Note taking software part 2: tango with a twist

In this post I focus on the practical side of my note-taking. The main application I use is called Notational Velocity (NV). I started to use NV with Simplenote following MacSparky’s excellent post on Simplenote – NV Tango. After a year of tangoing I am prepared to advise on better steps and twists.

If you decide to use NV begin with adjusting three settings:

1) Specify the location of NV files. NV stores every note as a separate text file which makes it easy to search, process, email etc. even outside the application. All NV notes/files are stored in one folder. It makes sense to locate this NV folder in Dropbox to be accessible for your iPod and other computers. The second tip is to make sure that this folder is indexed by LaunchBar and your organizing software (e.g. Leap or DevonThink).

2) Enable the OS service which allows to send selected text to NV. Go to System Preferences – Keyboard – Keyboard Shortcuts – Services. The one you want to enable is called NV: New Note with Selection (the shortcut key is Shift-Cmd-V).

3) Set up a good font for NV. Select what works for you. This is very important. I set up on Monaco 14. It is a very plain fixed-width font which I also use for email, MacJournal etc. There is something psychological about it: I open someone’s email with a lot of small letters, formatting, colors, etc.; I press Shift-Cmd-T (switching to Plain Text in Mail) and everything becomes Monaco 14 and I just know, there are no more distractions, it’s business now. Same with note-taking. They should not be formatted (if they are, press Cmd-T in NV to return to plain text). You don’t want to strain your eyes looking at small letters. And you don’t want to be distracted by formatting (and if you want – go to your word processor and forget about NV!).

Now you can start entering notes. When you open NV for the first time (it opens lighting-fast) your cursor is in the top (search) field. Type the title of your note (religiously use your naming system!), press Enter and type your note. I can’t help but replicate the beautifully concise instructions from NV itself. One of the shortest users manual ever! And all in plain text.

Always begin typing in the upper search area. Press return to add a new note with that title.
While you type, NV searches for notes whose body or title contain your words. Observe that naming a note and searching always occur simultaneously
When you select one of the found notes (e.g., using the up/down keys) NV displays its body in the lower text area (what you’re reading now).
If you had typed the beginning of a note’s title, NV would have selected that note automatically.
To create another note, just start typing in the search area again (press ⌘-L to get there from the Keyboard). Don’t worry, you won’t rename your note–for that you’ll either need to double-click its title in the list of notes or press ⌘-R.
But NV won’t let me save my changes!
NV constantly writes your changes to disk as you create and edit notes, so there’s no need to “Save” anything manually.

You will notice when typing the note title that NV is searching all notes (both titles and texts) for the text currently in the search field. As soon as the search field entry becomes unique the list of matching notes disappears. For example, if I want to enter a note called “ref:energy:nuclear list of meltdowns” when I have typed “ref:energy:nuclear” it will show me the list of all nuclear-related notes. This may be useful (perhaps you already have the list of meltdowns in your notes and you want to update it rather than creating a new note).

Now remember that the Service we enabled for sending text selection to NV? This is another method to create a new note. Select a piece of text. Press Shift-Cmd-V. A new note is created. The title will be automatically given as the first few words of the note. To change the title press Cmd-R and type the name you want. Cmd-R is a very useful shortcut for renaming notes. Speaking of shortcuts, another useful one is the Esc key which clears the search key and shows you the list of all your notes.

I have recently learned another great trick. I often want to quick insert some text into an already existing note. For example, add an item to a list of things to discuss with a colleague, capture a writing idea, add a name to the list of party guests. From my post on note naming you will remember that I call such notes “running notes” and they all have distinct names. So imagine I want to add an idea for a blog entry to my running note which is called “blx blog ideas”. I press my LaunchBar key and type “blx”. Then I press Cmd-Shift-A, type my text and press Enter. I can continue working. I did not even need to find and open the note and be distracted by all the other notes ideas!

Finally, you can creates notes by email. This is done with help of Simplenote Pro and is pretty useful to create notes very fast. SimpleNote Pro gives you a special email address (it’s called Simple Note in my AddressBook). When I want to create a note from email I simply forward the email to Simple Note and I change the subject line to match my naming conventions (you can of course edit your note text when forwarding to add/eliminate information).

While entering notes remember a little nice twist: you can link notes to each other by enclosing their titles in [[...]]. For example in your note on meltdowns you may say “… see also [[ref:energy:nuclear major accidents]]” where the text in the square brackets will be displayed as a hyperlink to another note. The cool thing is that when you open double square brackets and start typing NV will auto-complete the name for you!

After the notes are entered you can organize them using tags. NV uses OpenMeta tags so that if you want to display your notes alongside other similarly tagged content (e.g. pdf files) its very easy. Tagging within NV itself is not very smooth, so that I often tag in Leap or Tags. To quickly tag one note you can display it in finder (Shift-Cmd-R) and then drag it to Leap or press the Tags shortcut key. You may also have a workflow by which you bulk tag all your Reference notes (you don’t need to tag non-reference notes – it’s a waste of time!) in Leap. Often you won’t need tags – searching notes by title/text within NV will be fully sufficient.

What about Simplenote? For the moment it is sufficient to say that Simplenote allows you to enter your notes on iPod, iPhone or iPad and they are automatically synchronized with your NV file over the Web. I am planning to enter a different post on Simplenote and other iOS note-taking applications.

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy at Central European University and Associate Professor of Lund University. He is also the coordinator of MESPOM, an Erasmus Mundus Masters course operated by six Universities in Europe and North America.
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4 Responses to Note taking software part 2: tango with a twist

  1. Pingback: The power of smart automation | Academic workflows on Mac

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  3. Pingback: Finding files | Academic workflows on Mac

  4. Pingback: Note-taking on a Mac revisited | Academic workflows on Mac

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