Plaintext is your best friend

Plaintext is your best friend

Sat Dec 30 2023 tools-for-thoughtnomad-hypertext
Plaintext is your best friend.

I've been working on notetaking apps for years now. I starting working on the first one on the bus back from my internship. I had an idea for a simple interaction - users should be able to highlight a piece of text, then add tags to that text. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "That should be a piece of cake! I should be able to finish it during the 45 minute bus ride." It ended up taking the rest of the summer. I was 19, naive, and had no idea what a nightmare the contenteditable HTML standard was.

Here's the thing - I don't think anyone really needs right text that badly. Italics and bold don't matter that much. The one thing I find myself missing a lot is titles, but you can do something similar with plaintext simply by having a number before a line, like so:


The other thing I miss is links. You can still paste urls, however. It's ugly but it works.

The bottom line is with a notetaking app, what I'm really looking for is the ability to see connections between my ideas. I don't care about pretty formatting. Plain text is uglier, but it increases the range of things you can do with your notes - you can pipe it into an LLM, you can pipe it into a summarizer, you can take notes on Apple Notes then paste them into your notes later, you can set up a service that lets you text a number that will then paste your texts into your notes, etc. etc.

The flexibility and power and power of plaintext matters much more than the meagre aesthetic gains of rich text. I am genuinely convinced that bold, italics and titles add little to nothing to my experience of a notetaking app.

Of course, if you're looking to raise a billion dollars on your consumer-facing notetaking app, plain text won't cut it. Lucky for us all, Jerome Powell has acted wisely to proscribe this possibility.

One last thing: There is a solution that combines the flexibility of plaintext with the aesthetics of rich text - Markdown! I don't think I'll support Markdown formatting in nomad hypertext, but for my static site generator Yurt, I will try to do that in the future. The utility would mostly be from having usable links.

Edit: I have added very basic support for Markdown to Yurt - right now pretty much only links work.