Farewell to Text Files

A new text file is like the crisp snow of an early January morning on a golf course before the first tee time. A shoebox filled with clean white sand. It’s no wonder that plain text files have become such a movement. Not only are they resplendently practical, they also embody an almost spiritual minimalism.

Plain text files are a beautiful, delicious honey trap which I have dragged myself out of.

There are no frills in plain text — even formatting is out the window. It’s just words on a page. They scale: the holy grail of the Nerd. You can take them anywhere, read them in anything, share them with anyone.

The small concession that many text file nerds make toward formatting is in the use of Markdown. This doesn’t pervert the ideals of plain text, it elevates them. The boundaries imposed by the medium enforce, I’ve found, a certain ascetic aesthetic which does two things: it looks much prettier, design-wise, and it pushes the actual wordplay to the forefront, rather than whatever wacky stylistic nightmares you might have gotten lost in.

Storing your words in individual files with the extension txt or md or something similar allows you to use literally thousands of different applications to access them. For many years that’s exactly what I did. I’ve probably manipulated the text files in my Pool folder (where I keep all my writing and notes) using over thirty different apps.

I did this until a few months ago, when I used my winnings from a poker game to purchase an app called Ulysses III. I’ve been trying really hard not to just buy the next big thing, but a lot of research convinced me that this was an app worth having.

The prevalent paradigm for dealing with text that Ulysses employs is something called “sheets”. You can work directly with text files, but I decided to opt out of that to take advantage of some of the more advanced Markdown options afforded by the native text database format. I tried it tentatively, expecting I’d be right back to my Dropbox-based text file system in no time.

Three months later I’m still using — and loving — it, completely sans Dropbox integration.

What I’m starting to recognize as I use Ulysses is something that lies at the root of a lot of good design. Good UI is not about letting you accomplish things however you want, it’s about only leaving you with the options that are the best way to do the thing, and making those options damn good ones.

I used to think that having my words in text files was the smartest way to work. In reality, it meant that:

  1. I suffered constant angst over whether I was using the best one of my many options in order to write something down.

  2. I had a ridiculously smooth entry to any new writing app that could access my Dropbox.

The end result was that I spent a ton of time setting up and experimenting with new apps, switching between existing ones, and developing complex workflows and hacks to move my textiles around the place.

You know what I wasn’t doing when I was doing those things? Writing. Now that I don’t have to worry about all that, I can get right into putting words down as soon as I want, with much less set-up time.

Not only that, Ulysses has become an environment that my mind now strongly associates with a writing mindset. I’m starting to get quite comfortable here, in a way that I never did when I was jumping between apps like a skittish llama in a peat bog.

Goodbye, text files, my old friend. Until we meet again.