I have been kicking various versions of this post around for months. FoldingText is an app that is very hard to put into words and I’ll admit that not everyone will be seduced by its charms. All of the words I’ve written and deleted up to this point are just ways of saying the following:
FoldingText is the best plain text editor currently available for day-to-day use. It may be the most useful and creatively-innovative word entry application since Byword or Scrivener.
The application itself was made for nerds by a nerd. Jesse Grosjean has done a lot of work on text editing applications and implementing scripting and it shows. Others have written with more depth and include a lot of the facts of the matter, but I’m going to approach this, as I usually do, from the perspective of how I use the tool and why it fits so snugly into my wheelhouse for all of the things I need to do throughout a typical work day.
I think in outlines.
After having several conversations with Gabe Weatherhead from Macdrifter, I realized I wasn’t alone in this. I’ve tried mindmaps and they have their place and I’ve tried using tools specifically designed for outlining (like OmniOutliner) but, in the end, using a plain text outline format always seems like the easiest alternative. This is coming from a guy who has spent many hours fiddling with OPML importing and exporting to various apps and device – scripts in python, KeyboardMaestro, Applescript, etc.
Websites like Checkvist have come along (thanks, Gabe!) and have made web-based outlining fairly seamless. Ultimately, all of these tools have their place and I’ve wrestled with each one but it comes down to me fighting against the inevitability of a simple, plain text outline format.
Some things have happened in the last few years that make using a plain text outline a little easier. On the iPad, the keyboard macro ribbon in NebulousNotes works well for keeping things simple and fast. I’m still using the technique I wrote up a few months ago when I’m on my iPad and with a new teeny hardware keyboard arriving soon (I hope), I’m sure it will get more use.
Here’s how I use FoldingText.
At the beginning of the week, I’ll use nvALT to create a new file for my meetings and planning sessions. This file gets updated with text all week long, using a TextExpander snippet header/divider to delineate the text for each meeting. The TextExpander snippet creates the header text in markdown, bolds it and inserts a date-time stamp. I can be ready to type my notes within seconds of sitting down in a meeting and the headers help me stay consistent in identification and format. This consistency also makes it easy to search for specific meeting minutes later.
The way FoldingText handles indenting and bulleted lists works perfectly for me. When you use Tab and Shift-tab you’re met with exactly what you’d expect – proper indenting. The muscle memory for these hotkeys, built up over the years in similarly well-written and consistent apps, is rewarded.
Once a few meetings are entered, you start making use of the more interesting and unique features of FoldingText. The application gives you the ability to focus on a section of a document at a time. It can also expand and contract pieces of the document based on indent levels. Those markdown meeting headers I mentioned earlier come in very handy here.
Another really powerful feature that I tend to use a lot is “Focus Mode” which amounts to honing your view of the document to a single section with the rest drawing up into an ellipses encased in a little black triangle in the upper left of the page. It’s an elegant solution and, like many of the features of the app, I never expected I’d have need for it…until I did. Once it “clicked” for me, I started using the feature often. As with all seriously nerd-centric apps, while each one of these commands can be invoked by the menu, they can also be invoked using handy and intuitive hotkeys.
The Expand and Collapse commands provide more ways to hone what you see. I use them if I have a lot of meeting notes sections cluttering up a page. Selecting all of the meetings from earlier in the week and selecting the “Collapse” command rolls them up to just a header lines. You can also do that with small subsections within larger sections of your document. It’s a fantastic feature and I use it constantly to keep the relevant text visible at all times as I write notes throughout the course of a meeting.
There is a handy quick document navigation feature where you can, without using your mouse, zip around your document quickly using section headers. It isn’t that helpful early in the week, but later in the week, when the document has grown to massive size, this is a life-saver.
I was slightly baffled by the size of the font when I first opened the app. It seemed to big and I couldn’t find any way to change it in the preferences. Then I decided to take a peek at the “Zoom” function and, lo and behold, this menu item makes the text bigger and smaller. It was pretty obvious in retrospect.
Having everything as plain text is brilliant as it allows me to access the same text documents in Dropbox that I access via nvALT for comprehensive searching or Nebulous Notes on my iPad for on-the-go changes, updates or research. The advanced document navigation and view management of those same, simple, markdown-based text files makes this an incredible tool.
There’s a lot more to say about FoldingText and I may post items here or there as I find new uses for key features. If you’re a plain text person who uses markdown and can use your Mac at work (that’s a pretty long list of caveats!), you’re crazy if you’re not using this app.
If you want to listen to an interview with the creator of FoldingText, Grosjean was interviewed by Brett Terpstra on his podcast, Systematic on 5by5.tv. Go give it a listen!