Issue 22 Mar 10, 2023

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:

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.

📚 I'm still reading my friend's book, which is great. Just about done, as it were, so I bet she's nervous now!

🎵 Listening to Moody Blue by Elvis, which might surprise you, but it fits my mood this week.

📺 Watching Fleishman is in Trouble. It's a lighthearted drama with Jesse Eisenberg being, well, Jesse Eisenberg. Make of that what you will.

🎮 Playing the second Lifeline text adventure because I'm curious to see how the storytelling develops, if at all.

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 ⚡

[^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.

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