How to sync and edit plain text files from anywhere, mobile or web

Here's how to get at and edit text documents in Google Drive and Dropbox, in nearly any reasonable situation.

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Editing text files on a Nexus 7, courtesy of Jota+

There are basically two kinds of people who want to write things in plain text files: those who have to deal with weird, intractable cross-platform formatting issues, and those who just like the simplicity. Text files don't have bold, italics, header sizes, margin tabs, or anything that might get lost in travel from one word editing tool to another. Text files just have text, and I love them for it.

But text files are files, and you can lose them. You can upload or sync them to cloud services like Google Drive or Dropbox, but they're usually treated like any other file. You can usually preview them in the web version of Dropbox or Google Drive, but to actually edit them, you'll need to download them, edit them in a preferred app, then sync them back. If you're on a computer without your synced-up Dropbox or Drive account, or on a mobile device, you're out of luck. Unless, that is, you know about these perfect text-minded apps.

Here's how to get at and edit text documents in Google Drive and Dropbox, in nearly any reasonable situation. Note that, across most screens, you can usually preview (read and copy) plain text documents, so it's really live, synced-up editing we're after.

"I only have my phone or tablet, and I need to edit a .txt file"

If you're a Dropbox user with an iOS device, you're somewhat in luck, as Dropbox is the preferred storage solution for all kinds of writers who like to tap out ideas on iPhones and iPads. The Unofficial Apple Weblog rounded up a whole bunch of iOS/Dropbox text editors, and I agree with their number one pick, PlainText. It's really simple, it's got a simple and paper-themed interface, and it's free if you don't mind advertisements, cheap if you'd like to remove them.

The official Dropbox app for Android installs a companion application, "DB Text Editor," that allows you to make very simple edits to any text file in Dropbox. Need something a bit more robust? I recommend the Dropbox-syncing Epistle app, which, like PlainText, makes the Dropbox syncing a background feature, and gives you just some text space to write and edit. If you're a Markdown/HTML nerd like myself, it has live Markdown/HTML previews, which is a nice bonus.

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