Recently I wrote about some of the problems I have with digital tools and the thoughts and processes around them. Right around the same time I posted, two more posts around the same ideas popped up on Scribbles, one of which really hit home with me. Not because I agreed with it but because in my mind the author moved from one extreme to the other based on writing from a fan-favorite of this space: Derek Sivers.

Just a bit about Sivers first. He’s a darling of the Plain Text crowd as well as the host-everything-yourself crowd. He advocates journaling (and general writing) in plain text files on a computer file system for…ease of preservation? Nothing wrong with any of this other than I think it’s a bit misguided for almost anyone other than Derek Sivers. He seems to have oversized influence in tech circles though and I see these same two articles come up a lot in my travels on the web.

Articles like his about journaling in plain text sans app is the type of opinion, presented as best practice for everyone, that drives me nuts. There is no other explanation as to why someone should do this other than maybe in 50 years someone will need to read the files and if it’s not in plain text outside of an app of some sort this won’t happen.

I guess all of the handwaving is supposed to disguise the small details like consistent backups and moving the data from drive to drive over the years to make sure the files themselves still exist. Plain text” doesn’t absolve the responsibility for any of that. (To be fair Sivers has an article about backups too.)

Let me share a resource that has a different opinion on formats: the United States Library of Congress. Tasked with preserving just about all types of knowledge the Library maintains a Recommended Formats Statement that shows the formats preferred by an organization who’s focus is maintainability of information.

From the introduction to the RFS (emphasis mine):

Through the mechanism of our annual review process and a robust engagement with stakeholders both internal and external, the RFS continues to reflect the most up-to-date and forward-thinking information strongly rooted in community practice.

Take a look at that summary I linked to above, more specifically the Textual Works - Digital” table, row 2 Formats, in order of preference”. Note where plain text files appear in the order of preference: in the Acceptable” column sandwiched in between Rich text format” and Widely-used proprietary word-processing formats” under 3. Other formats”.

I point this out because writing in plain text in a file system” is presented as dogma when it is nothing of the sort. It is opinion pure and simple. There is nothing wrong with plain text or Markdown but basing your decisions about readability in 50 years on this type of information is misguided. PDF will be readable in 50 years. Likely Microsoft formats like docx will be readable in 50 years as the volume of documents prepared in all of these formats in areas like law pretty much guarantee that. My point? Write in whatever format and app that makes you happy and leave the Boogeyman of readable in 50 years” in the rearview mirror.

(Side note: Microsoft Word on Windows has the ability to read Word 6 files. MS Word 6 was released in 1993.)

Earlier I mentioned a post that inspired me to write this one and I want to talk about it. It was this one: Day One Premium from the Scribbles Blog Mike’s Thoughts”

Mike was a fan of Day One and used the app extensively for journaling for years. He then says:

Soon there was a disruption in the force likely caused by Derek Sivers. He had written back when on journaling here. […] I wanted something else. Something more basic. Sivers again whispered to me about the benefits of clear text.

The rest of the post almost sounds like proselytizing Sivers’ One True Way but to be honest I really don’t care how Mike has chosen to write. If he truly does prefer all this, and it works for him, than good on him as he’s made it farther than I have but the idea that apps are somehow keeping us from our words is misguided.

Mike says:

I decided then to stop with subscriptions that separated my words from me. Gone were Drafts and Ulysses.

What became important was not some tool or app that abstracted my words from me. I wanted like other parts of my life — simplicity.

The apps in question, Day One, Drafts, Ulysses, are not keeping anyone’s words from them. They are not abstracting” words away from anyone. They are not locking anyone’s words away where they can’t be retrieved. Subscriptions are not separating anyone from their words either. In the case of Day One and Drafts the base version is free allowing anyone to write as many words as they want while at the same time allowing easy export of those words as to not lock you in to the system. Let’s not mention that the whole reason of existence for Drafts is to move text to somewhere else after getting your initial draft down in it.

I understand the desire for fewer subscriptions. I am in the process of getting rid of many of them myself, including Drafts and Ulysses, but because I want fewer things in my life (simplicity), not because of some idea that they are abstracting my words”. They are tools, just like whatever editor Mike is now using to write those Markdown files. He’s replaced one tool with another. He could just as easily write in Drafts and use one of its built-in actions to write that text out to his file system, just like any other text editor.

Mike says of Day One:

Day One Premium was a casualty. Because words mattered more than a glitzy tool to capture them.

Is it really because words mattered more”? As I mentioned before Day One is free to use. The tool didn’t need to be switched at all. The words going in would be just as relevant as before. The idea that somehow they matter more based on the tool you use to write them is absolutely bizarre to me.

I’m going to be up front here and say I am a huge fan of Day One. I’ve owned it from the day the first version appeared in the App Store and gladly pay a subscription fee every year for Day One Premium because it is that important to my life. It is a purpose-built (not glitzy) tool to support all sorts of journaling - text, pictures, video, and audio - and the types of data people might find important (dates, times, locations) including revisiting those entries at a later time via its On This Day” feature (Sivers mentions revisiting journal entries in his journaling article oddly enough). I have pictures, video, and audio of my kids in there at all stages of their lives that I revisit often. It’s a wonderful tool for collecting and revisiting memories.

I want to make sure I’m being clear that this isn’t about whether someone wants to pay for Day One or not but about this idea that somehow Day One would be keeping someone away from their words, locking them away in some proprietary format never to be seen again if it disappears. Day One has the ability to export your data to the Library of Congress-preferred PDF format or, better yet, to print real, physical, books. Do you want preservation of words? Don’t rely on digital formats, print your words on paper. There is nothing else like it in the world.

April 11, 2024