Single or Multiple Text Files?


A few (OK, quite a few) years before I started The Plain Text Project, I ran across an article that got me thinking about the way in which I used plain text. Specifically, how I managed my files.

The article in question was a look at how one person used a single plain text file for everything he needed to do. And that was a lot: task lists, ideas, contact information, notes of all sorts, works in progress, and more.

A few months ago, William Hern (who wrote that article) sent me an email out of the blue. In response to something I mentioned in my reply to his email, Hern wrote:

Yes, there’s an attractive simplicity to working in just a single text file. I used the system for three years and it worked pretty well: searching instantaneous, backups and syncing across multiple devices become much simpler when there is only one file to worry about.

After our (friendly, in case you’re wondering) exchange of emails, the question that serves as the title of this article popped into my head. That’s always a sign that I have to pursue the idea.

So, let’s take a quick look at the advantages and disadvantages of using single and multiple text files.

Using One File

This approach is pretty hardcore, but it can also make sense. The concept behind it is pretty well known to the many devotees of the Emacs text editor and its Org-mode package.

You have everything in one file. That means everything you need — notes, draft blog posts, schedules, task lists, and more — is in one place. If you need to work with that file on more than one device, you only need to sync it (and nothing else) across those devices.

With a single text file, though, you need to be very careful about how you structure that file. If you don’t, things can get messy. As the file grows (and it will!), it becomes more difficult to jump to something you need to jump to.

William Hern had this to say about how he structured his single text file:

I found that my file divided into three sections: a top third that consisted of permanent notes on specific topics, a middle third made up of my day-to-day notes and a bottom third that consisted of my work in progress stuff.

Unless your editor supports folding, and you use it, you’ll need to lean heavily on your text editor’s search feature. That, or a search utility outside of that editor.

If you need to extract a small portion of a file or convert it to another format, copy and past will be your friend. Unless, of course, you’re using something like Emacs and Org-mode which makes doing that deed much easier.

Using Multiple Files

If doing everything in a single file is so attractive and so efficient, why bother with working in multiple text files? For some of us, working with more than one text file fits better into the way in which we work.

For me, the strongest reason to use multiple text files is focus. You can have one file, or one set of files, for a specific purpose. Working with multiple files can make it easier to organize those files around a project or task.

However, you need to be more diligent about how you name and organize your files. You’ll need to group similar files together, and to make sure that you have a logical or intuitive folder structure to store those files. A future article in this space will look at how to create efficient folder structures for your text files

On top of that, it can be difficult to find what need to find in your files in your files. If you find yourself struggling you’ll need to turn a good desktop search tool.

That said, it’s easier to convert individual files (or multiple files) to another format than it is to extract a portion of a larger file and convert it.

Going Hybrid

Or, as a friend calls it, the Best of both worlds approach. Instead of having a single text file for everything, use one file per project or task.

For example, use a single file for that book or article you’re writing. Have a file containing your daily task lists for the month or the quarter. While you’ll still have multiple files, you’ll have fewer to manage.

Which is the Best Approach?

That’s up to you. I don’t believe that there’s any one universal path or best solution for anything. You need to choose the approach that’s best for you.

Me? I’m in the multiple text files camp. While that means more files and folders for me to manage, it also means that I can focus on one file at a time, on one task or project at a time.