For years, I was a heavy word processor user. I started out with StarOffice and WordPerfect (remember them?), then on to Microsoft Word, AppleWorks and finally Pages. These days however, I tend to do almost all of my work in plain text and rely heavily on an app called nvALT.
Why Plain Text
One of the main reasons I use plain text is portability. Plain text files are multi-platform meaning that you can open them in any operating system: Windows, Mac, Android, Linux, iOS and Windows Phone and it has been like that since the beginning of computer technology. It is therefore unlikely that the plain text format will disappear in the coming years. I had disks full of files in AppleWorks and StarOffice format that nothing these days will open. Thus, with text files you are not locked in to a specific operating system or even a specific application.
Another reason is it’s fast. Text documents open almost instantaneously whereas a heavily formatted Word Document can take up to a minute (or longer) to open, depending on your computer.
Creating them is also fast – just open up a text editor and begin typing. There’s no formatting, spacing, styles or fonts to worry about. And if by some chance you do need to format it, you can drop the text into almost any word processing program.
My application of choice when storing text files is nvAlt, a free note-taking application created by developer Brett Terpstra. In the past, I kept my snippet files in either databases or Evernote, but since then, I’ve moved anything that doesn’t require a proprietary format to nvAlt. Not only does nvAlt serve as a central place to store my text files, but the application has a lightening fast search function allowing me to find any file in seconds.
Searching with nvAlt
All of the text files that you add to nvAlt are actually stored in one folder on your computer’s hard drive. I have several thousand such text files located in one subfolder under my Dropbox folder. To find a file, click in the search box on top of the nvAlt screen and begin typing. As you type, nvAlt filters out your text files to only those that match what you’ve typed in the search box. This include the contents of the files as well as the file name.
Creating Files with nvAlt
While you can add text files to your nvAlt folder with any plain text editing application, it’s easy to create new files in nvAlt. Again, click in the search box on top of the nvAlt screen and type the name for your new file. When finished, press Return. A new file is now created with the name your specified. Then, type in the contents of the file. Oh – and there’s no need to save your files. They are saved automatically whenever you make a change.
In order to use the plain text workflow mentioned above, you’ll need to make a couple of changes to nvAlt’s Preferences (choose nvAlt ➪ Preferences from the menu). Click the Notes icon on top of the Preferences window. From here, select the Store and read notes on disk as drop-down list and choose Plain Text Files (I believe the default is Single Database). If the files are in Single Database format, you won’t be able to find anything using a Spotlight, LaunchBar or Alfred search.
Next, set the location of the folder that contains or will contain your text files by choosing the Read notes from folder: drop-down list and then selecting the folder. Like I mentioned, I like to keep mine on Dropbox. This way, I can sync and/or access my text files with other applications such as SimpleNote, a text editor for iOS plus an online syncing service that is a favorite of many folks.
On the iPhone and iPad, I personally like and use Notesy to access my next files. It’s fast and stable, like nvAlt.
So with the nvAlt/text file/Dropbox workflow, I can start working on a document in nvAlt, open it later on in Byword or TextEdit and then continue editing the same document on my iPad with Notesy. I always know that I’m working on the latest version of the document.
And I never have to go hunting around through folders for a file or for a snippet of text – all my text documents are located in one folder.
How to Name Your Files
This is entirely up to you, but your system should be something that makes sense in your own workflow. One popular method, used by Merlin Mann, is to give your file name a category keyword, a short description, and the creation date. For example, you might name a file:
xwriting – werewolf novel ideas – 05-05-2014 Or xwork – notes from inventory meeting – 20140504
The reason to include an “x” in the word is so that when performing a search, everything with the word “writing” doesn’t display. Some people prefer to add on the “x” at the end of the word such as writingx or workx.
In addition to meaning naming conventions, you can also add tags to your files. Choose Note ➪ Tag from the menu or use the keyboard combination ⇧ + ⌘ + T. Then, type in the name of your tag. Again, you’ll want to use unique combination such as @draft, @writing, @blogpost to limit your search results only to those tags.
What sort of text files is nvAlt good for?
I typically use nvAlt for anything that doesn’t require formatting and for those things that I might need to find quickly.
This includes: * quotes
* snippets of text that I want to save
* blog post ideas
* ideas for a novel
* affiliate link strings
* software bundle codes
* books to read
* movies to see
* wi-fi password
* instructional articles copied from the Web
* Terminal commands that I use from time to time
* e-mail templates
* automobile mileage
* WordPress plugin keys or codes
* to do list
* goals list
* list of purchased ISBN’s
* Tax ID number
* books read
* gardening tips from the Web
* Photoshop & Lightroom tips
Well, you get the idea. You can use text files for pretty much anything that you want to save for later use or reference, knowing that you can find the file in seconds with nvAlt.
Recap – How to Get Started
The process for moving to a text document/nvAlt workflow is as follows:
- Download nvAlt
- Move any text files to a single folder in Dropbox.
- Open nvAlt.
- Select nvAlt ➪ Preferences from the menu.
- Under the Notes tab, select Plain Text Files from the “Store and Read Notes on Disk as: “drop-down list”
- Click the Read Notes from Folder drop-down list and navigate to the folder that contains the text files.
- You’re all set to begin using your text document/nvAlt workflow. Any time you wish to save a tidbit of information for later referral, open nvAlt and save it as a new text file.
But I Need Formatting!
Remember when I said that you don’t format text files? Well, that isn’t entirely true. There is a a text to HTML conversion tool called Markdown created by John Gruber that allows you to write in plain text format and then convert it to HTML. With Markdown, you can take any text document, pop in a little Markdown code (it’s super easy – really!) and export it to HTML. But that will be a topic for a different blog post (coming soon).
You can download nvAlt HERE