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