When plain text is wrong

Plugin mindmap screenshot

If you’ve read any of my writing or looked at any of my projects, you’re probably fully aware of the nerd wood I get for plain text. You know, the stuff that’s been around since the dawn of the computer and will still be around when there’s not an application left that can open a DOCX file. I have to admit, though, that there are some things I can’t–and don’t want–to do in plain text.

Plain text is good at storing pieces of information in a linear format. That’s what most of us do most of the time, so it’s a really fun (and potentially useful) thing to nerd out about. I do. A lot. But even among plain text fanatics there are always lines that have to be drawn. Some jobs require Microsoft Word for a final publication, sometimes an HTML email needs to be sent, hell, almost all of our Markdown–at some point–ends up as rich text for one purpose or another. The beauty of Markdown is that I can keep the source documents clean and just keep generating different output for different needs. That’s neat, and it’s what makes MultiMarkdown and apps like Marked so useful.

I don’t currently do any writing or work that requires anything other than a last-minute HTML conversion from text, so my line gets drawn a little further out. I even get away with sending raw Markdown in my emails (don’t judge, it’s really very readable and totally predictable cross-platform). The line for me, though, is at brainstorming.

It is, in my mind, impossible to effectively brainstorm in a text file. If you use a format that’s even slightly more flexible than a typewriter, you’ll get better results. A whiteboard, for example. A Moleskine you can doodle around in. In my case, mind maps. Hand drawn or created on the computer, concept map or mind map, it doesn’t matter. It beats text hands down.

Radiant thinking, as Tony Buzan coined it, is impossible to accomplish in a linear list format. A text file doesn’t allow you to continue multiple branches of thought simultaneously. Maybe if you had a dozen windows or split panes open in your editor and could jump around from section to section working on a bunch of indented markdown lists… but you’d still be less productive than I am in any mind mapping setting. I can almost guarantee it. I might be projecting, but I just don’t think the human brain works that way.

For me, it has nothing to do with pretty branch colors and tweaking font sizes. I’ll admit, if I’m presenting a map I like it to be pretty (maybe even stunning), but the number one reason I prefer the format is simply its structure. Jumping around from thought branch to thought branch, adding and extending idea nodes, I always find myself coming up with details and even new ideas that I know I wouldn’t have found if I’d just popped the initial idea into a text file.

Why am I writing this post? Hopefully to save someone else from wasting the time I spent pondering whether you really could do anything with text files. Turns out, at least for me, you can’t.

I’m okay with that, I really do love my mind maps.

Brett Terpstra

Brett is a writer and developer living in Minnesota, USA. You can follow him as ttscoff on Twitter, GitHub, and Mastodon. Keep up with this blog by subscribing in your favorite news reader.

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