Add ability to use Obsidian as a markdown editor on files outside vault

Use case or problem

I’d love to be able to use Obsidian to create open, and edit files outside my vault. With the editing and interface features that have been added—and the ways I’ve been able to customize it—Obsidian blows away any other markdown editor I’ve tried, and I’d rather be editing and writing everything in it.

Proposed solution

Enable Obsidian to create, open, and edit markdown files system-wide.

Current workaround (optional)

Current workarounds are:

  • Move files temporarily into my vault, then move them back afterward.

  • Use another markdown editor, none of which comes close to Obsidian. Typora has some limitations (inability to fold sections by headings in the Mac app, for example) and weird idiosyncrasies (like not being able to see or edit the # symbols at the beginning of headers once they’re rendered), and there’s no mobile version. And the latest version of iA Writer that came out today for macOS and iOS is a disappointment.

UPDATE 1:

@pdworkman, @rjp, and I aren’t the only ones who want this. As Benjamin D. Lee says in his post “Obsidian is (almost) a Typora killer”:

Obsidian is not without its downsides relative to Typora. However, I think these downsides can be fixed relatively easily. First and foremost, it’s not possible to open an arbitrarily located Markdown file in Obsidian. Instead, it has to be located within your notes directory. I’ve gotten around this so far by temporarily symlinking but this hack isn’t anywhere as slick as just opening it in Typora. Obsidian should follow VS Code’s approach when opening files that are not in the current workspace: just open the file anyway. [emphasis added]

UPDATE 2:

This feature would also make it possible to designate Obsidian as your system’s default app for opening markdown files. It would be wonderful to be able to simply double-click any .md file anywhere on your system, whether inside or outside a vault, and have it automatically open in Obsidian, ready for viewing or editing.

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Off-topic, but: What do you find disappointing about the new iA Writer? (Your post alerted me to it. At a glance I’m pleased with the changes, tho I’m guessing it doesn’t update links to renamed files.)

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The new Mac version of iA Writer hasn’t fixed some of the things that have bothered me about it for a while. The folding headers and navigable outline features that the Windows version has had for years are still missing from the Mac and iOS apps. There’s also its lack of attention to small details. For example, I hate that it doesn’t at least make the markdown characters light gray so they’re legible but don’t distract from or blend into the words they surround. Boldface is especially bad—not only are the double asterisks not ghosted to a subtle shade of gray, they’re rendered in bold along with the word they surround, making it harder to read. (I’d be even happier to see them simply hide markdown characters when the cursor isn’t adjacent to them, the way Typora and Obsidian’s live preview do.)

Other apps haven’t stood still, and by comparison iA Writer feels increasingly unpolished, which would be understandable in a free and open-source app but not in a paid commercial one.

Instead of making it a better writer-focused markdown editor, their team has spent time and development effort adding PKM features like wikilinks. I’m not exactly against that—I love those features in Obsidian—but I’d much rather see them make the app better at performing its core mission rather than chasing after the Obsidians and Logseqs of the world and trying to compete in a space where it’s always going to be far behind.

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Makes sense.

They fixed a lot of the things that had bothered me (like the terrible tag styling), so I was feeling pretty positive after reading the release notes. I probably still won’t use it much, tho; maybe for first drafts (but then again I’m in Obsidian all the time anyway so why bother?).

I didn’t know the Windows version has foldable headings! Those have really improved my work in Obsidian and I’d really like them in iA. I knew about the outline, but I didn’t like that it’s mixed in with the file browser (if that’s still how they’re doing it). Foldable headings mostly fill that need for me anyway (if there’s a way to fold them all at once).

Anyway, thanks for sharing.

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Upvote! I’d love to see this too.

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This one gets my vote, too!

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This is a must for the roadmap.

Just let Obsidian open a special „vault-less“ window with all markdown which are not in a vault. But still allow plugins and customisation in that „not-vault vault“.

Maybe have prominent button floating around „add markdown-file to vault…“ and than let select a vault or create a new vault!

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Honestly, I was really surprised that this is not the default behavior of the app.

This is what is preventing me from using the app at the moment.

A lot of people have many markdown files scattered here and there that don’t necessarily belong to a vault. E.g. instructions, off-context small notes, files from other people…

Moreover, often when opening a note (that is inside a vault) I will want to open it from the file explorer, e.g. because I’m working with other related files. I cannot do this at the moment with obsidian. It’s crazy!
Thank you for your work!!

