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Life inside one big text file

O’Reilly Network Weblogs: Living in text files

Giles takes one of the biggest, geekiest leaps you can—moving all of his stuff into a single big-ass plain text file.

As Danny O’Brien discovered during his research into effective organizational habits of geeks, text is the simplest, most platform-independent, fastest-to-search format we have for storing information. So everything I need - from todos, blog posts in progress, article ideas, addresses, my list of books to read, the shopping list, and much more besides, lives in just the one file. In effect, I live in that file. When I’m sitting in front of my computer, it feels like home.

This ambitious strategy—usually only whispered about among the lower geek echelons in which I dwell—seems to require a lot of confidence, planning, and familiarity with your favorite flavor of text editor. Mine’s currently TextMate, but, given what I’ve seen people like Danny do with Vim (and its incremental search-on-steroids, scripting functions, and endless shortcuts and configurability), this really reignites my resolve to hit the book and thumb through all my bookmarks again.

So. Questions for people who are already living in one text file:

  • What tips do you have for people considering the big move?
  • What tricks do you use to organize, automate, and move around in your huge-ass text file?
  • How do you decide where new stuff goes within a mutli-thousand line document?
  • Are you using section and sub-section headings to jump around?
  • How do you handle versions and multiple drafts of subsections (like, say, blog posts)
  • Got any sweet Vim tricks to share?
  • Any point where this approach starts to fall apart?
  • Have you found you think about your work differently when you work inside only one file?

Spill whatever you like about your one-file system (and, curious folks, feel free to ask questions).

Related Stuff

dan's picture

I try to get the...

I try to get the best of both worlds. I keep notes in lots of separate text files. When I need to look at them as one big file, I use blosxom to string them together as html.

Let me go through that in a bit more detail. Blosxom is intended to turn text files into blogs. It slurps in a directory structure full of text files, and splurts it out in html, with all the standard blog navigation and view options. In other words, you can view your files by directory, by date, individually, or as one long file.

I use a blosxom plugin for Markdown, which lets me add readable formatting that gets converted into HTML.

The text editor I use is emacs. But I don't think it matters much, as long as your editor saves files in text format, lets you flip easily between several dozen files, and doesn't take up much screen space (you need room for a browser to view your stuff).

I use this system for most of my notes - academic course work, other projects, things to think about. My todo lists would be there, but I keep them on paper instead. Over the year I've been using the system, I've written about 200,000 words of notes, and it's all easy to access.

The big advantage over a text file is that it can cope with you doing fairly large projects inside it, without getting in the way of everything else. Most of the preparatory work for my dissertation happened in emacs/blosxom, for example.

There's an added bonus in that it's all accessible over the web, which is good if you're using lots of computers. I even kept a public version (now semi-defunct) for a while, with the personal stuff removed by shell scripts.




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