Working with a Plain Text Scratchpad

Ever have a moment in which an idea or thought or quote popped into your head. A moment when you needed to get that down before you forgot? Yeah, me too.

Once upon a time, people did that with pen and paper using something called a scratchpad. Actually, they still do. Using a paper scratchpad works, but why scramble for analog tools when you can go digital? And why use something complex when you can use plain text?

Why a Scratchpad?

You could, as I just mentioned, have a thought or idea. Something that you need to do or someone whom you want to contact. A scratchpad can be an extension of your short-term memory. Use one to put down whatever’s popped into your head before it fades away.

A scratchpad is a transitional space. You move what’s on the scratchpad in something, more permanent later.

You can also use a scratchpad to store more persistent text — for example, snippets of code or boilerplate wording that you regularly use.

Your digital scratchpad should be close at hand. That could be within the tool you’re using or in a dedicated application that’s running in the background.

Using a Text Editor

If you work in plain text, chances are you’re also working with a text editor. And that’s the perfect place for your scratchpad.

Users of the Emacs text editor are familiar with a buffer called *scratch*. It’s there when you start up the editor. That’s great for those who use Emacs, but not everyone does.

Instead, you can have a tab open to use as a scratchpad. Whenever something jumps to the front of your brain, just click that tab and type. Then, click back to the tab on which you were working. Once you get used to doing that, it doesn’t disrupt your flow much or at all.

Using a Dedicated Scratchpad

Those are little utilities that run in the background. When you need to use one, press Alt+Tab to switch to it. Type what you need to type, and then go back to what you’re doing.

The main advantage to using a dedicated scratchpad is persistence. It saves what you type automatically, and holds on to it even when you close the application. If you’re using a tab in a text editor and accidentally close it, you lose what you’ve typed.

I’ve only used two dedicated scratchpads: Nanonote and FromScratch. Both are very minimal apps, which save what you type on your hard drive.

Of the two, Nanonote is simplest. It’s like having Windows Notepad open on your desktop (although it only runs under Linux):

Saving snippets in Nanonote

FromScratch does the same thing as Nanonote (what a surprise!), but packs a few more features. It runs on Linux, MacOS, and Windows, automatically indents text, and lets you fold what you’re jotting down.

FromScratch in action

Regardless of what you use as a scratchpad, always remember to act on what you jot down. Otherwise, what’s the point of using the scratchpad?