Items of Note on Note-Taking


Like many folk in the tech world, I rode the GTD wave bareback a couple of years ago, and tried a bunch of overwrought approaches to improving my productivity, all of which led to the same conclusion: I didn’t really need them.

Or, rather, I didn’t really need them for getting myself organized, for not only do I have a pretty good memory but also, thanks to corporate tradition, 90% of the stuff I need to do is neatly laid out for me in my inbox.

And e-mail, once you get over how useless it actually is for actually communicating and coordinating activities, actually makes for a pretty good personal to-do list for the simple reason that a lot of context is immediately available, cutting down on the time required to catch up on things and take informed action – listing actions separately makes you fish around for background info when you actually get around to acting upon them, and I find that tends to take a lot more time when, like me, you have to deal with hundreds of little issues every day.

But I did derive some enjoyment from trying out all those applications and tricks, because there’s always been one thing I’ve found need to improve upon – i.e., the process of capturing the stuff I needed to do outside my inbox.

Many writers (or people like me who just happen to like to write) live or die by their note taking skills, and I’m like them – I’ve always been a sucker for taking notes of all kinds. In fact, of so many kinds (written, drawn, etc.) that I’ve always stretched the limits of whatever I tried to use to capture information.

In the days of yore, when Palm was all the rage and facing the fact that I would never be able to afford a Newton of my own (I “had” one, but it wasn’t really mine, and I always had this thing about paying for my own toys), I used to draft laughably copious notes in Graffiti, which worked not just because it was quick, easy and hassle-free, but also because the Palm V (the one Palm I used the most) was a stupefyingly solid and reliable piece of kit, unlike the build quality of their latter devices.

Regardless of the ridiculously limited black and white screen, the thing was tiny, resilient, and fitted inside a suit’s breast pocket without any bulge whatsoever. Besides, there were some brilliant hacks that turned its notes applet into a hyperlinked notepad, something I’ve never been able to replicate properly in any handheld since.

As technology “progressed”, I held on to my Palm V for as long as possible – I eventually got the Vx, but mostly due to a (somewhat misguided) belief that it would actually improve usability, and eventually had to come to terms with the death of the PDA as a note-taking tool by the time smartphones became, well, smart enough and I got a Nokia Communicator – which mostly sucked, truth be told, even though I could nearly type on it.

Nobody cares to remember about the hiatus these days, but it bears mentioning that while Psion laid the foundation for Symbian (after reaching two separate kinds of brilliant, but connectivity-impaired dead ends with the Series 3a and the Series 5), Windows CE started dropping the ball right from the get go.

Even before it was renamed “mobile”, CE turned out to be a failure in every aspect: the devices were almost uniformly bulky, ugly, and ultimately overwhelmed by Microsoft’s attempt to shoehorn Windows into a 340×240 screen resolution and utterly crippled in terms of input (their recognition engines sucked, even their late-coming Graffiti clone).

The only form factor that was halfway usable was the quickly obsoleted Handheld PC, of which the Jornada 720 was the prime example (it had the best keyboard I ever used on a Windows CE device, and was only hampered by HP’s short-sighted approach at connectivity and expandability).

So, facing these prospects, I did what any sensible person would do and went back to paper for a few years, although only half-heartedly, for re-using drafts and re-typing everything was a pain. Paper was mostly used to capture names, to-do lists, numbers and other situational lint that might skip my mind later, and I kept cramming stuff into my skull.

Creation of content or brainstorming (if any) was limited to topic lists and random sentences to jog my memory further down the line, and that was about it.

Enter the iPhone (or rather, in my case, the amazingly tough iPod Touch 1G, which has so far survived eighteen months of random abuse instigated or directly applied by my toddler), and all of a sudden there was again a small, lean and usable note taking device that Apple (for whatever inscrutable reason) decided to cripple from the outset through lack of a syncing mechanism for notes.

Undaunted by their autistic focus on upgrading and enhancing anything but the notes application and having overcome my aversion to Marker Felt, I started doing the only possible thing at the time, which was drafting and e-mailing notes to myself (remember, this was way before alternatives arose). It worked surprisingly well enough (given my penchant for using my inbox as a to-do list), but made it hard to do any sort of halfway serious writing – hence my repeated forays into netbook territory.

This was not because it was hard to type on (I have no issues with iPhone keyboard input, and have become quite proficient with it), nor due to the screen size (although truth be told that proper proofreading demands a decent screen), but rather because working on the go forcefully made writing any sort of structured document somewhat like quilting, i.e., it soon devolved into a patchwork of discrete paragraphs accumulated over days and cobbled together from a corresponding number of e-mail messages.

This patchwork affair came to a stop somewhat when I started using Evernote, but after a year of intensive use, and even considering it has improved substantially in both mobile and desktop editions, I have come across another roadblock – organizing, revising and consolidating.

Because, you see, Evernote is crap for any sort of structured note-taking or draft text that requires minimal formatting or (more often) considerable amounts of revising, because it can’t even deal with simple formatting properly, let alone tables – which it does, but laughably badly – or, most importantly, outlining.

Even clean hyperlinks are impossible, since you cannot input relative URLs or links to anchors – so you can’t really use it to draft HTML in (moderately) WYSIWYG mode.

I can get by using Textile or (very seldom) Markdown, but it’s ridiculous to have to run something outside Evernote to get usable output – I ought to simply be able to cut & paste and get usable, clean “HTML”: (interestingly enough, I have occasional issues copying from Evernote and pasting plain text into Textmate, too), but there’s simply no excuse for the poor formatting features.

So I solved my heavyweight notetaking and project management needs by using… Word.

Yeah, I heard it needs to die – these people are wrong, but not about Word – it’s the way people work that is the matter here, and it would be childish to think that one of the longest-lived pieces of software in human culture is completely useless.

I’ve used Word on the Mac way before the Windows version came about, and I’ve yet to find something else that even comes close when you need to revise vast swathes of text, create the backbone for a large-scale document or (once you get the hang of it) ensure a consistent look and feel throughout a number of documents.

Yeah, it crashes, and slows down, and has issues with truly large-scale documents such as books. I suppose a bunch of LaTeX geeks will eventually find their way here, to which I can reply (in advance) that I’ve gone their way before, and find it as archaic as flint knapping, regardless of the rewards regarding maths and typography.

For the record, when I needed that kind of control, I used PageMaker, and started using it in version 2.0. You do the math on that one.

Anyway, I digress. My point here is that Word on the Mac has a beautifully simple and straightforward notebook layout that cleverly uses sections and metadata to give you a tabbed notebook that you can also open and edit on “Windows”;Windows with minimal round-trip hassles because it uses standard header and footer formatting and all sorts of other neat tricks to preserve your data.

Which is essential for me, working as I do in a mostly Windows environment.

And speaking of preserving data, note taking in Word lets you do whatever you need with text – formatting, hyperlinks, inline images, even embedded documents (yes, I do drop in entire documents as part of project notes and embed them). And with Dropbox, I have nearly as good a cross-platform syncing environment as Evernote – although, granted, Evernote makes it a lot easier to tap out first drafts without a laptop.

You can do some of this on many other apps, and you can do brilliant things on some truly writing-oriented solutions (Scrivener comes to mind), but I don’t think there’s any other solution that works for me right now.

Of course, it may well be that years from now I’ll come across these notes, find the whole thing hopelessly archaic and tap out a follow-up on my Apple webpad running Office 2014, but that’s progress.

Right?


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