Formatting Unformatted Text

I’ve posted before about how I prefer to take my notes in plain, unformatted text. This might seem a little extreme, but in fact, using plain text doesn’t mean you have to give up formatting altogether.


A few years ago, developer John Gruber created a system of using easy-to-read and easy-to-write commands that would enable plain text to be converted into HTML (web pages). He called it “Markdown,” and since he released it in 2004, it has gained interest from developers, who have included support for it in a number of applications on the Mac and iPad.

Markdown Syntax

The syntax for Markdown is posted on John’s site, Daring Fireball, and the rules are quite simple. I find the system to be a happy medium between completely unformatted text and the rich text formatting in something like a word processor. If you take a look at some of the screenshots below, you’ll see how unobtrusive Markdown is.

The Mac: nvALT

One of my favorite applications on the Mac for working with plain text is nvALT, and below is a screenshot of it in action. The application is a fork by David Halter and Brett Terpstra of Zachary Schneirov’s refreshingly minimalistic Notational Velocity. I’ll have more to write about this application some other time. For now, let’s take a look at a screenshot.

There are two columns and one preview window shown. In the left column is a list of my notes. In the center one is the note in plain text, and this is where the editing is done. On the right is a preview window of the note in HTML. In my opinion, the plain text isn’t significantly more difficult to read or write this way, and I have the formatting available whenever I want. The syntax used can be seen more clearly in the two iPad screenshotes below.

The iPad: ?

I used to rely a lot on Giant Yak’s notesy, but the latest release (2.3.1) has been a little buggy for me. I am sure it will be back in shape soon, but today I am using my backup, Phil Dhingra’s Nebulous Notes.

Again, there is a lot more to say about the Nebulous Notes and all of the other plain text apps available out there, but for now, just a screenshot.

If you are browsing through your notes on the iPad, the formatted version is only a tap away. Because everything syncs through Dropbox, if an app release has problems, you can easily open your notes in any number of other apps. If your workflow mainly involves text, spend about five minutes familiarizing yourself with Markdown and I think you’ll find it is a great tool for writing.