Some thoughts about FoldingText

FoldingText is a plain text productivity tool with some muscle.

FoldingText is a plain text productivity tool with some muscle.

FoldingText is an innovative text editor for Mac created by Jesse Grosjean of Hog Bay Software. It is kind of a mashup between a markdown editor and an outliner, with a few other functions mixed in. It has several interesting and even tantalizing features, but also some significant limitations.

[See new addendum at the end of this post.]

[June 17, 2014 update: See Rob Trew's comment and my reply for information on how to fold and hide lists in FoldingText.]

Reminiscent of GrandView

If you’ve followed my writing about outliners much, you may recall that I am a huge fan of a defunct DOS outliner called GrandView, which remains the best piece of software I’ve ever used, even two decades after it was abandoned and never ported to Windows.

One of the things I liked about GV is the remarkable flexibility in how you can view your documents:

  • View just the headings in your outline
  • View the headings with the associated text in one window
  • View some of the headings without text and some with
  • Focus in on just the text of a single heading

This flexibility allows you to zoom in for focussed work on a specific topic or to zoom out for seeing the big picture, which I think is essential for crisp, clear writing.

FoldingText's ability to focus in on a topic with its associated text is reminiscent of GrandView for DOS.

FoldingText’s ability to focus in on a topic with its associated text is reminiscent of GrandView for DOS.

FoldingText gives you this same flexibility, albeit in a stripped down package. There were many other features in GrandView not present in FoldingText.

So how does it work?

With FoldingText you use markdown to establish a heading, starting the line with one or more hashtags. The fewer the hashtags, the higher up in the hierarchy is the heading.

FoldingText then adds a little magic to these symbols. Click on them and you can hide any lower-level material including the text associated with that heading. For instance, in the screenshot below, I had clicked on the two hashtags leading the heading “So how does it work?” and the paragraph disappears. If this heading had child headings, they too would be hidden.

Click the hashtags again, or the boxed-ellipses at the end of the heading to reveal the hidden material.

The focussed mode can be accessed by selecting FOCUS from the VIEW menu.

You can hide or reveal text and child headings by click on the hashtags.

You can hide or reveal text and child headings by click on the hashtags.

You can add ordered an unordered lists the same way you do in most markdown enabled editors:

  1. starting a line with a number for ordered lists
  • with a hyphen for unordered lists.

You can also add bold face and italic formatting with typical markdown (wrapping text in “**” for bold and “_” for italic. When you add those markers to the text, you see them as long as your cursor is within the affected text. When you move the cursor off the text, the markers hide and you just see the formatted text. Same is true of the list markers. I like that behavior, because I find markdown in the text to be distracting.

As an outliner

Other behavior that emulates an outliner includes the ability to move items in, out, up, and down using the arrow keys in combination with CONTROL and OPTION. Child headings are retained when you move a parent heading.

While behaving a lot like an outliner (folding, hoisting, reorganizing in branches), FoldingText isn’t really practical for heavy-duty outlining tasks due to the fact that headings are not indented. In fact, because you designate a heading’s level by the number of hashtags at the start, you end up with a kind of reverse indenting, or outdenting, as depicted below:

Hashtags denote the level of the heading. The more hashtags, the lower the level.

Hashtags denote the level of the heading. The more hashtags, the lower the level.

This paradigm works okay for shallow hierarchies, but gets cumbersome and confusing with deep levels and lots of headings. Although you can get a clearer, indented view of your headings via the FOCUS HEADING command under the VIEW menu (see screenshot below).

To get a visual outline for your document, you can select "Focus Heading" from the VIEW menu, which also allows you to navigate to a focussed view of any selected heading.

To get a visual outline for your document, you can select “Focus Heading” from the VIEW menu, which also allows you to navigate to a focussed view of any selected heading.

Add tags to categorize your information

A tag is any text following the “@” symbol.

The value of tagging in FoldingText is that through a process called “Node Paths,” you can filter out all non-related material when you click on the grayed out tag.

Clicking on a tag (any text following an @ sign) filters your document so you see just those items with that tag.

Clicking on a tag (any text following an @ sign) filters your document so you see just those items with that tag.

To do list ala Modes

FoldingText also provides a funky little functionality called “modes.” Right now there are just two modes, but I believe more are planned. Here is an example:

The .todo mode allows you to build dynamic checklists in FoldingText.

The .todo mode allows you to build dynamic checklists in FoldingText.

Just add the .todo extension to the end of a line introducing a checklist, then create an unordered list (i.e. start the line with a hyphen) and FoldingText automatically changes the hyphen to a checkbox. As you can see from the example above, when you check off an item, the done tag is added with the date as the value.

The other mode is timer, (.timer) which adds the time for each subsequent item in the list and tallies the total time.

