Plain Text Notes System
Back in February of 2016, I wrote about my plain text notes setup and why I decided on the simple medium over dedicated apps and services that offer more robust features.
Seeing as to how that article is one of the more popular posts on my blog, I thought I’d publish an update on my plain text notes system. Long story short: I tried another app but ultimately came back to plain text. There’s just nothing more reliable and flexible.
If you aren’t currently putting digital notes to use, you really are missing out. I encourage you to give this plain text notes system a try because it’s easy to set up, doesn’t require pricey subscriptions, and will definitely stand the test of time.
Paid vs. Free Tools
As I describe my setup, you’ll notice that some of the tools I use are paid products. Each part of this system is highly interchangeable, however, so it really doesn’t matter. The following is a list of software and services I use, as well as free alternatives.
Used for managing and editing notes on macOS. I paid for this because I also use it for coding and general text editing, but Bare Bones does offer a free version of BBEdit that has enough features for this plain text notes system. The free version replaces Text Wrangler in their product line-up.
Since we’re dealing with plain text, you can use whatever text editor you want — that’s one of the benefits of this system. However, if you want to replicate my setup as much as possible, your chosen text editor should have the following features:
- Open a folder and display the files and hierarchy in a sidebar. Otherwise, you’ll have to jump back and forth between your file manager and a text editor which would be a pain (unless you are already used to this kind of workflow).
- Have an option (preferably with a keyboard shortcut) to quickly find and open files by name. In BBEdit, this is in the File menu and bound to
⌘ + Dby default. In Sublime Text, it’s
⌘ + P(or
Ctrl + Pon Windows and Linux). Once you build up a lot of notes, this will make it easier to find the one you’re looking for quickly and easily.
- Ability to sort files in the sidebar alphabetically (and preferably show Folders on top). BBEdit can’t display folders on top at the moment, but I’m hoping once they go 64-bit and switch to Cocoa this option will be available.
- Full text search in folders.
Most programming text editors—both free and paid—offer the above features, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding a good solution.
Syncs my notes so they are backed up automatically and synced across all of my devices. If you use macOS or have an iOS device, you were given a few gigs of space for free. If you ever run out of space, you can get 1 terabyte of space for about $2 a month.
An alternative would be Dropbox. I use iCloud because I get more space for less money and it doesn’t need any third party software to work on macOS. If you’re not on macOS, Dropbox would probably be your best bet.
For managing and editing my notes on iOS. At the time of this writing, iA Writer is $3.99 on the App Store, and while I’m sure there are free Markdown note editors with iCloud Drive support on the App Store, I haven’t found any good ones. If you want to access your notes on the go (likely), it may be worthwhile to invest in a good mobile app for about $4.
A Short Detour
Before I get into the specifics of my current setup, I’ll list one notable alternative that took me away from my fully plain text setup for a while, and that is a really great app called Bear.
Bear uses their own markup language that’s similar to Markdown, but there’s an option to use Markdown and it exports to it nicely. It is $15 a year for syncing your notes to your existing iCloud account.
The primary reason that Bear attracted me was it’s really great handling of embedded images, media, and links. Even when you export a note, it all comes in a folder with all the embedded images in-tact. This is an area where Bear really shines over my plain text setup. Fortunately, I don’t embed many images or attachments in my notes, but sometimes I do and I didn’t know how to handle this with just plain text (I later found a solution to this problem, which I’ll describe further down).
Bear almost took the place of my plain text notes setup, and I did give it a fair shot for a couple of weeks. Despite how nice the app is and its relatively low price, in the end, I ended up going back to my plain text notes system for the following reasons:
- While I use some paid tools to manage the system, it is just a collection of plain text files in the end, so it doesn’t have to cost anything (unlike Bear which requires a subscription to sync, which is essential for me).
- With that said: I can use whatever tools I want. I use BBEdit for my programming and writing, so it’s nice to be able to use it (with it’s powerful features) to manage my notes as well.
- Bear may go away someday, in which case I’ll need to export my notes and go back to my plain text setup anyway (or choose another alternative like Evernote). If I’ve been using it for many years, having to switch may hit me hard. I can probably rely on plain text being around longer than me.
- I couldn’t get fully used to the tag-based organization Bear uses. There’s nothing wrong with it per-say, but I’m much more comfortable organizing things the old-fashioned way: using folders.
I keep all of my notes in a single top-level folder in my iCloud Drive. I call this folder “Notebooks” but you can call it whatever you want. It will contain sub-folders of the various areas of my life I need to keep track of (and some sub-folders within them):
- (and so on…)
You may have noticed each of the folder in the hierarchy contains a subfolder called “Archive”. This is where I keep notes that I no longer need to edit or reference regularly, but I don’t want to delete either.
For example, in my Bills folder, I keep track of my bills for each month, keeping track of when they are paid as well as any one-off payments for the month. Whenever a new month comes along, I move the previous month’s note into ‘Archive’ in case I ever need to look back, but it doesn’t pollute the Bills folder in the meantime since I’ll likely not need to open that note in a long time (if ever).
Embedded Images and Files
I touched on this earlier when I described my experience with Bear, but this is the weakest area of a fully plain text notes setup. Thankfully, there is a solution. It may not be as good as a “rich” notes interface, but I think it works fine for my limited use of embedded images and attachment.
This is a good reason why your notes should be in Markdown. I don’t know a good way to do this without using something like it.
Basically, whenever I have a note that needs an image or attachment, I create a sibling folder “_attachments” if it doesn’t already exist. In that folder, I’ll drop in any images or attachments for the notes that are siblings to that folder. For example, say I have a House folder:
- Inspection 2017.md
Let’s say ‘Inspection 2017.md’ has an attachment of an inspection report with some embedded images of certain items:
... ### Report Copy The report for the inspection on May 23, 2017. [Download Inspection Report](_attachments/Inspection Report.pdf) ### 1. Cracked Cement ![Cracked Cement](_attachments/cracked_cement.jpg) ### 2. Water Damage on Ceiling The following image shows water damage on the living room ceiling from a pipe leak in the master bathroom: ![Water Damage](_attachments/water_damage.jpg) ...
Basically, we can link to non-image attachments and “embed” images using Markdown syntax for images. If your text editor supports Markdown Preview (
Ctrl + ⌘ + P in BBEdit), you’ll be able to see the images inline and download the attachments when the preview is open.
It’s admittedly not as elegant as being able to embed and see images and attachments within the editor, I think it’s an okay trade-off for being able to stick with plain text for my notes and use my text editor of choice. Most of my notes don’t have embedded images or other attachments so this isn’t a big issue for me, but your mileage may vary.
Most plain text editors don’t allow you to “pin” files at the top of the sidebar, but if yours allows you to sort items alphabetically, you can simulate this by prefixing “pinned” notes with “000” or “001” depending on the order you want them to show up. These notes will get sorted to the top of their respective folder.
Not a “System”
Everything else about my plain text notes setup is pretty self-explanatory. The only thing you have to remember about this “system” is that it’s really not a system at all, per-say. It’s just a collection of plain text notes files, and that’s the beauty of it. You can organize and manage it in whatever way suits you best, using whatever tools you want.
Using plain text for notes these days may not be fashionable or in style, but it’s reliable and will stand the test of time over any app or service. BBEdit has been around for decades, but if it ever becomes extinct, I can be confident that my plain text notes will still be around — no exporting necessary.