Strategies for Naming Your Text Files


(Note: This article was originally published at Notes From a Floating Life and appears here via a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.)

What’s in a name? When it comes to the files on your computer, that name could contain a little. Or that name could contain a lot.

It’s easy enough to name a text file Stuff to Do.txt. But that’s not a very helpful name, especially if you’re using a number of text files to organize yourself and your work.

If you’re organizing yourself and working with text files, you need to make the names of those files descriptive. Here are a few strategies that you can use to effectively name your text files.

A Few Basics

It’s been a while since we’ve been constrained by the 8.3 file name, where we had just eight characters to describe the file and three for its extension. Isn’t the future wonderful?

When naming your text files, don’t be afraid of using a longer and more descriptive name for them. Make sure, though, that the names aren’t too long. Make sure that someone (that includes you) can figure out what the file contains just by glancing at its name. For example, Draft of second term essay.txt doesn’t tell you a whole heck of a lot about the contents of the file. You don’t know which course the essay is for or the subject. A better file name might be Econ 201 - Laffer Curve Critique essay.txt.

Should you spaces or hyphens or underscores in the name of a file? I’ve been known to use all three. However, I mainly use underscores instead of spaces, and use dashes to separate dates from names. More on this in a moment.

Think about the file’s extensions (the letters that come to the right of the period in a file name). too. I use these extensions for my text files:

  • .txt for text files without markup
  • .md or .markdown for files formatted with Markdown

Think About the Purpose of the File

You already know this, but you can use text files for any number of purposes. If you do use text files in several ways, you can include the purpose of the file in its name.

What do I mean by purpose? Let’s say you’re using a text file as a daily task list. You can add tasks to the beginning of the file’s name — for example, tasks-2018-06-29.txt.

If one of the documents is part of a larger set of documents associated with a project, include the project’s name (or acronym) in the file name. When I write an ebook, for example, I can use a file name like Japan_Essays-ch1.md.

You can also include the type of document in file name. ProjectA-OUTLINE.txt is the outline for something called Project A.

Date the File When Necessary

This really only applies to text files that you use as tasks lists, journal entries, and checklists. Adding a date to a text file is useful if you create daily or weekly lists or entries.

With a daily task list, you can name the file tasks-2017-10-20.txt or 2017-10-20_tasks.txt. The latter makes it easier to find a specific file when looking for it in your computer’s file manager

Think About the Stage in Your Workflow

It’s not uncommon to use several files for different phases of a project, no matter how large or small that project is. When I’m writing a longer piece or work, my workflow has these phases:

  • planning
  • draft
  • revision
  • edited
  • final

The file essay_collection_intro-DRAFT.md is the first draft of the introduction to an essay collection. And the extension indicates that the file is formatted with Markdown.

Notice that phase of the workflow is all capitals. I do that so the phase stands out when I’m looking for a particular file. It saves me time when trying to visually sort through all the files associated with a project.

Effectively naming your text files, or any files, takes a bit of planning and discipline. Once you get into the habit of doing that, keeping track of all of your text files becomes easier and more efficient.