The beauty of text files

Excellent homage to text files, written by Derek Sivers on his blog:1

Every few years a new company says you should use their special format. You have to pay them a monthly fee to use it — or keep all of your documents in their care. They offer some convenience or features, but at the cost of flexibility, portability, and independence.

When you store your writing in one company’s unique format, then you need that program to access it. Then the economy takes a turn, they go out of business, and your work is trapped in an unusable format.

Couldn’t agree more with the whole post. Text files are simple, universally readable, extremely light, and they make you think about what you write rather than the formatting. With the extra help of Markdown,2 I use them for every post of this blog, I use them for my work notes, and I wish I could use them everywhere.

I have of course a few frustrations with text files, but it is not their fault. The fact that the Dropbox website can’t edit text files (while the mobile app can) remains a mystery. Same goes with Google Drive, which can’t edit a simple .txt file, unless I am missing something. The Apple Notes app on the Mac can’t export a note as a text file either, which is infuriating since it very much can on iOS.

But my biggest frustration with text files, is the fact that they are not more widely used, especially at work: Notion, Google Docs, Word, Google Slides, PowerPoint, Google Sheets, email… text is everywhere, but text files are nowhere, as if people aren’t even aware of their existence.

I had a teacher at the university — many years ago — who was a big fan of RTF files, more of less for the same reasons that Sivers likes text files: light, more than enough in terms of information stored in them, and at the time, more “universal” than proprietary Word files (this was during the glory days of Open Office). I guess this teacher would be proud of me today, promoting plain text files.

Sivers adds:

If you rely on Word, Evernote or Notion, for example, then you can’t work unless you have Word, Evernote, or Notion. You are helpless without them. You are dependent. But if you only use plain text, you can use any program on any device, forever. It gives great flexibility and peace of mind.

Like I said, all the posts of this blog are written as text files. During the ten years of this blog, they have been written and edited in many different apps: the Dropbox iOS app, Byword, iA Writer, Drafts, TextEdit, and many others. All of these text files are stored on Dropbox, and the 200+ of them weigh less than 1.2 mb.3

Text files are the best.

  1. via Carl Barenbrug’s tweet.↩︎

  2. I am sure Markdown did a lot for the popularity of text files in the recent years, even if most of these text files prefer the .md extension, whereas I am in the .txt team.↩︎

  3. By the way, you can check the source file of each post of this blog by adding ?source=true at the end of the URL.↩︎