The Case for Plain Text

When I take notes, I like to write them in plain, unformatted text. Tech luminaries on the Web have been advocating plain text for a while now (David Sparks, Brett Terpstra, and Merlin Mann to name a few). I’ve also come across more and more academics who use plain text as well (see posts by Lincoln Mullen and Jason Helper for ideas). I prefer plain text because it gives my files:

  • longevity: text editors have been around ever since I began computing, and will probably be around even after they start implanting idevices into our bodies;
  • portability: files can be viewed and edited on every major computing platform with any text editor, so you don’t have to worry about getting locked into an application;
  • reliability: complicated, proprietary databases encounter complicated problems that can result in corrupted files and a loss of data;
  • simplicity: plain text lets you focus on the content rather than the form, and speaking for myself, I’d rather spend my time writing than learning how to use new software;
  • small sizes: even with several thousand text files, you will only have a few hundred megabytes of data;
  • accessibility: Dropbox makes files available to a large number of applications on any platform;
  • searchability: easily indexed on any device;
  • speed: instantly viewed, opened, and edited on any device.

Are you convinced? Maybe not, but hopefully it will give you some food for thought next time you get frustrated with your word processor!

Software to See

  • DEVONthink has plain-text notes that can link to other files in your database by simply typing the filename. Although it doesn’t have a lot of “Wiki” features, it is one of the best apps out there for a plain-text personal wiki. It isn’t free, but well worth the cost.
  • Evernote offers rich text support on every major platform for free. Although it doesn’t technically have plain text, you can accomplish a close approximation of this, and running it through an app with Markdown support is easy to do.
  • FormatMatch on the Mac will turn anything you copy into plain text for free. It is handy to have if you are working with software that defaults to rich text.
  • nvALT on the Mac offers plain text, limited rich text, and Markdown support for free.
  • VoodooPad on the Mac offers plain text, rich text, and Markdown support for a small cost. Updates are few and far between, with sporadic development these days.
  • WriteMonkey on Windows offers plain text and Markdown support. I haven’t spent much time with it, but it is free, and on Windows 8 it seems to perform well.

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