unnecessary duplication.

  • outlining: I’m an outline person, and would like to outline in plain text, but have not found the right tool for it. Right now I’m playing with emacs and org-mode, but the learning curve is steep, and there is some friction in learning and using another markup language, but it’s really powerful.

I’ve been doing plain text for years but am thinking of going to RTF for my journal (which I just started doing as a daily practice 8 days ago). Seems like RTF is as futureproof as plain text and gets you other advantages as well, such as formatting and embedding images.

Still doing plain text for now though.

Why not use markdown?

Taskpaper works great as a plain text outliner.

I also used to use it a lot it to start presentations using the scripts here:

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Yep I own it, bought a long time ago.

Pretty cool scripts :smiley:

I don’t use it because it does not handle well (for me at least) big blocks of text (well pure text in general).

It’s a great app, anyway.

I’m trying to get there. 1Writer On iOS and The Archive in Mac. I play with the nvultra beta as well.
Would like to add iawriter to the mix, but it only works smoothly on iCloud Drive on iOS.

I have my text files indexed by DEVONthink and mounted as an external folder in Ulysses. The Ulysses thing hasn’t been helpful yet, but I like the idea of being able to search DEVONthink for everything I have.

Obstacles:

  • Things is to my Omnifocus : Bear is to my plain text.
  • I like ulysses.
  • Images. Do I need them?
  • I don’t know scripting

1Writer sems to be a terrific iOS app. Two writers I know use it as their main writing app on iPad; one migrated to it from Editorial when development/support for that app stalled.

I really feel hamstrung by the high-contrast look and severely limited font choice in IA Writer. It’s okay for me for under 500 words but my eyes get itchy when I try using it more or for longer pieces. But then, I am so sensitive to font choice I alter the fonts in sites I regularly visit (including this one) changing them via browser extension. For example, this is what this site looks like when I read it, using Lucida Grande for the main text and a bolded monospace for lists, and a slightly off-white background:

Markdown has a link syntax, but it is usually to urls. I don’t know if you can use it to link to a local file, but give it a try, I’d like to know how to do that too.

I use DevonThink, which has a Markdown editor that does not suit me. It’s just plain text — no syntax highlighting.

I like WYSIWYG document, not modal editing.

I’m not sure Markdown will be supported in 10-25 years, any more than RTF.

All that said … yeah, currently I’m using Markdown.

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Huh, I haven’t thought of markdown as modal editing before. I guess in a way it is, but it isn’t as modal as a tool like Vi for example. In markdown you keep typing the formatting as you go, the only mode is looking at the preview.

Markdown modality isn’t a big deal if a Markdown editor does syntax highlighting. DevonThink doesn’t.

After some experimentation I discovered that one CAN add handwritten notes and active links in iAWriter. I was able to write a test note in Apple Notes and then copy/paste it into an iAWriter note. I was also able to create an Google Doc sharing link as an active link in iAWriter, which opens the PDF in Google Drive. I was able to do the same thing with a link to an Apple Note. I was also able to export the iAWriter note to Word and the link was preserved as well as the handwritten note image. This was easy to do but required a few extra steps. Adding an image of the handwritten note also adds extra files to iCloud under iAWriter.

See the attached screenshots.

What I need to decide is are these extra steps worthwhile in order to use plain text exclusively for my notes? As I see it, the advantage is that plain text is app agnostic and can easily be shared and opened in nearly any app. and of course markdown is available. Apple Notes on the other hand requires an export as a PDF or a tedious copy/paste of each note’s content to get the content out.

Any thoughts on this matter? Is going plain text exclusively worth the few extra steps (only required when I want to include handwritten notes from Apple Notes)?

Very nice!

Can you automate the “few additional steps”?

Man, I’d love to but I know virtually nothing about automation. I’d love help on that!