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Many of Obsidian’s users have this same misunderstanding. Obsidian is NOT a markdown editor. It is a multi-plaform plain text editor that uses markdown and is extensible. That’s a big difference. The programmers are magicians and the community is wonderful.
The more you use Obsidian the more uses you find for it.

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What misunderstanding? It’s not just a markdown editor by any means, but certainly that’s one of its core functionalities. (Neither is it just “a multi-plaform plain text editor that uses markdown and is extensible”—it’s much more than that, too.)

It’s not a misunderstanding at all to want to use that functionality on all markdown files on your drive and not just in certain folders you’ve designated as a vault.

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The "problem to be solved"is that there is no “standard” Markdown.
And I doubt there ever will be. It would be great if we could use all obsidians functionality on all Markdown files.

It difficult also due to differences in the various operating systems, which mostly do similar thing in very different ways.
Its not an easy thing to solve.
Knowledge is knowledge and plain text is the same across platforms. Its the bare basics that makes Obsidian as powerful as it is. everything else is gravy.

But consider all the Obsidian functionality you would lose if the editor knew nothing about other files.

Markdown is plaintext, and after markdown characters—which are really just plaintext characters like asterisks and hash signs—are added to a text file, it’s still plaintext and you can still open it in any text editor. That’s true whether you’re using Gruber’s original spec, CommonMark, Github-flavored, or MultiMarkdown. And one of the advantages of plaintext files—including markdown files—is that they’re portable across platforms, so “differences in the various operating systems” don’t matter.

I and the others who want this feature don’t want to abandon any of Obsidian’s functionality or get rid of the concept of vaults—we love using Obsidian as our PKM program.

As I noted above, the markdown-editor subset of Obsidian’s functionality has gotten so good that many of us find it superior to our standalone markdown editors such as iA Writer and Typora.

The point of this feature request is to be able to use that part of Obsidian—the markdown editor—on any markdown file on our systems, and to ideally be able to designate Obsidian as the default app for opening .md files.

For example, not all of my markdown files would benefit from being in a knowledge base. I have project-specific markdown files—notes, etc.—that I keep in folders with other file formats that are primary to much of the work I do. Often, there are only one or two markdown files in such a folder, mixed in with numerous files in other formats that Obsidian can’t read or process.

It’s too cumbersome to have to designate each of these folders as vaults—and to have to copy my hidden configuration folder into it—every time I need to create or edit a basic markdown file inside it.

Yes, I can use a dedicated markdown app for that. But I’d rather use Obsidian because even for pure markdown writing and editing, it’s simply the best tool available.

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The “problem” isn’t the plain text Markdown files , its the varied OSes and if that’s allowed. On iOS many apps are “sandboxed” so it wouldn’t be allowed. on MacOS, you can designate any .md file to be opened in Obsidian. The problem then is where to save it. Obsidian will gladly store in the the program’s file folder (some call it a vault but it is just a folder). other OSes have other rules. There are also file security concerns, and file permissions to take into account. Its not an easy thing to solve.

You can definitely open Obsidian files from outside of Obsidian. They’re just files in a folder, and Obsidian will notice the changes.

If you’re in Obsidian and want to open a note elsewhere, open the note menu and use “Open in default app” or “Show in system explorer”.

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@CawlinTeffid In Windows, I associated .md files to obsidian, and when I double-clicked on an .md file (even inside a vault) Obsidian started but did not open that note directly. I don’t know, maybe I did something wrong. I will have to double-check. Thank for your comment.

Thank you @BarryPorter13 for your comment. I understand that Obisdian is not just a markdown editor. I’m just agreeing that the feature proposed by the OP would be great for these reasons:

  • it would be useful in many cases, as we outlined.
  • I suspect it wouldn’t be too difficult to implement.
  • it wouldn’t be detrimental in any way for the standard use case.

Then, of course, it is up to the developers to decide what to do about this.

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I see, I misunderstood what you wanted to do. You can use another editor to open the files, but maybe not Obsidian.

I don’t want to change my file associations, but on MacOS I tried using “Open with…” in Finder to open a note (that’s in a vault) in Obsidian, and Obsidian was grayed out as an option. So yeah, what you want probably isn’t possible now. Hopefully it will be in the future.

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My concern with this is that outside of Obsidian, the file is just a text file. So a lot of plugins and functionality would be pointless. No dataview, no frontmatter use, calendar, templater, etc.
Most of what you’d be gaining is a preview mode, a reasonable spellcheck, and maybe some formatting assistance.