While I can see how the .todo mode could be useful, .timer mode just seems weird to me. I’m not saying it couldn’t be useful, just that if feels out of place in this app. That might just be me.

Exporting your work

One of my complaints about version 1.0 of FoldingText was the limited options for exporting my work. Now I wonder if I just missed that function, because it is available in version 2.0, just not in the place you would normally check. To export your FoldingText document in RFT or HTML formats, you select it (or the parts you want), then select the appropriate format under EDIT> COPY menus. This works quite nicely as you can see from my HTML export into WordPress.

What to make of FoldingText?

I don’t know if I’ll ever use FoldingText seriously or extensively. It is addictive and fun. And its uncluttered interface is very appealing. But is it powerful enough to take on serious jobs? What niche will it fill in the crowded productivity software world? If there are other, more powerful applications that do the same things (and there are), why would I choose FoldingText?

Sadly, I don’t feel a whole lot closer to answering those questions. There are people for whom FoldingText’s balance of ultimate simplicity with just the right amount of power features will be appealing. Others will look to a range of more powerful applications.

One factor that is a serious limitation, I think, is the lack of a tablet app counterpart. Most people want to be able to do this kind of work on their iPad or even iPhone. Jesse Grosjean abandoned his iPad apps a few months ago, making them open source, so I would not hold my breath waiting for the FT for iOS.

I’m going to continue to play around with FoldingText and see if it grows into an important software tool. If it does, I’ll be sure to write more about it.

[Late addition on June 8]

Further thoughts on FoldingText

If FoldingText is going to be a productive environment for me, it will have to be as the front end of a work flow. It could be a good place to take notes at a meeting, hash out a plan or a story plot, write a blog posting. But then the content has to go somewhere else. Because FoldingText does not provide any solution for managing your collective documents or mining those documents for information or relating that information across documents.

I could, I suppose, keep all my information in FT (don’t know if it has a practical limit on file size) sort of the way Workflowy or Cotton Notes are intended to work. But it really isn’t built that way. Navigating a very long FT document would be quite cumbersome. I could use the tag system to add bookmarks for finding my way deep into my information, but that doesn’t feel very efficient.

What would be an ideal set up is having the functionality of FoldingText available in the editor of a full-fledged note manager like Evernote or DevonThink. And it would be killer cool in a journal app like DayOne.

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11 thoughts on “Some thoughts about FoldingText

  1. Stephen Chakwin

    Steve, I LOVE your blog! I can’t think of a single other place in the web where I get such interesting discussions from so many different directions of how to try to channel the flood of data that goes by me and how to build really useful structures out of the information that I pan from that data. (Tinderbox? Check. The Brain? Check. Bullet journaling? Check. Spark file? Check.) I hope you go on forever! (Or at least as long as I’m around to read what you write…)

    That said, this looks like one of those strange solutions that I wish I had a problem to fit to because it looks like so much fun to play with. Another one of these for me is VoodooPad, a wonderful Wiki-at-your-fingertips application that is really elegantly crafted and leaves you in the cool position of having a wiki (cross-device) at your fingertips. But what it can’t tell you is what exactly you can do with a wiki at your fingertips better than by other means.

    I was an early adopter of GrandView, which was wonderful in too many ways to count. It was a great outliner with cloning, hoisting, tagging, a built-in calendar, a built-in word processor and on and on. James Fallows came up with a fantastic work flow involving using GrandView with Lotus Agenda, another incredibly powerful DOS program, that turned research notes into very detailed outlines for articles or books. But those days and those applications are gone. Both stories are sad. GrandView was curated by Symantec but not developed and wound up sold off to another company that did nothing with it. It never got ported to anything and went into limbo. Someone apparently tried to buy the rights and was quoted an enormous price. There was a Mac outliner called More that was similar in many ways to GrandView, though I don’t think it was quite as powerful. That also died an underserved death. Some of More’s functionality lives on in an outliner that used to be called Tao that may still live on (perhaps under a different name). OmniOutliner is a very good product but has its shortcomings. Most egregiously, it still doesn’t have cloning or a tagging function, but for ease of use and elegance on the screen, it’s the best game in town.

    The Lotus Agenda function is best carried forward these days by Tinderbox, although that application came from a very different conceptual place. Lotus had Agenda but didn’t know what to do with it as the Windows era dawned. Either just before or after the IBM acquisition, it folded some of Agenda’s functionality into Lotus Notes and some into its spreadsheet program. Mitch Kapor, the genius behind Agenda, has been working for a long time on an open-source program called Chandler that is said to have much of the functionality of Agenda in it, along with some afterthoughts.

