How I learned to stop worrying and love tags

I’ve been searching for the perfect mobile text solution. Surely it can’t be that difficult, right? You’ll find a brief history here:

Additionally, I don’t want to abandon PlainText on the iPad, which I love. About a week into my dilemma, I’ve realized that the real hurdle was an old habit: nested folders. But before we get to the solution, let’s look at the problem.

In the diagram above, you’ll see my hardware and software. 1. I want to use Dropbox to sync text files between my Mac and iPad without minimal effort. I also want to add/edit files easily from the Mac and do the same with PlainText on the iPad.

The MacBook Air can access any file or folder on Dropbox, while Notational Velocity and Simplenote are restricted to a single directory. Meanwhile, PlainText on the iPad can access any folder within a target directory.

The answer seem obvious: dump everything into a single folder and use tags to keep things sorted. I had two problems with that solution. The first is that Notational Velocity and Plaintext don’t support tagging. The second, more powerful issue was my stubborn adherence to nested folders.

This is an old habit. Years ago, I kept things organized in the Finder with folders. A Projects folder held many sub-folders, one per project. Those had folders of their own for support files like images, spreadsheets, etc. That’s how I was taught and that’s what I did.

Last weekend I clenched my jaw and dumped everything into a single pile within the PlainText folder, defying a decades-old habit. Next, I opened Notational Velocity’s preferences and pointed it to the pile and turned on Simplenote sync.

Tag, you’re it

The next step was to open Simplenote and begin tagging. It took less time and generated even fewer tags than I expected. Now I can create or edit a note in Notational Velocity and have it show up in Simplenote and PlainText automatically, thanks to Dropbox. But what about the lack of tags in Notational Velocity and PlainText?

Naming conventions

The trick is in how files are named.  Ben Brooks wrote about this today. I like his method, though I’ve adopted a simpler syntax. For example, a note meant for 52 Tiger (be it a post idea, reference note, etc.) starts with “52tiger.” The post you’re reading now began as a note called “52tiger text post.” This keeps things in alphabetical order and acts as a simple categorization for the apps without tags. When time permits, I can go into Simplenote and add tags, but there’s no rush as long as I title things properly.

Plain is best

Dave Sparks wrote a great article about the benefits of plain text last week that had me cheering 2. A plain text document can be opened by almost any computer at all, pasted anywhere and edited when I’m ready. Plain text files don’t demand a piece of software that might cease to exist or cost you a lot of money. My solution uses plain text files exclusively for all of those reasons.

Now I’ve got simple creation, editing and search on the Mac with Notational Velocity and on the iPad with PlainText. Simplenote lets me go in and add tags as time permits, but proper naming lets me slack off on that. Plus, if I want to edit in Simplenote, I can do that, too. Changes made on any either machine with any of these apps are updated everywhere thanks to Dropbox.

At last, I’m happy.

  1. You also see that I can’t draw very well.
  2. As much as a person can, or should, cheer about plain text.