Plain Text vs. Notes/writing apps

Hey everyone!

Where do you stand on the plain text lifestyle (NVAlt, nvUltra, 1writer, iAwriter, The Archive, etc…) vs. notes/writing apps that use an obscured database (apple notes, bear, ulysses)?

Asking for a … friend.


uh oh.

I’m worried for your friend, Kevin. We hold meetings over here twice a month:


Trouble is that … my friend … has yet to settle on one or the other and is living the … unintentionally distributed notes lifestyle.


Damned paradox of choice.

What’s your “friend” currently using? Why aren’t any of those options good enough to consolidate?

I am on DEVONthink, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. I index my working files so that they’re accessible on the filesystem, too. I do most of my real notetaking and writing on these files in iA Writer. I don’t use Drafts*, but instead have some shortcuts that start notes where I want them and can easily move those items around as necessary. I have some fun Hazel rules that turn - [ ] into tasks in my task manager of choice*. DEVONthink To Go, the iOS/iPadOS option, is getting sadder every day, but I have faith that v3 will eventually come out and be great.

The nice thing about this is that I get the benefits of a database and the convenience/long-term security of file-system plaintext notes simultaneously.

I am constantly tempted by Agenda. If the app was better at storing and indexing files, somehow, I might drop DT for it, but that would take a huge leap. The thing I like about using DT is that all my things are in the same place. It has some intelligence about similar files, wikilinking tools, and other features that I can take advantage of when writing notes.

*I’m actually experimenting with keeping my tasks as markdown files with particular formatting in DT. DT3’s custom metadata essentially allows you to build your own anything, so I’ve created “complete” and “completed on” metadata. It’s… actually working, and it’s nice to shirk the constraints of Things and OF. It doesn’t work well on mobile, though, and it’s incredible idiosyncratic at the moment, so it’s probably not for most people anyone but me. I do use Drafts to add tasks to my DEVONthink inbox easily these days, but not for anything else.

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Both systems can work well.

I moved towards plain text a while back, and it’s been working well enough that I let my Ulysses subscription expire. The main benefit is the ability to change client apps pretty seamlessly. Edit one file with iAWriter; edit another with 1Writer, and a third with Pretext. I’m not 100% reliant on any of those apps, and can try others (at least others that use the file system) as frequently or as infrequently as I like.


I love the idea of having everything in Devonthink. Though I don’t ever want to have to write in Devonthink. Not even short notes. That’s one of the reasons I’m tempted to move to plain text.

Though if I move to plain text, then I get into this weird tangle of text editors and the problem of what to do with captured images. Some apps don’t work with Dropbox, some apps don’t work with iCloud. Some of them keep images in the same folder as the text files, some of them have a separate folder for images. The Archive is great on Mac, but I struggle to really love using 1Writer. And any folder that isn’t located within 1writers iCloud folder doesn’t get the benefit of full text search. I really like iA Writer, but it doesn’t allow wiki-linking, which is one of the reasons that I would use the Archive, and it doesn’t work with Text Expander on iOS. It also doesn’t have an extension on iOS. Do I need one? I don’t know. Would I like one? Yes. Notebooks seems fine. But it also feels … stiff … in a way that turned me off.

I like Bear but it can feel like a toy. And I’m unsure about the long term trade-offs that I’m making for the sake of the cool features I can use in it now. I also like Ulysses. But would love to break the hold it has on my brain and leave it behind. It just feels very nice, like satin sheets, until I try to do anything beyond writing, when it feels difficult. The Wordpress integration is great. But it’s too slow to open on iOS to be a quick entry notes app, and it is increasingly difficult to get links to sheets. Apple Notes is functional but it rubs me the wrong way.

And I’ve got writing and notes scattered across all of these.

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I’m paradoxing of choicing too.
Settled on The Archive for zettelkasten notes on thoughts and reading.

Dabbling with org-mode in emacs for workflow notes and tasks. I’m using beorg to access some of these .org files on iOS/iPadOS.

If I had to choose just one forever, it would probably be Agenda.

Edit: Drafts or Reminders on my watch for quick notes when away from / can’t use other devices.


:shushing_face: I’m trying something similar (I think) in Scrivener and was JUST exploring DT to see the differences.

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I feel every word of this!


