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Plain Text (as in .TXT) Outliner?

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Posted by steveylang
Mar 18, 2013 at 06:24 PM


I would love to see an outliner that uses plain text files as storage format, so that outlines could be readable via text editors, on other platforms, mobile devices, etc.  I use Dropbox in conjunction with Mac, Windows, and my iPhone, which is why TXT files would be a good vehicle for easy synchronization (real seamless synhronization, not just ability to import and export files.)

Tabs for hierarchy, some simple layout tags, that’s it. The main difference between this and a plain text editor is that you can collapse and expand items (along with perhaps some additional navigation features). The main difference between this and a regular outliner app is that documents are about as portable and cross-platform as they get (the negative would be that it would not be as fully featured as other outliners.) Another nice feature would be to have file/folder viewer, which basically gives you ‘outlines within outlines’ functionality.

Does such a program exist, anywhere (Mac or Windows)? The closest I’ve seen is TaskPaper and FoldingText for Mac, but the built-in formatting is not really outliner focused- TaskPaper recognizes headings and subheadings, but it’s not the same as using a simple outliner. I don’t want a ‘powerful’ outliner, I want something that’s simple, versatile, and gets out of the way when I am creating and organizing ideas.

Another app that is reaonably close is Tree (for Mac). It has a very elegant UI and is pretty light weight, and if you don’t like the ‘tree’ view you can use it as a regular single-pane outliner. It is very good at opening and importing plain text files (recognizing tabs to preserve outline structure), but doesn’t allow you to save in TXT format, forcing you to go through a export/import rigamarole. It can open and save in OPML format which is probably the next best thing to TXT files, if I can find something in iOS and Windows that works well with OPML and synchronizes with Dropbox.



Posted by MadaboutDana
Mar 18, 2013 at 09:19 PM


Funnily enough, I’ve been trawling the web looking for the Ultimate Text-based Cross-Platform Outliner. And have failed to find it, alas. Todo.txt, which is - for reasons that entirely escape me - extremely popular, takes the whole ‘simplicity’ thing to an extreme that even dedicated CRIMPers find too far (part of the CRIMPer’s disease is constant vacillation from one all-singing, all-dancing app to a totally other ultra-simple, ultra-streamlined app - and back again).

There are some good efforts, however. At the moment I’m testing out TaskPaper (on iOS) with TodoPaper (on Windows). Really quite nice, and entirely text-based. The only issue I have is with TaskPaper, which doesn’t do folding (TodoPaper does). A shame, since Jesse Grosjean also produces FoldingText (for the Mac), so clearly knows his way round an outliner.

TodoPaper, something of a homage to TaskPaper, is also quite expensive (USD 30.00). But nicely done, I must say, especially for CRIMPers hitting the ultra-simple, ultra-streamlined part of their cycle… ;-)


Posted by Arnold
Mar 18, 2013 at 10:39 PM


EMACS with orgmode ( the Operating System that includes a text editor ).
All files are plain text, can handle files from 1kb to multi gb in size.
Google or DuckDuckgo.com or Bing search for tips and tricks.

Plain text, multi-platform (not iOS, port on Android)

ducking for cover.


Posted by steveylang
Mar 18, 2013 at 11:33 PM


Well, that makes 2 of us so there must be a market for it, right? ;-)

Not only are we looking for the same outliner, we’ve tried much of the same software too. I own licenses for TaskPaper and TodoPaper (I got both on sale so the prices were better.) I used them for awhile for task management, but they didn’t suit me as an outliner. FoldingText folds, but doesn’t seem to be able to create proper outlines. But they are both based on the idea of using simple text files as the file format.

There are a few lightweight outliners that I like on both platforms- Tree for Mac, and Noteliner and UV Outliner for Windows. The keyboard interface for Tree is done well even if you don’t use it’s unique horizontal view. To be able to navigate/expand/contract/promote/demote items in plain text files in a similar manner would seem ideal. Bonus points for folder navigation, hoisting, etc. You could even have styles based on hierarchy level for example, since no underlying formatting of content is necessary.

@Arnold- thanks for the emacs suggestion. That’s probably a bit beyond what I want to take on, but will take a look.


Posted by MadaboutDana
Mar 18, 2013 at 11:53 PM


emacs - especially in Orgmode - is perfectly ghastly, and I find it perfectly astonishing, in this day and age, that anybody could conceivably WANT to use such a thing. It’s like deliberately putting your leg in a mantrap, letting it slam shut, then walking around bleeding and suppurating for weeks.

I’m sure it’s a wonderful programming environment. Period.

For cross-platform purposes, I’m waiting for Todoist to finalise their iPad app. Their Windows app is very accomplished. Their Android app is acceptable, as is their iPhone app. The overall outliner concept is well defined and easy to use. The only other equivalent I like almost as much is SlickTasks, a relatively new app inspired by Workflowy but actually rather nicer, although the info density isn’t as good. But I’ve written to the nice people who programmed it, and they’ve promised to look at that side of things.

Meanwhile I’ve gone back to Carbonfin Outliner, which isn’t perfect, but does work fast and well. But there’s a huge opportunity for somebody with a visionary sense of text apps…


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