Simple, mobile text editing

Something that should be simple has me confounded. Suddenly we’ve got a surplus of simple text editors. Notational Velocity, Simplenote, PlainText and Apple’s own TextEdit hardly represent the beginning of what’s available, and each deserves a thorough examination. For example, spend an hour with TextEdit and you’ll begin to see what it’s capable of.

The problem is that I’m a nerd, and as such feel compelled to check out any system that might be better than one I’m using.

Let’s start with what we know. I know that I love PlainText. Why?

  • It’s beautiful
  • Dropbox support
  • I can create files on my iPad and edit them in TextEdit on my Mac, and vice versa
  • Tidy folders appeal to the neat-nick inside of me

What don’t I like?

  • It works with Scrivener but does weird things as well, like create oddly-titled folders that you are not allowed to move or rename ever under penalty of death
  • It won’t open any plain text file in my Dropbox, only those in the designated directory

The other problem is that I can’t easily find a file created in the PlainText folder from the Mac OS Finder. That requires opening a Finder window, navigating to the right folder, double-clicking the file. [1. Yes, I know there are significantly worse things in the world, like cancer, social injustice and Tim Allen movies.]. But it’s still bothersome. For that reason I’m tempted to use Notational Velocity and Simplenote, but I don’t like the Simplenote web app. I’m not keen on its looks but more importantly, it dumps everything into a single pile. My brain needs folders.

Fortunately, I found this post from CMDComma explaining how to use Notational Velocity to sync with the PlainText folder on Dropbox. It almost works for me. The problem is that, as I said, I’ve got several folders within the main SimpleText folder, and NV makes you choose one. So, I’ve made a “NV” folder within the SimpleText folder. But that’s just added another layer of complexity.

Hopefully, I’ll be discussing the whole mess with Myke and Terry on tomorrow’s episode of The Bro Show, as they’ve been kind enough to oblige me. Believe me, I’m keenly aware of the irony here. Dead-simple text editing has got me befuddled.

Scrivener and PlainText for iPad

I’ve been using Scrivener for several weeks now, and was thrilled with how easily it synchronizes with PlainText for iPad, my favorite iOS text editor. Here’s how to set it up.

First, create a folder within PlainText’s directory in your Dropbox. [1. I’m still waiting for the day when these apps become less picky about their location.] Next, go to File > Sync in Scrivener and select With External Folder. A new slip appears. Navigate to the folder you created on Dropbox. Be sure to select Format External Drafts as plain text. Finally, hit sync and you’re done. Now updates made with Scrivener will appear in PlainText and vice versa.

There are some caveats to remember. First, sync isn’t automatic. You must manually initiate a sync via Scrivener’s file menu on your Mac. Second, you can’t change page titles in PlainText; doing so will mess things up in a big way. Finally, only your copy is synchronized, meaning no reference material on the iPad. Still, this setup works when you have the time and inclination to write and only your iPad.

PlainText is my preferred iPad text editor

The iPad is a computer, and most computers have text editors. There are many stellar examples for the iPad, including Simplenote and iA Writer. For me, the choice is PlainText from Hog Bay Software. Here’s why I love it and how I’ve set up Apple’s TextEdit to take advantage of it.


It’s beautiful. Call me fickle, but looks count. I’m going to spend a lot if time staring at this app, so it should look good. The typography is fantastic and everything is clear and legible. A documents list on the left occupies 1/3 of the screen, while the currently open file takes up the remaining 2/3. This is true in both landscape and portrait orientation. You can easily dismiss the list and go full-screen with the current file if you like.

There are few settings to fiddle with. Tap the gear icon and you’ll find view options (sort by name, creation date or modification date) and an option to display file extensions. Finally, you can toggle all-caps headings on or off. You won’t be incessantly tweaking ultimately inconsequential details because, frankly, there aren’t any. There’s also a debug mode and TextExpander integration if you’ve got that installed.

To create a new document, you simply tap the new document icon. To create a new folder, tap the new folder icon. You can re-name a document or folder whenever you like. To begin typing, tap inside an open document to produce the keyboard. Saving occurs behind the scenes.

That’s all there is to it, folks. PlainText looks great, works well and has a friendly, legible UI. That’s 90% of what I need.


PlainText is on the growing list of apps that use Dropbox for synchronization. Setup is easy. Select Dropbox from the settings menu and enter your account information. PlainText will create a directory called PlainText at the top level of your Dropbox, and present you with several synchronization options:

  1. Sync on edit
  2. Sync on launch
  3. Sync on Open File
  4. Sync on Open Folder

I’ve got them all turned on so everything is saved all the time. The best thing is that, if you make a terrible mistake, you can browse each file’s revision history at

Back on the Mac

Of course, the directory and all of its contents are accessible from any machine that’s hooked into my Dropbox account, including my Mac. That means I can use my favorite Mac OS text editor, TextEdit, to open and work on any of the files. Note that PlainText will only play nicely with plain text documents. By default, TextEdit creates rich text documents. But that’s easily remedied.

Open TextEdit and select preferences. Click the New Document tab and select Plain Text under Format. Close the preference pane and you’re done. You can now create a new plain text document with TextEdit to the PlainText directory and it will be available to read and edit the next time you launch PlainText.

The tipping point for me is that PlainText allows me to use my current workflow unaltered. As I said, TextEdit is my favorite Mac OS text editor. PlainText lets me use it as I always have. Likewise, I’m quite reliant on Dropbox, and PlainText brings that to the table, too.

Basically, PlainText invites the iPad into my workflow; it does not require me to force my workflow around my iPad.

PlainText is free with ads, $4.99 without. My advice: part with the five bucks.