Thinking in rich text

I’ve been using plain text notetaking applications for over a decade now. Before that I used Evernote, and before that I didn’t really keep any digital notes. [1] I have written previously about notetaking, but that writing doesn’t remain relevant today. Some part of me always felt a little hypocritical for having such sharp opinions about notetaking applications whilst most of the notes I do keep are stupid and unhelpful.

My real problem wasn’t a lack of a good application. My problem was not knowing how to make good use of notes. This is still my problem—I haven’t figured it out. But ever since I started using Craft last year I have made a discovery.

I think much better in rich text.

My rich text notes have been much more helpful to me in actually being productive. I was surprised by this finding. But now that I have been doing it for a little while, I’m starting to understand why.

First let me say that I’m a huge nerd and I love everything about plain text. I’m pretty much right there with all the hype—portable, future proof, elegant, interoperable—all of that good stuff.

But, plain text nerds, hear me out. Rich text is actually kind of… neat. You can organize your documents with nice headings, you can drop in media, you can make nice clickable hyperlinks (and they even hide away the ugly URLs!), you can highlight things and make block quotes and other types of visual callouts, you can add lists and even clickable checkboxes.

I’m finding out what every non-nerd computer user already knows—computers are powerful document creation tools. They offer a ton of formatting and design options and these features have been around for decades. If I push back my bias toward plain text for just a second, I can see that there is a lot of flexibility and power that I am missing out on by limiting myself to plain text.

Now I hear what you’re saying… “You can do all of this with plain text! It’s called Markdown! It’s amazing! And future proof, and portable, and interoperable, and—“ I hear you. I really do. I love Markdown. But it is not, and was never meant to be, a rich, what-you-see-is-what-you-get editing experience.

I’m defining rich text as any kind of what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) editing experience and not strictly .rtf format. Craft fits squarely in that category, as does Evernote.

Lately I’ve been using notes in Craft to outline my thinking before starting a coding problem and to describe solutions, outline tasks, and collect relevant links to documentation. I know that you can do all this with Markdown, but WYSIWYG is so much nicer. Lets look at a few things that are nice about WYSIWYGs but kind of annoying with plain text and/or Markdown.

Reading and writing simultaneously

One of the benefits of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editing experience is, well, just that. I can write my thoughts and mark them up visually as needed. And I can immediately read them as they are intended to appear. There’s no context switching involved. With many Markdown editors, the only way to write and immediately see it in a more reading-friendly format is to open up a preview pane.

These kind of previews make sense from a technical perspective. You are basically writing source code and live-previewing the compiled version of it. [2]

But I’m not writing code. I’m writing my thoughts, plans, reference material. I don’t want to see the same document twice. I don’t have room on my monitor for that. I have come to enjoy the quick feedback loop of creating and consuming my notes simultaneously. Many apps try to make Markdown feel like rich text by doing some fancy parsing of your source code and doing some inline formatting. But that can be clunky and never feels quite right to me.

Speaking of source code, there are too many flavors of Markdown

There are quite a few implementations of Markdown floating around out there. I’m tired of never knowing exactly which version of Markdown I’m using. Every app seems to use a different one. Quick, how do you do italics in Markdown?

Visual elements are nice

It is easy to think you don’t really need any of these superfluous features. That’s certainly what I thought. Who needs highlighting? But I have found visual elements to be useful. Highlighting bits of information is something I did back when I still had the ability to handwrite. Same for calling out bits of text or sketching little images. WYSIWYG editors like Craft make adding these elements a primary feature. It’s easy, it’s smooth, and it looks nice.

Some Markdown apps to a pretty good job of adding inline visuals, I concede. But even then they are limited to the small subset of formatting options that Markdown (or more accurately, some Markdown variant) supports.

Giving rich text a try

As much as I love the philosophy and utility of plain text notes, it hasn’t really worked out for me in practice. I’m starting to think that my anxiety about using WYSIWYGs with proprietary formats is perhaps not totally justified.

For example, even though Craft uses its own format, the company has some pretty strong pro-privacy and pro-data-ownership positions. They have impressive export capability, which helps to prevent lock-in and future proof-ness. Knowing my track record, it’s possible (probable even) that I will switch notetaking apps on a whim in the future. But my point stands. Rich text is nice to work in.

  1. Before I started using digital notes in the mid to late 2000s, I wrote and doodled a lot in physical notebooks. When I was younger I had a bit of a problem collecting pens. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have spinal muscular atrophy, and that SMA is a progressive condition which has since deprived me of the ability to handwrite, I would still be keeping a physical notebook to this day. ↩︎

  2. I’m going to keep calling Markdown source code because that is what it is. It is meant to be ”compiled” into HTML. Some apps will attempt some formatting inline, but the only way to see what a document written in Markdown actually looks like is to render it in HTML and CSS. ↩︎