    So I don’t know what to make of FoldingText. I can hide or reveal subheads or hoist a particular headline in OmniOutliner – those don’t seem very different from what you describe. I can also import OPML files (for example, from a mind -mapper like iThoughts or MindNode) into OO and have it appear as an outline or export an OO outline as OPML and have it appear in Scrivener as the skeleton of document or in Tinderbox as the skeleton of an unimaginably complex inter-galactic, inter-dimensional representation of anything I can imagine.

    Jesse has created some elegantly executed software that too often has landed a little off where I (speaking only for myself) could find a use for it – Hog Bay Notebook/Mori was great, he has a writing application now that is designed to keep you focused and distraction-free. But I didn’t find a need for either of these. I wish him all possible success.

    I guess I should try to download a demo of this and play with it, but I can’t see anything that it looks able to do that I don’t already have under control with another application. What do you think?

    Thanks! (and sorry for the length of this)

    Stephen

    • Steve Zeoli

      Stephen,

      Thanks for the kind comments about my blog. I’m with you on all you said about software from the past, though I never got the chance to try Agenda.

      While there is some functional cross-over between OmniOutliner and FoldingText, there is also a great difference. FoldingText really is a plain text editor, while OmniOutliner is an outliner. Consequently, it feels much more natural (to me, anyway) to write in FT than in OO. Doesn’t mean you need FT if you have OO, but if you find you have more content text in your outlines than headings and hierarchy, then FT might be a better choice… just my initial thoughts about the software.

      What would be ideal is if a note management application like Evernote or DevonThink used the FT editor for building each individual note.

      Thanks, again, for the comment!

  2. Re heavy duty outlining – there is no need to use hash headers while outlining in FoldingText
    Collapse expand etc works well with tab indented lines (hyphen-bulleted or plain).

    For subsequent formatting, you can apply hash headings to the depth you prefer using the ‘Change number of heading levels’ plugin at:

    https://github.com/RobTrew/tree-tools/tree/master/FoldingText%202%20plugins%20and%20scripts

    • Steve Zeoli

      Took me a little bit to figure out how to do that fold/show procedure on lists. Here’s the instruction from the Help file:

      “To fold using the keyboard use View > Fold (Command-/). That will allows you to fold other structures, such as lists, that don’t have a clickable “#” handle.”

      So there is no cursor-mouse option, just the keyboard command, which works just fine.

      Thanks for the heads up on this, Rob.

      • and under the View menu you should find Focusing/UnFocusing and Expanding/Collapsing by Level, which also work with any kind of parent line – not just hash headings)

  3. Sean C.

    For years, I have paid for Jesse’s apps because I believe in supporting clever Mac developers. But, to paraphrase Steve Jobs’ famous line to Dropbox, Hogsbay makes features, not apps. The reason a lot of us can’t figure out what to do with FoldingText once we’ve purchased it is because — as your excellent review suggests — the rest of the app isn’t there. The Jesse Grosjean news I’d love to hear is that Apple has hired him to lead the Pages group. Or that Keith Blount has hired him to design the UI for Scrivener 3.

    • Steve Zeoli

      Sean, I believe you have put your finger squarely on the issue. Thank you for reading my article and taking the time to comment.

  4. > mashup between a markdown editor and an outliner

    Not sure that I would personally call it a “mashup” (unless, perhaps, Omnioutliner is a mashup between an outliner and a zipped xml editor ?).

    It’s an excellent outliner (the best I’ve used) which happens to save as plain text.
    The key value of plain text is, of course, toolchain flexibility, and using Markdown conventions for formatting maximises that.

    I can quite understand the ‘rest of the app isn’t there’ perspective if you’re more used to apps which save, by default, in more silo’d formats, but plain text is an excellent match for the ‘one thing well’ approach:

    Outline in Foldingtext, and watch the style-sheeted preview, and do the printing and saving to .docx, pdf etc, in Brett Terpstra’s [Marked](http://markedapp2.com)

    (The other point about it is that it’s highly scriptable, and there are a number of off-the-peg plugins and scripts at http://suppport.foldingtext.com and elsewhere)

    • Steve Zeoli

      Actually, I’d call OmniOutliner a mashup between an outliner and a spreadsheet. But I don’t think of “mashup” as necessarily a pejorative term.

      • Steve Zeoli

        Re “mashup”: While it isn’t necessarily a pejorative, it does imply certain compromises on one or both ends.

  5. It looks interesting and another tool going in this direction is Org mode in Emacs (and also with a SublimeText plugin) which has todos and calender events. It uses plain text too but it is not the same conventions as markdown. It can print to LaTeX like MMD can do.

    I have also used many of the mentioned programs — esp Agenda and Tinderbox. I now use Scapple because of it’s similarity to TB maps. It allows a non-hierarchical layout which I find very useful.

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