In praise of TXT files 🐴

published3 months ago
5 min read

In praise of TXT files


I had a scare a while back. Ulysses, the writing app I’ve been using for quite some time, decided that my subscription wasn’t valid, making everything read only. So, yeah, not that scary I guess, but deeply disturbing because I had work to do on a project there. This was, obviously, a bug which the developer acknowledged and managed to fix in a day or so.

It scared me though, as these things tend to do when they happen in closed silos. I’ve got whole novels sitting in Ulysses (yes, as backups too, I’m paranoid like that), and before that, I had the same in another writing app called Scrivener. Ulysses rely on text files, basically, written in markdown[1] and lumped together in their own library format. Scrivener, by comparison, does the same, but with rich text files[2]. The fact that the actual files are accessible means that you should be able to wrench your content out of the app’s propriety library files, should exports stop working. It would perhaps be a hassle, but at least possible.

Being someone who’s been writing in markdown for years, there isn’t any need for anything but plain text files. I’ve been relying on the likes of Ulysses and Scrivener over the years because they offer organization and various templates to easier structure large documents. By large, I mean books – I wrote the Smashing WordPress series in Scrivener, and I’ve written several novels and novellas in Ulysses. The apps are helpful when it comes to organizing the story, moving scenes around is a matter of dragging “cards”, or whatever metaphor you want to use. Theoretically, it’s a great feature.

However, I’ve come to realize that I’m old school. If I want to move a scene, I’ll copy-paste it. And if I want to organize my novel in chapters, I don’t have those in the same file anyway, it’s going to be different files, thus making moving them around as easy as changing their file names. My outlines are already all over the place, sometimes in text files, other times in whatever outlining app I’m curious about at the moment, but most of the time, they live in notebooks. I get no help whatsoever from any of these fancy writing apps for outlining work and the like. To bring things home, when a manuscript is done, it always gets exported to DOCX, the file format used by Microsoft Word (and others). This is where the editor will force me into using the Track Changes feature, and then we’ll send Word files back and forth. No getting around that one, and no help from fancy writing apps either. You’re stuck with Word, or a compatible word processor like Pages (which I prefer), for the editing work. Raw text files, wherever they might reside, are left behind, forgotten and outdated, from this point onward.

Why lock anything into a silo? I hate silos, I really do, but they’re hard to avoid.

I’ve got nothing against Ulysses (or Scrivener, which I left for the former), mind you. It’s a great app, it offers a lot of helpful features. I like the interface and experience. I’m less enthused by the subscription model it uses, but that’s beside the point, especially since I’ve been paying it since day one.

But the silo it creates, that I dislike.

So, I’m going to move my long-form writing out of Ulysses. Here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Plain text, written in markdown, living in iCloud so that it syncs between all my devices.
  • I’ll most likely write in iA Writer (which I’m doing for shorter stuff already), but I could use any markdown-capable app. There are plenty to choose from.
  • Books will be folders, chapters will be files prepended by their number for easy sorting, and I’ll have sub-folders with other assets I might need.
  • When I’m done, I’ll either use the merge feature in iA Writer, which lets me link files in a master file, thus exporting everything from it without having to do any manual work, or I’ll pull it all together manually/with a script.
  • Exporting will probably be done by iA Writer, too. It’s great for giving me a range of file formats, and I can make them look good too. Or, in the case of novel manuscripts, format them in the standardized format.[3]
  • Backup will happen automatically since I’ve got a whole system set up for that. Remember, while iCloud, Dropbox and the like might synchronize your data, that also means that it’s vulnerable from several sources. Sync is not a backup.

That’s what I’m doing. It’s a platform agnostic approach to my writing, and I like that a lot. I might even commit my writing to a git repository, it’s all TXT files so anything goes. I could publish it as a website by exporting them to HTML, the possibilities are, if not endless, at least numerous.

Yeah, I’m weirdly enthused by this.

It's been a week, I can tell you, and it's not over yet. As I'm wrapping this up, getting ready to send it to you all, I'm also thinking about the day's last meeting. Then it's wine time, let me tell you, I've earned it. I hope you have too, but if not, don't worry – you got this far, that has to account for something.

Thord D. Hedengren

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  1. Markdown is a fancy way of adding some formatting to plain text. Characters such as the asterisk (*), brackets and the like are used to highlight, and, when exporting, convert the text into formatting or markup.
  2. They use the enhanced RTF format, called RTFD, if I'm not mistaken.
  3. Manuscript format is a thing, although which flavor (fonts, sizes, row spacing) depends on the publisher. Make sure you read up on what gives before submitting a manuscript, otherwise it might end up in the bin unread.


The Bored Horse is a weekly essay and letter about technology, life, and figuring out where everything fits in-between. I hope to see you in your inbox soon. (No horses were harmed in the creation of this product.)