Two plain text tools

Although my time to serendipitously (or rather randomly) browse the web is very limited the other day I stumbled upon two very interesting applications which make capturing and managing data in plain text much easier.

First is Scratchpad – the name says it all. A very simple tool to quickly capture thoughts, ideas and other information while at your computer and then get it saved in plain text file. I already see it could nicely fit into my workflow.

Second tool is something to help you organise your plain text files. Text Haven is simple plain text editor and file organiser which supports Markdown and wiki linking and lets you keep tabs on your notes. What sounds most interesting about this application is that it allows for managing folders of text files and the neat preview mode.

Thanks to Taking Note blog for sharing these tools in the first place.

Shawn Blanc’s plain text workflow

A while ago I relied on plain text to serve me as the database of everything. Simple reference notes, blog post ideas, project notes, research and reading notes etc. I was a good setup but it was lacking for me a little in terms of functionality. In the end I’ve settled on Evernote as the center of my reference information because it allows me to store any type and format of information. 

Now if your choice is plain text then I definitely recommend reading Shawn Blanc’s overview of his setup and the corresponding workflow. The post goes into a great depth explaining the role of Simplenote, NVAlt, use of individual files and the sync issues that may occur. Shawn also looks at the various alternatives to Simplenote based workflow and putting reliance on Dropbox to handle all the files.   

It’s definitely very good read with quite a few possible takeaways for yourself.

A Foray Into Simplenote Alternatives

Evernote for almost everything and workflow update

Note: This is a very long post outlining in detail decision to move to Evernote as primary note taking tool of choice. Plain text still has it’s place as it’s best writing environment that I encoded. Hope it will be useful in your own journey of perfecting workflow.
I went through a little-big internal debate about keeping my notes, capture, reference material etc. I looked at plain text and rich text solutions for storing my data and more specifically whether to continue using ResophNotes or move back to Evernote as primary tool.

The key take away from this post is that the more you use a tool the more you rely on it the more beneficial it is to you. At the same time it becomes more difficult to switch. Read on if you want to know more details and how I approached different things.

Bit of a background

Over the course of last three months I’ve embarked on a plain text journey. It actually started few months ago when I began reading and all the stuff Michael had to say. Many of his posts where about plain text and it’s power. The neat and powerful system that he created was really appealing. At the same time came across other people who heavily relied on plain text David Sparks, Merlin Mann, Shawn Blanc, Patrick Rhone to name just few.

So three months ago I started to look for tools which would help me construct plain text based setup. To my surprise there aren’t that many options available and the end I’ve settled with ResophNotes and WriteMonkey. Why those two? ResophNotes allows me to create, search and browse through all my text files providing fast and convenient way of managing them. WriteMonkey is excellent and powerful plain text editor which I use to write all my stuff. It provides better writing environment than ResophNotes plus it has a lot writing related features that make it super useful. Writing on my Android phone was handled by Epistle app and Dropbox was the gel that bound everything together.

Then two things have happened. I needed to take a screen shot of something I saw on the web, I came across couple interesting tweets that I wanted to save and I was a little bit stuck. The easiest and the most effective way of capturing those things was into Evernote. Few moments after that I realised that I already have a ton of information in Evernote.

What I realised was that I was missing a lot of the information that I’ve accumulated before and that I was not using. It was not just the web clips and other snippets of information that I pick up but also my older notes, book and race notes etc. All this was sitting in Evernote and remained unused. Sure I could always search for it but it would require some additional conscious effort to search two place as opposed to one.

Feature comparison

I took some time to look at Evernote and ResophNote and list all of the available features and functions that each app offered. From the start it was clear that Evernote would win as it’s just more powerful tool. Aside from the sheer number, some features are clearly more valuable that other. Here is the list that I came up with.

Benefits of using Evernote:

  • ubiquitous capture available on each platforms (Windows, Web, Android)
  • ease of getting the data into the application from various sources
  • can be a single place for storing almost all of you data – notes, web clippings, pdfs etc.
  • global hotkeys for capture and search of notes
  • powerful search in notes and uploaded documents like PDF or images (OCR)
  • rich text editing and formating
  • easily captures the source of the information from the websites
  • note links and sharing of notes.
  • easy checklist and table creation
  • Skitch integration

Benefits of using ResophNotes and plain text:

  • no installation required,
  • data synced via Dropbox or can simply be moved to a USB drive
  • fast and easy to create and search notes
  • Markdown support
  • data stored in plain text
  • global hotkeys for note creation and application
  • excellent for focused writing and note creation
  • 99% chances that in post apocalyptic world event the simplest and basic computer will read plain text.

Data worries

When I was reading about benefits of plain text one of the many arguments was that it’s future proof meaning there will be always tools to read and display plain text files. If you use other applications you need to rely on a proprietary file format which makes you depended on the company that created it. In the long run, will you be able to access and review your notes?

I’ve spend some time thinking about this and came to conclusion that being locked into Evernote format is not really a concern for me provided I’m able to do couple things to liberate my data and take it away in a fairly basic format.

As Evernote want us to store more data, they brand themselves as a 100 year company, highlighting the fact that they are there for the long run and that they don’t think about the next quarter. This is refreshing and reassuring approach considering the company is just few years old. Yet they don’t stop just there, you can always export you data and documents and take them away.

