I'm writing instructions for a project and at some point, for a certain condition one needs to modify a simple plain ascii text file.

For windows I can tell them to fire up notepad. I thought on the mac I could use TextEdit but the TextEdit version I'm using defaults to write rtf, which introduces all rtf symbols in the file which is highly undesirable.

Using emacs or vi from the terminal is not something I want to burden the user with.

What are alternatives?

  • No need to use Vim or Emacs from the terminal, there are GUI applications for both. In fact, I’d recommend using MacVim. May 1, 2013 at 14:01

14 Answers 14


I would recommend using TextEdit since it is free and the default text editor on OS X.

You only need to learn a key shortcut (Shift-Command-T) to convert the current file to plain text.

Of course other GUI text editors exist on Mac platform but they need to be installed from the App Store or from Internet (see other answers for a selection of the most popular ones).

There is even a setting in TextEdit to let all new documents start as plain text going forward:

Again, this setting is for new documents, so if a document is already open, ⇧⌘T (Format > Make Plain Text) instantly converts a rich text document to plain text.

  • How can I get TextEdit to write in plain text without going into preferences? When i choose save I see rtf, word, odt, html and few others but not plain text.
    – dr jerry
    May 1, 2013 at 8:27
  • 6
    @drjerry Press cmd-shift-t to switch to plain-text
    – Alex
    May 1, 2013 at 8:35

My recommendation would be the awesome free app TextWrangler from Bare Bones Software

  • TextWrangler is my go-to editor.
    – CyberSkull
    May 2, 2013 at 20:28
  • Totally agree with Peter and CyberSkull that TextWrangler is excellent and easy to use. I keep several documents open in it at all times simply for quick access to the info. May 7, 2013 at 22:35

I also recommend TextEdit because it'll be there, no installation needed.

If you only need to modify an existing file, then giving it an .txt extension ensures that it opens in TextEdit in plain text mode, no surprises.


If you want to go with Terminal you can use nano which is a fairly simple text editor but usually enough to allow Joe Random to edit basic text files.


If you're wanting something free then you're best three would probably be Sublime Text 2, Text Wrangler and TextMate.

They are also extremely good for coding, but certainly appropriate as simply a text editor.

  • Just a note on Sublime Text 2: It has some really nice features for development. I especially like the "Minimap". It places a column on the right side of the editor that gives a preview of the full document, allowing you to quickly find sections of code based on visual text patterns within the document. May 7, 2013 at 22:58
  • Yes, that's something that I really like as well. When I first used it, the main thing that grabbed me was that preview column you're talking about. May 8, 2013 at 13:58
  • How do you figure that ST2 is free? "Sublime Text 2 may be downloaded and evaluated for free, however a license must be purchased for continued use."
    – Daniel
    May 18, 2013 at 13:05
  • All that means is that once every now and again when you save a document in ST2 a message window pops up saying "This is an unregistered version". You just click "OK" and then you're away. It's ridiculously good value! May 18, 2013 at 14:39

There is an unconventional platform independent solution: Etherpad

Etherpad is an online text editor providing collaborative real-time editing of text and import/export plain text as well as other formats.

Install it on your web or intranet server and provide collaborative real-time editing as service. Send document links instead of documents.

Free test services: http://beta.etherpad.org/

More info: http://etherpad.org


I suggest Sublime Text. It is geared towards developers, but you might find it useful. There are lots of packages and plugins for it.


You can also check out Notational Velocity or a wonderful fork nvAlt from Brett Terpstra. I suggest the nvAlt. It syncs with Simplenote or you can sync the notes via dropbox to your mobile devices and other computers.


Bean is good and free: http://www.bean-osx.com/Bean.html. I switched to it from TextEdit when that one started having formatting/display issues with a lot of text snippets I copy and paste from around the Web. Bean does a better job of not letting text or graphics get lost off the page due to Web formatting quirks. Note: Bean allows multiple documents to be opened at once, but the Window menu is under the Documents window, and it does not list the titles of open documents; it does allow one to cycle through open documents.


Tincta is a free lightweight plain text editor for Mac.

It has syntax coloring, line numbers and opens multiple files in a one-window mode. I would say it is perfect for when you sporadically need to view or edit text documents and is very easy to use for novice users. (Disclaimer: I'm part of the Tincta development team, but it's free and really good :-) )


I don't see it noted here, but I use TextMate a lot of the time. It's fine and it's free.


Editra for Mac is the closest thing I've found to Windows Notepad on the Mac.

It's also free, open-source, and highly configurable.

  • Editra is not compatible with Monterey, macOS v12.5.
    – WEBjuju
    Aug 14, 2022 at 13:54

@Ivana mentioned Smultron but got downvoted (I guess) because she also recommended Notepad++ in the same thread, Notepad++ being a Windows only software.

I don't want to argue on the downvote but rather to give a chance to Smultron to be ranked higher than last, as I think it is a very good answer to the OP question.


Smultron and Notepad++ are two very good options. They both use plain text so even when the user copy-pastes formatted text, the formatting is removed. Both look much nicer then MS Notepad.

Smultron is a small, very easy to use mac-program.

Notepad++ is bigger with many extra options like code highlighting for many programming languages, regex lookup, code-tidying, case change to UPPER, lower and Proper, and many, many more possibilities... Notepad++ is also available for Windows.


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