A Plain Defense For Plain Text Blog

Living Your Life Inside A Plain Text File

This blog post will be one that is probably going to be updated constantly because I will be able to find information about people who do just this; living inside of a plain text file. Now while this idea might sound a bit strange, I can assure you that it really isn't. Just sit back and enjoy the read, and who knows, you just might learn something here.

The below article was written by a man by the name of William Hern.

I wrote the article below about working in a single text file back in July 2006. I stuck with this way of taking notes until the end of my employment with Nortel in 2009. By then, the text file I was using had grown to nearly forty-thousand lines and was well over a megabyte in size. Despite the file's size, the text editor that I was using was still able to handle it with ease.

These days though I do most of my notetaking in Evernote. Evernote has powerful search and tagging capabilities that make searching for content quick and easy. Its cloud-based architecture means that my notes are available on every single computer and device that I use (and I can use on-device encryption to protect anything private). The ability to store multiple forms of media, not just text, is also a big advantage. I do a lot of work on my iPad Pro these days, writing and drawing. Importing scans of these notes into Evernote can be done with just a couple of button presses.

This convenience does come at the cost of significantly increased storage overheads, not to mention the annual cost of the Evernote subscription! My Evernote repository is fast approaching ten gigabytes in size - ten thousand times the size of my single text file solution! Though with storage capacities continuing to steadily increase, this is a price that I'm happy to pay.

All that said, I do sometimes miss the simplicity of working in a single text file. I certainly wouldn't rule out returning to it at some point in the future. And each of my novels has begun life as a set of ASCII-only text files, only imported into something more capable than a text editor at a relatively late editorial stage, when I'm reasonably happy with the story structure. Writing pure text helps keep me focussed on the task on hand (no distractions fiddling with the layout or the presentation of the text) and also makes it quick and easy to sync the files between the multiple devices that I write on.

William Hern May 2019

Living in a Single Text File I'm always interested in ways of working smarter and over the past year I've been trying out a number of the productivity tips espoused by the LifeHacker and 43Folders websites. Many of their suggestions are designed to declutter your working life and reduce information overload, allowing you to focus more completely on the task in hand and get it done more effectively. The most ambitious of these suggestions grew out of observations by Danny O'Brien about the work habits of technologists - he noticed that many of them worked from one single large text file. Everything they did (and wrote) was put in there.

I wasn't sure about this one as it seemed ridiculous and highly constraining but decided to give it a go anyway. One year on, I now have to admit that it's really grown on me as a way of working.

The basic idea is that you keep everything - and I mean everything - in one big text file. My text file contains lists of things to do, reference material (phone numbers, people's birthdays, summaries of books that I've found informative), notes from all the meetings that I attend and work-in-progress (blog entries, wiki pages, documents, and particularly long or complex emails).

My text file is now coming up on ten thousand lines in size. This sounds large and unmanageable but it is still little more than 300K in size - much smaller than the average PowerPoint presentation file we routinely send round attached to emails. And any modern, good quality text editor - a Vi or EMACS for example - is able to handle files much, much bigger than this without any loss of performance. At some point I will have to move some of the stuff into some kind of separate archival file. However I don't yet feel anywhere close to that point just yet. I definitely feel that the file could grow by at least another order of magnitude before I'd have to consider doing this (which should mean that it's at least five years before I have to do anything).

So why use a single file for storing all information? File systems have been around for coming on fifty years so why now give up the convenience of being able to have multiple files? Isn't it confusing having everything lumped together - with so much stuff in one file, doesn't it make it difficult to find anything?

The answer to this latter question is that it works better than you'd think. Rather than page up and down through the file, I do most of my navigating via the incremental search capabilities built into all proper editors. All I need to do is to think of a keyword or two to search with, and I can then step virtually instantly to the right part of the file. The incremental search command sequence is pretty much hard-wired into my nervous system (both forward and backward) so I can step pretty much instantly to any particular section of my file. It's so much faster than having to search multiple files!

With just one file to worry about, synchronisation across multiple systems is very easy. I use a combination of Microsoft's ActiveSync and the P2P application FolderShare to keep my handheld PC, my smartphone, my desktop PC and my laptop in sync with each other. With only one file to check for, it's very quick to verify that the synchronisation is working as it should. If I make a change to the text file running on one of the machines, it automagically gets replicated to the other systems as well.

The use of a single file makes data back-up much easier as well. In addition to having the file reside on multiple systems at once, I use the RCS code repository tool to store versioned back-up copies. At the moment it's a manual task to load the latest version into the RCS archive I've set up but one of these days I'll get round to setting it automatically to run as a cron job.

Why plain text? Regular readers of this blog might recall that I wrote an entry back in March about the value of text and why text editors weren't just useful for writing code. The advantages of straight text include that it is both platform and application independent, it's compact, robust and has very low processing overheads - there's no need for a multi-gigahertz processor when running a text editor.

This very blog entry began life as a simple outline within the section of my file that I've set aside specifically for work-in-progress material. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I gradually expanded the piece into this full-blown article, working on it using the handheld PC that I carry around with me whenever I had the odd moment free. Eventually, when I thought it was ready, I cut and pasted the article from the editor into the blog.

Anyone who works with me knows that I'm a compulsive notetaker in meetings. The cupboard at my desk is packed full of notebooks that I've filled during my fourteen years in the company. Whilst writing stuff down in project notebooks is great, finding it afterwards can be difficult. Keeping everything online, in one text file, makes finding things just so much easier.

​William Hern

#living in a text file #living your life through text #ways to live through text files

- 2 toasts