Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

structured and unstructured

One of the coolest applications for the Mac is Notational Velocity, an extraordinarily simple yet also innovative note-taking program. I’ve been using it for the past year or so and really digging its UI: when I want to make a note about something, I use a hotkey combination to activate the program, and then I just start typing. I can keep on typing until I’m done, or I can type a title, hit return, and then just continue, because what I type after that will be the body of the note. To find something, I just type a word into the same box and NV runs an instantaneous search. I can have my notes in rich text or plain text: I choose plain, but even in plain text NV recognizes links and makes them clickable. Also, it saves everything you type automatically and instantaneously, and can be synchronized with Simplenote or WriteRoom for the iPad and iPhone. It’s fantastic. It’s also free.

However, I recently stopped using it. Weird, huh? But here’s my reason: what’s great about NV is that it’s totally simple and unstructured and makes text entry utterly frictionless. But, oddly, that has become a problem for me. I can get things into NV with an absolute minimum of effort and delay — but then I tend to forget what’s in there. Yes, I could search, but I don't often think to search. I forget that NV is there until I need to put something in it — but we put stuff into apps like NV because we want to get it out at some point, right?

Let me try to make this more clear. In 2005 I started using Backpack and have used it off and on ever since — and that’s what I just went back to. Entering information in Backpack is much clunkier that entering it in NV: you have to click a link to create a list or a note or a new entry in a list, then you type it in, then you click a button to save it. If you want to edit it you have to click an “edit” link before you can type anything. You have to decide whether something is going to be a note or a list, and if you have multiple pages, which pretty much every Backpack user does, you have to decide what page you want to put it on. A lot of trouble.

But see, trouble in this case equals structure: Backpack effectively forces you to impose a structure on your data, to organize it to some degree before you even enter it. And I have found that for this very reason, when I enter data in Backpack I remember it better and can find it more readily later. Or maybe it would be better to say that I am (internally) prompted to find it because of the structure I have had to impose before entering it. I also find myself scanning my Backpack pages from time to time, which reminds me what I’ve put in them.

Beyond that, I don't really understand why Backpack works with my brain, but it does, and Notational Velocity — even though it’s manifestly cooler and more innovative and features my beloved plain text — really doesn't. That’s just the way it is.

And let me just take this opportunity to say that still, after several years, nothing has come close to matching the combination of simplicity and structure of Stikkit. I would probably have been using Stikkit for the rest of my life if its developers hadn’t abandoned it and refused even to put it up for sale. Bizarre, and immensely frustrating. The product was effectively abandoned by mid-2007 and shut down completely in late 2008, and I still haven't gotten over it.

4 comments:

  • Have you ever used OneNote? I find it has the best of both in terms of allowing for quickly jotting down miscellaneous bits of information in the unfiled notes section and allowing for a lot of structure.

  • OneNote is for Windows only. Also, my computers are Microsoft-free zones.

  • Notational Velocity may not force you to impose structure, but it does not prevent you to impose structure either.

    You can use tags. You can also use naming conventions for the entries. See, for instance, http://www.kungfugrippe.com/post/453204090/q-trick

  • "My trick is to end the file name of all my most frequently used or referenced files with a certain number of “q”s. Why?

    If I type “qq,” I whittle down to 15 or so greatest hits. If I type “qqq,” I narrow down to just a few really important ones. And so on until “qqqqq” takes me to the one “agenda” file where I throw anything I need to capture or do today, but only have a second to grab.

    Why “q?”
    1. It’s right under my left thumb on the iPhone.
    2. No English word I use contains more than one “q”
    Dumb little trick. Giant time and finger saver."

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