Working in Plain Text with Notepad++

by: Scott Nesbitt | 02 March 2022

I’m a Linux user, and have been since late 1999/early 2000. Windows and MacOS don’t factor into my civilian life in any way.

But at several of the Day JobTMs I’ve held over the decades, I’ve had to use Windows on company-issued computers. In that situation, I try to use as much open source software as I can, even on closed platforms. That includes my text editor of choice on Windows. Which, for as long as I can remember, has been Notepad++. It’s a powerful, flexible open source editor, that’s kind of like Windows Notepad on all sorts of digital performance enhancers.

While billed as a source code editor, even non techies will find Notepad++ useful. I do, mainly using it to take notes, to write drafts, to maintain my weekly timesheet, to plan my work, and as a scratchpad.

Let’s take a quick look at working with Notepad++.

Note: In the next several hundred words, I won’t be looking at all of the features of the editor or its features for coders. This article looks at Notepad++ from the perspective of how someone like me might use it.

Getting Going

You can either download an installer from the Notepad++ website or get an unofficial fork of the editor from the Microsoft Store within Windows. If use Linux and want to give the editor a try, you can install a version from the Snap store.

On Windows, installation is point and click. When it’s done, the installation process adds an icon to the Start menu and (optionally) to your desktop.

Getting to Work

Fire up the editor. Looks kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

Notepad++ when you first start it

Notepad++ is like a lot of editors out there, regardless of the operating system on which they run. You get a blank canvas on which to work, and you can have multiple text files open in their own tabs.

As with any text editor, you can either open an existing file or create one. From there, you start typing.

Editing in Notepad++

When you save the file, Notepad++ applies syntax highlighting to it based on the extension you give the file. Here’s an example of an HTML file, with syntax highlighting applied:

An HTML file with syntax highlighting in Notepad++

You can change the highlighting by selecting one of the many options from the Language menu.

Using the Editor’s Built-In Functions

There are a lot of those, as can see from the toolbar:

The toolbar in Notepad++

There are also quite a few more under the editor’s menus. To be honest, I don’t use even a quarter of those functions. The ones I do use include:

There are also a couple of other options enabled by plugins that I use regularly, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

Making the Editor Your Own

While you can’t customize Notepad++ to the degree you can, say, with Emacs or Atom, you can make the editor your own. Let’s look at a few ways in which to do that.

Changing Preferences

You find these under Settings > Preferences. And there are more than a couple of options there.

Preferences in Notepad++

Some of those options include:

You can also change your keyboard shortcuts — for example, to make Notepad++ behave like Emacs or Vim — by selecting Settings > Shortcut Mapper.

Using Plugins

Like many editors, Notepad++ supports plugins that expand its capabilities. Many of them are aimed at software developers, so I ignore them. Two that I find indispensable are:

Here’s an example of the latter in action:

Previewing Markdown in Notepad++

Adding Syntax Highlighting

Out of the box, Notepad++ can apply syntax highlighting to … well, I don’t know how many programming and markup languages. But if a language that you’re working in isn’t supported, you can add it.

One way to do that is to create your own language settings by selecting Language > Define your own language. There’s documentation around how to do that if you want to embrace your inner geek a bit.

The other way to add syntax highlighting for a language is to download a language file and import it.

Using the Style Configurator

What happens if you don’t quite like the way syntax highlighting for a particular language works? Select Settings > Style Configurator and make some changes.

Style Configurator in Notepad++

You can change the highlighting colours of certain elements, the font used for those elements, and the file extensions that Notepad++ associates with the language.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned at the top of this article, I only use Notepad++ on computers supplied by my employers. Find it’s a great alternative to Windows’ stock Notepad editor, even if I don’t use all of its features. The ones I use, though, make working with plain text much, much easier.