Why Plaintext for Notes?
My offline brain
I use my computer as my "offline brain"; it is my long-term memory, and sometimes my short-term memory as well. My preferred method of working involves intense, deep focus on a single task at a time. Once I "get into the zone", I tend to lose track of other things almost entirely. For that reason, I write down a lot of things: what I need to do, information about what I need to do, information from my boss or the client that is critical for me to know, and procedures for doing the same kinds of work later on (after I've forgotten about how to do them).I collect information from almost every meeting or phone call I do. In terms of my task list, I collect information from emails as well. When I start work in the morning, I even create a journal entry to collect information from myself as to what I'm prepared to work on for the day.
You may not write down as much as I do, but no matter what, at work you need to take notes sometimes, and probably, if you have meetings, numerous times throughout the day.
The problem with notes is that, if you don't organize them, they end up a jumbled mess in which you can't find anything. If you do organize them, you may spend too much time dragging and dropping them into folders, or put yourself in time-wasting situations where you don't know how to classify a note. In the end, a simple, consistent system works best, provided you have full-text searching to use along with it.
The short answer: I am not a visual thinker, and I can type really fast.
The long answer: Plaintext is flexible, fully searchable, allows you to use nice text editors and other tools, and doesn't require you to give up as much as you might think.
Reasons to use plaintext for notes
There are actually plenty of reasons to prefer plaintext for notes and drafts.
- I can type fast (vs. handwriting).
- The entire writing process is often keyboard-centric (and therefore fast) rather than requiring frequent mousing (which is slower).
- No fancy graphics, animations, or controls are necessary to write plaintext.
- Plaintext forces you to separate formatting from content, which allows you to focus better on the content.
- I can write using the most readable and pleasing fonts on my screen (I prefer Consolas at the moment), regardless of what the final document is going to look like.
- It avoids the copy-paste-reformat problems in Word and rich-text editors.
- You can use Markdown syntax (or any other, or none) to structure your content and indicate simple formatting.
- Plaintext is easily searchable by just about any software on the planet.
- Plaintext is easily synced across devices, via Dropbox or other services.
- There is no proprietary format lock-in. You will always be able to open your files, even years later.
- Plaintext can be accessed online or offline.
- It can be read and written to cross-platform. You may not need to worry about Linux
- You have a wide choice of text editors, some of which are geared expressly toward writers.
- Version control (revision history) of plaintext files, and extracting the differences (diffs) between versions, has been possible almost as long as computers have been around
Why not use Evernote?
If you want to take notes, organize them, and search them, why not just use Evernote? Well, fine, just use Evernote! It is an awesome service and is available on every platform out there. I have used it since the beginning, when it was nothing like it is now. That said, last year I stopped using it for my work notes because it was no longer working that well for me. I several specific beefs with Evernote:
Evernote does not offer plaintext editing. It is rich text, and it tries very, very hard to preserve formatting of whatever you paste in. This drives me nuts. I don't want my notes to be all in different fonts and text sizes. Also, when you copy and paste notes out of Evernote and into Word, Word tries very, very hard to preserve the formatting set in Evernote. Reformatting text in two places is a total waste of time.
Evernote doesn't lead itself to exporting your notes and drafts into other formats. You are basically left with copy-and-paste.
Your notes are either trapped in Evernote, or only exportable to HTML, which isn't the most useful format for editing documents.
Evernote doesn't do version control. Multiple revisions of your notes are not saved. Intermediate versions are important to me because I have lost work in the past, and it is frustrating.
Evernote's client apps keep changing their designs and features every year or so. Evernote has been through so many iterations in the last two years I can't even count them. The apps are meant to be beautiful and appealing to the average user, but I am not the average user.
You may not be comfortable storing your private notes on a third party's server. (This applies to all web services, however, including Dropbox.)
Why not use SimpleNote?
SimpleNote is a service that offers syncing of plaintext notes, and online version history of those notes. It hits most of the requirements I have for a good plaintext notes system. The syncing service is fantastic, and the web site and iOS apps are fast, clean and simple, but it does not have a large number of software clients. ResophNotes is the best SimpleNote client on Windows (it is by far the best of the 2-3 clients on the whole platform), and nvAlt and Notational Velocity are (in my opinion) the best clients on Mac (which I can't use for work). If you like SimpleNote, sure, use it!
I don't use this service any more, mostly because ResophNotes, while very great at quick note creation and syncing, does not have some features, such as in-note search and keyboard shortcuts for Markdown, that would make my note writing process easier for me.