It took me a while, but I have taught myself to embrace Devonthink’s “Open with…” command. Usually I’m choosing BBEdit.


I’ve mostly been using Apple Notes for Notes, Drafts (free version) for long texts (or drafting texts to send at a later time), Ulysses for long-form writing, and EagleFiler for certain types of documents I want to save in specific ways on my Mac. When I need to massage text and TextSoap can’t easily handle it I’ll use the Grep functionality in BBEdit (free version) on the Mac.

I’ve got tens of thousands of text, html, .xls and pdf files in my Mac’s Documents folder, in many, many subfolders. Most of my files reside there, including final versions of documents created in apps like Ulysses.

I have IA Writer on Mac & iOS but haven’t used it much this year.

I’m pretty much on the plain text file bandwagon, with drafts as a point to start text (but I’m not sure it will last, waiting for nvultra).

I like the flexibility of txt file, that can be served to different editors without exporting or so.

Now the situation is complicated with the discovery of org-mode, thanks to @JohnAtl :stuck_out_tongue:


Wait, but what about your friend?!

Yeah, I’m with @beck. All of your questions and concerns are identical to mine.

Like @tonycraine I just use Open with... to jump into iA Writer. Or, because I’m indexing my files, iA Writer’s Locations point to the same files I see in DT (on both macOS and iOS). So I can just open iA Writer and they’re already there. (whine: why does iA Writer not use filesystem tags…?)

In DT itself I keep my .md files on Preview, and I’m trying to use templates to make sure that every file has a nice CSS style that corresponds with that file’s purpose. So everything looks pretty most of the time. (Bonus: because that css file is also stored in DT and I use DT item links to point to it, it looks the same on DTTG too.)

I don’t do much with images most of the time, but if you stay inside DEVONthink you can actually cmd+click and drag an image into a Markdown file. It’ll generate a working markdown image-syntax link using DT item links. Of course, this doesn’t work outside of DEVONthink—in my experience, other apps display it as if the image is broken. I haven’t been able to get another syntax to work reliably, though. I have heard you could keep a giant images repository and have every image link be something like ~/Media/Imagename.jpg, or keep a media folder next to every piece of writing and do /media/imagename.png, but neither of those options are for me.

I’m really trying to stick with non-proprietary formats and one “layer” for all of my stuff. DEVONthink adds a layer, but metadata and universal cross-platform links are so beneficial that I’m willing to accept that, especially when most of my stuff remains indexed anyway. But robust images support… I haven’t been able to wrangle with that one successfully.

I was going this way and inserted some intention - now using Ulysses for research, Byword with markdown for teaching & service, and Notes for everything personal (and easily shareable with family). Drafts feeds all three. This partitioning corresponds to Omnifocus folders and has worked well for me to avoid distraction.


I’m intrigued by this conversation. My question is about handwritten notes using Apple Pencil. The research literature is clear that handwritten notes are better for processing and retaining information. I also find them helpful when I need to draw lines, arrows, etc., to connect thoughts. Is there a way to use DT as described to index plain text files for all things typed and still use DT to access handwritten notes, say in Apple Notes or an app like Notability? I don’t believe DT has a way to take handwritten notes in the iOS version of the DT app.

You could use an app to create .pdfs from your handwritten notes and send them to DTTG.

Alternatively, KeepIt recently added the ability to include handwritten sketches in its native note documents.

To further muddy the waters, Agenda has added the ability to insert sketches from iPad or iPhone on the macOS version.


Just leaving this here:

I still haven’t had enough free time to fully dive in, but it seems to work with my test notes.

You’ll have the benefits of a Note app interface (like Apple Notes, Bear etc.), mix it with handwritten notes via GoodNotes (multiple folder levels) or Notability (auto-backup is limited to one folder level) that show up inside of Notebooks and in addition the powerful indexing of DevonThink.

I do this with GoodNotes. Exported PDFs from GoodNotes contain the OCR layer and are searchable in Devonthink. Notability also retains the OCR layer on PDF export.

That’s good to hear. I’ve been a little too busy to really stress-test Notebooks so it’s been on the back burner for a few weeks. I’m still interested in seeing if it can be a cross-platform solution that can also replace EagleFiler on the Mac side, but I’m not in a rush to move on that right now. (Also, I’d really rather not have to use/pay for Dropbox, which I’d need to if I went full-in.)