Data Export

Data nerds will object but being able to export data from Evernote to HTML would be sufficient enough for most people. Most people would not event think of exporting data or making sure you can access it ten years from now. HTML export is definitely enough for me. At this moment I can see two scenarios where I would move somewhere else – a new better app is build or Evernote goes bust and no longer provides it’s services. Evernote is immensely popular solution with millions of users so should anyone design a better application and want to compete with them will create an import tool to move your notes. If the company would go bankrupt all you lose is the cloud backup the rest stays where it was (i.e. your laptop) and you can decide what to do next. I’m also pretty sure some hackers would come up with clever ways of extracting the data and putting it into a different format.

Back to exporting your notes. I’ve played around with the different options available which includes Evenote’s own xml file or creation of single or multiple HTML files with attachments stored separately. From what I’ve learned individual HTML export it the most effective. Then, should I really need to move elsewhere I can export all my notes and rely on system search to find relevant information. Windows Search or Finder are more than capable of indexing the information in side those files. Because of the way I name my notes and structure them in Evernote I can easily identify those that are particularly important like various reference notes or list and then I can put some effort in creating scripts or batch files which will convert notes into plain text files. Since attachments like pdfs or images get exported too I can resort to picture manager like Picasa and easily scan and this information.

Storing data with other company

One more aspect worth mentioning is that when you use Evernote you store your data with another company and rely on them to keep it secure and intact. Although it’s a valid concern if you keep your files in plain text, in a Dropbox folder you’re really in the same situation. First of all if you want to keep things secure and private don’t put them onto internet or computer at all. This approach is not very practical and even governments store and transmit data using internet. It would seem that there aren’t that many secrets that would be worth the hassle. Obviously everything is a matter of personal choice and perception so it’s good to develop habit of assessing how critical and private the information is and apply appropriate measures. Read EFFs self defense guide if you want to know more.

Back to Evernote and storing your data. When you use the service you have a copy in the cloud and on your computer or tablet if you use paid account, so even if Evernote goes offline you still have the data on your computer to review and decide what to do with it.

Extra layer

As a precaution I make a backup of my database folder on daily basis so should anything happen I have a copy to recover from and I can always export it into different formats. I also keep a recent version of the installer on my laptop so I have double security. All this is backed up to external drive and encrypted storage online.

Lessons Learned

As with any experiment I’ve learned couple interesting lessons that I would like to share hopefully to everyone’s benefit.

The more information you put into a given application the more chances it has to provide you with better results or information that you may have forgotten about. If you keep your notes, snippets of data scattered around it’s first of all inconvenience to search couple locations and secondly you introduce a complexity and choice of where do I put this info. Sticking with one tool that covers all bases removes some of it.

A good naming convention goes a long way

When I was using plain text setup all of my files were in one folder which meant that to keep them organised in some sort of fashion I had to come up with good names. The way I approached it was to put a keyword in front of the name of the note and then add its title. Although this approach is not necessary in Evernote as I can set up notebooks to divide the notes it’s nonetheless very useful way of naming notes. This way I can keep a smaller amount of folders/notebooks and I can easily browse the notes and clearly see what they relate to.

As I mentioned above Evernote can export data into HTML format which is easily searchable by built-in search on Windows making it relatively easy to move away from the application and transfer somewhere else. The export process is very easy and my suggestion would be to export into individual text files.

file duplication and sync issues

When creating new notes with ResophNotes quite often I ended up with duplicated notes or notes with incomplete names. This seemed to be caused by the speed at which a note was synced with Dropbox effectively creating a different notes as I typed the title. This wasn’t a major issue but it was quite annoying when the wrong name was saved. It’s also possible to duplicate note within ResophNotes which would mean that when the duplicate was deleted also the original file would be removed from Dropbox folder. Although it can always be recovered from Drobpox it’s inconvenient and odd annoyance. I haven’t had any issues like that with Evernote.

Final version for now

Evernote now serves me as a single place for notes, ideas, web clippings, images, screeshots etc. Because of it’s unparalled search, capture and ubiquity it serves me as primary tool for archiving of stuff. The fact that I can store so much and so varied content in Evernote makes it even more compelling as it allows me to find not only a specific note that I might remember but also other that contain the same keywords. The more information I will gather in Evernote the more useful it will become in serving me the data I may need. Lastly if I was to recommend anyone a note taking tool I would go for Evernote simply because of the ease of use and capture of different types of information.

So where is plain text you may ask. Writing content. Evernote is excellent archiving/reference tool but for me it’s not good for writing. It has all the bells and whistles but it’s precisely what I don’t want for writing. This where plain text hits the nail the on the head. It provides focused and unobtrusive writing environment. As consequence plain text will be the place where I write everything from blog posts to other material. For this purpose I will continue to use ResophNotes for keeping tabs on all my files, WriteMonkey to do majority of my writing and text editing and Markdown to make it easy to publish on the web.

I realise that nailing down a good workflow and interaction of tools is a process that takes time and evolution where you move from one tool to another or supplement the existing ones with some thing new and the figure out how they work.

Lastly since I’ve effectively moved to Evernote I will be actively exploring how can I make better use of it and I intend to share links and my own thoughts in upcoming posts.

Hope you enjoyed this post and found some useful elements in it. I would be grateful if you could share your own thoughts and thinking process behind your tool and workflow selection.

Managing life with text files

This turned out to be a part of a series of posts about moving to plaint text based workflow. If you want to read more parts two, three are here.
I’m really going deep into using plain text files as the center of my workflow. Their usefulness goes far beyond writing and note-taking. To put it simply you can use plain text for almost anything.

Below I’m sharing two links to posts from couple years ago which provide few excellent ideas for using text files for managing life.

Managing Your Life with a Simple Text File

Managing Your Life with a Simple Text File -Part 2