A Valentine to nvALT
Many pixels have been spilt over Notational Velocity and nvALT, the twin siblings of editing , organizing and searching a giant directory of text files. For sure, all the reasons for using plain text are really important: versatility, size and permanence. I wanted to add something I haven’t seen talked about though, a mode of thinking that nvALT has brought to my life that has, in many ways, dramatically changed how I deal with the ideas swirling around in my head.
See, like every text nerd, I have a system. My notes are probably longer than most (separated by headings I can navigate in FoldingText if need be), and I use Merlin Mann’s system for naming, often aided by some TextExpander snippets, but because of size and quick searching in nvALT, none of that is really important. If something’s on my mind, I write it down. If something’s on my mind, I write it down.
If something’s on my mind, I write it down.
Oftentimes, that starts on paper, and that’ll get put into nvALT when I get home. Sometimes, that means pressing F16 on my Apple USB Keyboard, making nvALT pop up and type into the box. When I’m good at it, each file has a proper name I can go back and look to later, maybe with some tags that make searching easier and good dating. But, again, that doesn’t matter. Because:
If something’s on my mind, I write it down.
What’s in my nvALT folder? Class notes, book notes, recipes, articles and poems I like, my todo lists, brainstorms for the future, journals from the past. What can be in there? Literally anything I need to stick somewhere to remember or recall later. If I don’t have a system for it yet, if I don’t name it correctly, search means it doesn’t really matter - I’ll find it again when I need it.
I now have a 34.6 MB folder on my hard drive that contains, in essence, the contents of my life’s work and the essence of my memory. When I’m unsure of myself, when I don’t know what to do next, when I’m in some kind of existential funk, I pop open the window, and I start writing.
However unsafe the world feels, at that moment, those files are a reminder (not to get too pretentious) of my existence. They’re a reminder that I’ve had good ideas before, and will have them again. They’re a reminder that beauty exists in the world, that other people have written down for me to digest. They’re a reminder that, when I don’t know quite what to do, I can always do the dishes. And, more than any cliche or saying, they’re a reminder that every new project or idea or day can start with a blank window and a blinking cursor.
Plain Text is the App
Android apps suck. Most of them, anyway. It pains me to say as much, as a regular Android user and sometimes evangelist, but it’s true. Google is doing some really promising things with Now and with its built in apps, and several cross platform mainstays like Instapaper and Comixology really shine on my Nexus 7, but for the most part, Android doesn’t have nearly the same healthy app ecosystem that iOS does. I know some of the reasons - Android users are less likely to pay for apps, developers are less willing or capable of developing for so many diverse devices, cell companies and device makers have been rather poor about keeping the OS on old devices up to date - but it still sucks.
About once a month, I confront this sucky reality when I go searching yet again for a new Android text editor. I’ve used Epistle for Android on my phone and tablet for years. Epistle is clean, it previews Markdown, it syncs effortlessly with Dropbox and it’s never given me problems in all the time I’ve used it. Still, it lacks some of the obvious shine and bonus features that apps like Nebulous Notes or Drafts have in iOS. And Epistle’s developer has gone completely AWOL: not only is the app not updated, I e-mailed him a month ago offering to send a little cash his way, and he has yet to write me back.
As beautiful and feature rich as those apps are, though, each month I’m left scratching my head trying to figure out what I need them for. I started using plain text, ostensibly, because the format was lightweight and didn’t require any one specific app or platform. Yet, here I am, searching for a complex, feature-rich solution for dealing with files designed to be simple and uncomplicated.
I wouldn’t give up my Macbook Pro, with all its text editors and scripts, for doing my work. Not for a minute. But when I’m on my phone? I’m opening files, referring to them, and occasionally adding or deleting things. When I’m on my tablet? I’m writing in exactly the environment where I don’t want the distractions of Microsoft Word, or even the distractions of my intensely agile favorite FoldingText.
There’s a niggling part of my brain that has yet to make peace with the inherent - at times the helpful - constraints of a software universe that can’t possibly deliver every single thing I want. That problem, the underlying problem, isn’t going to be solved by buying an iPhone 5.
Plain Text is Where Ideas Can Grow and Flourish
Rice University history prof W. Caleb McDaniel wrote an academic book all in plain text. As an evangelist of plain text for academics, he does a better job than I could explaining why you should get off Word when you’re making serious ideas: the risk is just too darn high that you’ll lose something, be stuck on a single platform, or get distracted by heavy software.
To his list, I want to add two more ideas: searchability and versatility. Among the 117 plain text files currently sitting in my installation of nvALT (of which this post is number 117) sits essentially a corpus of every good idea I’ve had over the last four or five years: class notes, brainstormed ideas, conference articles, an aborted book, lectures and memos. Anytime I think of something, it can go here, and I know I’ll be able to find it again. It’s basically effortless to copy out of these files to send an e-mail to a colleague or open them in a program like FoldingText to brainstorm more deliberately.
The notes expand and contract and, somewhere in the middle of them, good ideas sit. When I need to think, write or solve a problem, I hit a hotkey on my computer and I type. To me, that’s a far more efficient (and elegant) way to make idea work more like idea craft.
FoldingText is a Sandbox for Ideas
Out today from Hog Bay Software is FoldingText, yet another Markdownified text editor for OS X heralded by the likes of David Sparks and Brett Terpstra for its flexbility and elegance. I’ve been playing with the betas, and it quickly found its way onto my dock. Like Brett and Sparky, I knew I was in love, I just didn’t quite know what I was in love with. Now I do.
As I’m sure you know if you read sites like this, there’s all sorts of neat things you can do with plain text - draft beautiful full documents in programs like Byword, make todo lists in Taskpaper and Todotxt, create outlines in OmniOutliner, the works. FoldingText does basic versions of all of those things: it interprets and elegantly hides Markdown code like Byword, it handles Taskpaper-style todo list tags, it allows users to click and hide headers in order to focus on one part of a document at a time, it even has a nifty timer function that tracks elements of a recipe or task list that require specific times. Even better, the app promises to open its modal text transformation framework in the future.
So, why buy another editor, a $15 one at that? Because FoldingText isn’t just an editor, it’s a sandbox. The app instantly switches from bulleted list to outline to essay to todo list, making it perfect for planning projects and ideas precisely when you don’t know what they’ll be. FoldingText fits perfectly into the philosophy which uses plain text as a sensible default for your data: the app shifts and changes as your workstyle does.
FoldingText provides no excuses for you not to start, because it doesn’t care or judge what starting looks like. Nor, for that matter, does it really care what finishing looks like. Going from plan to product is as easy as deleting one line and writing a new one. That fluidity is what makes the app such a pleasure to use.