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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

Giles Turnbull's picture

Wowzers; I didn't realise my...

Wowzers; I didn't realise my humble weblog post would spark such a lot of discussion. It's great to see there are some other all-in-one-file folks out there too.

To answer some of your questions, Merlin:

  • As far as moving around the file goes, I depend on good old Command+Option+F in BBEdit, which brings up the quick search window. I search my way to what I need. When I first started, I did a lot of scrolling, in the mistaken belief that scrolling would be quicker. It's not.

  • I decide where new stuff goes according to a simple scheme of logical headings (at least, they're logical to me). Posts for my O'Reilly blog go under *orablog, posts for my weather blog go under *weather, posts for my personal site go under *gilest. Articles in progress go under *ora for O'Reilly, *bbc for the BBC, *icol for my internet column, and so on.

Within each section, items are separated by a simple '..' with a clear line above and below: quick to type and visually sufficient for me to see what's where.

  • Versioning is something I rarely need. My todo.txt is the place where I develop works in progress; once they're done, they get archived into a file of their own (this is more to help me when it comes to paying my taxes than for any other reason). For the vast majority of my work, it is sufficient for me to overwrite old versions with new ones. In the rare instance when I might need to keep several versions to hand, I'll put one after the other in my file. Do people really keep versioned drafts of blog posts? I don't see the point, myself.

  • I don't think about my work much differently, though I have noticed that using one file suits my scatterbrained, disorganised mind. While I'm writing about X, I'll often think about something related to Y; it's very simple to jump down to Y, make a note, then return to what I was doing. In split view, it's even easier.

A few other things:

  • I write loads of stuff in Markdown, in preparation for converting to HTML and pasting into some CMS somewhere.

  • I should repeat, just to make clear, that I use my file for everything that's ongoing. Stuff that's finished with is removed and archived. I don't use the file for any kind of logging or journaling.

  • But I also use it for essential information that I always need to hand, such as my addresses.

  • I only keep stuff in the file that needs to stay there. Web stuff (pages I want to read, for example) are better in my del.icio.us account than in my file.

  • I keep having to remind myself not to worry about adding more stuff. A 2000 word article might sound like a lot to add to the file, but it's not much in comparison to the size of the whole thing.

  • Actual things I really need to do (you could call them 'Next Actions' but that would be making them sound a lot grander than they really are) go right at the top.

Reflecting on all this, and on the comments others have made, I think this system works for me mainly because my life - and therefore my requirements - are pretty simple. I work part-time, have a small list of clients and mostly only need to work with plain text (as text or HTML). I rarely have to share stuff with others (except when filing completed copy), never need to synch calendars or todos with other people, and don't have any other devices, aside from my two computers, which need access to the data.




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