March 8, 2022


QB 005: Plain Text Format

Derek Sivers preaches the benefits of living in text files. His arguments in favor of text files include:

  1. Portability.
  2. Free as in price.
  3. Offline.
  4. Free as in independent.
  5. Malleable as in easy to convert.

I live in text files. Everything I write is in plain text. Markdown formatted plain text. But plain text.

Plain text, for me, has the added advantages of:

  1. Easy and quick search.
  2. Less distractions. Not being distracted by formatting options, styles and rulers makes the act of writing easier for me.
  3. Versatility of plain text.

Listing out the advantages leads to a long list. I am going to elaborate on this one of these days.

Proven – Rhoneisms echoes the benefits of text files through the conception of text files as a proven format.

The Detractor - CJ Chilvers

Is plain text best? — CJ Chilvers

Chilvers makes the following argument:

When I switched to the Mac in 2008, all of my text file notes got corrupted in the move. I didn’t notice for a while because work occupied most of my time, and (non-developer) corporate work never happens in text files. By the time I went back to my notes, all of the titles and meta data had been replaced with gibberish. Luckily, the internal copy wasn’t corrupted, and I didn’t care enough at the time to dip into my backups, so it wasn’t a huge deal.

Chilvers doesn’t provide an analysis of the reasons behind this event. It is a sample size of one. It is an example without much context, so I cannot explore the antecedents to the event. I find it interesting that the title and the meta-data was corrupted but the internal content wasn’t. My inclination is to blame the event on user error, but I am going to hold back on that assertion. What was the OS he was switching from? What was the form of the meta-data? What happened to his non-text files?

This is the problem with anecdotal evidence. It doesn’t prove anything.

The meta data of a note/file is critical to me now. It gives valuable context the internal text usually doesn’t.

If your meta data of a note/file is maintained by the file-system, you are tied to that particular file-system. That is what seems to have happened to your files. If you had the meta-data included in the internal text of your file, you wouldn’t have this problem. Front matter for your notes/files is the solution to this problem.

Based on this one event, Chilvers gets prescriptive.

I wouldn’t worry too much about your archive, though. Nothing digital is of archival quality. There hasn’t been enough time to test any format or storage method. When it all shakes out in 400 years or so, I doubt anything we use now will be the preferred format. I’m not even sure humans will be a preferred biological format.

This is in the realm of pablum. I am not looking for a preferred format. I am interested in an accessible format. Accessible in the future without too much trouble. Words on a page or words on a screen. That is my goal. Plaintext is the better solution to that problem.

If chimpanzee’s are the preferred biological format 400 years from now, then you might be right, it doesn’t matter at all.

Also, none of this really matters. Legacy is a sales tool. No one is likely to dig through your thoughts in any file format.


It’s important to think of your captured thoughts as fleeting bits of information across all formats and uses. Maybe you’ll get back to them. Maybe you’ll use them. But investing everything in one, stable format doesn’t take away their fleeting nature. Thoughts will exist here and there for a while, then be gone and forgotten. Just like you.

This is the assertion that everything is fleeting. Why bother?

I find that very humbling, but comforting as well.

Oh, fuck off.

Okay, that was not nice.

We are all here for a minuscule amount of time and we are all insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I get that. Still doesn’t solve my problem. I want to work in a format which will outlast me. In case anyone gives a shit. They might not, but I want to make it as easy as possible for them, if they do. Plain text is a better solution for that goal than the alternatives.

I’m sure Derek and Patrick agree with most of this, and choose the text file as the best candidate for them, given all the above. It’s just not for everyone.

More pablum. Nothing is the right solution for everyone. Except orgasms. Have as many as you can.

An Addendum

Jack Baty

Plain text can’t save you if you lose the files – Jack Baty

Jack doesn’t disagree with the assertion that plain text is a good format. He prescribes good backups. That is good advice.

macosxguru at the gmail thingie.

Thanks to: Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels


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