Plain Text Notes with The Archive and Zettelkasten

Plain Text Note Taking

One of the most read posts on this site is a brief note praising Brett Terpstra’s wonderfully robust plain text notes app, nvALT. I’d wager the popularity owes much to a lack of alternatives. Note takers have never had so many apps to choose from, but nvALT still has significant advantages over most plain text note taking apps to come after it. There are very few native apps for macOS that leave notes unmolested in the file system. Fewer still that support features to make them noteworthy for academic work.

Take the popular notes app Bear. It is delightfully designed, aesthetically pleasing, and feature rich. Easily one of the best notes apps, perhaps even one of the better markdown editors for writing. At the same time, it is kind of cutesy and opinionated. Moreover, it is built upon a significant design decision that counts against it. By using a database to store notes, Bear is an ostensibly plain text notes app that ultimately obscures its data.

Bear is not alone in that of course, the same is true of other popular Markdown and writing apps, like Ulysses. Even the excellent note taking utility Drafts — which will soon be available on macOS — ties notes up in a database of sorts. 1 Where iOS is involved, CloudKit sync makes sense for these apps, especially given Apple’s mobile file system remains so half-arsed and piecemeal. 2 Nonetheless, the result is data that remains for all practical purposes beholden to those apps, in need of processing if you want to access it elsewhere. In a strange sort of way, it means more data tied up inside the Apple leviathan.

Put my discomfort at playing hide and seek with my data against the future proof and flexible plain text notes of nvALT. It should be clear why I claimed nvALT was still the best plain text notes solution. Now it seems, despite the affection I still hold for nvALT, there is finally a better option available for markdown notes. I believe The Archive has taken over the mantle of best plain text notes app on macOS.

The Archive

I reached out to Christian Tietze earlier this year to review his other app, the markdown table generator, Table Flip. I was messing around with Deckset at the time, so I liked the idea of generating tables for presentations. As it happens I very rarely use Markdown tables for anything these days, so I can’t do Table Flip the justice it deserves. Having said that, if you should need Markdown tables regularly, it is exactly the tool you need.

I had heard of The Archive before that exchange, but I wasn’t looking for yet another way to take notes. I have grown weary of consumer geeks mistaking the tool for the work, and even more weary of the bizarro apple fan world in which notes apps are somehow second only to task managers for the tech mode du jour. I had seen a few posts about The Archive, but I overlooked it after a casual glance. I figured aesthetically it wasn’t for me. I was wrong.

Since then, between a realisation that my notes are an embarrassing shambles, and my curiosity with a growing enthusiasm among academic nerds for zettelkasten, I took another look. After downloading a trial and using it in earnest for about a week, I purchased it outright.

It’s still early days, but The Archive is exactly what it needs to be. An antidote to lollipop iconography, cartoonish design, and the electron powered assault on native apps. It is lean, purposeful, clean, and fast. A wonderfully native app built on plain text purism. I was wrong about the aesthetics. A simple and elegant templating system makes the Archive customisable in the right way. It was trivial to craft a theme of my own, crimping colours and fonts from apps like iA Writer and Drafts — and toning down the coloured aspects of the interface that put me off to start with. There are still some rough edges to be ironed out, but the app is still very new.

Zettelkasten

The minimalism alone is enough to recommend The Archive, but the purpose of its design is what makes it really interesting. If I’m honest, it’s probably another reason I looked right past it initially. The Archive is built around the needs of a modern, digital approximation of the Zettelkasten. A structured note taking system descended from sociologist and functionalist, Niklas Luhmann.3 Luhmann’s work is not my jam — far from it — but, I hadn’t properly considered the virtues of implementing a suitably bespoke version. Or indeed, that the modern Zettelkasten is bespoke by default. 4

If that seems cryptic, a precise definition of zettelkasten is likely to be counterproductive. Short of saying it is a loosely defied method of constructing an archive of notes. An archive built upon layers of nodes and connections. If you want to know more, however, Christian and Sascha have a growing archive of their own at the Zettelkasten blog. In case you don’t already know how philosophical note taking can be, you have been warned.

There you will find examples of Zettelkasten built with apps as diverse as Sublime Text and Trello. You could potentially build a Zettelkasten with Bear if you felt so inclined, with some concessions to its idiosyncrasies it could work. I wouldn’t, but there you go. It has been done with Evernote, of course, but trust me when I say that’s a much worse idea. 5 Myself, I have no interest in locking up my data in either proprietary formats, rich text, or obscured databases. 6 Besides, if you are interested in crafting a Zettelkasten from your notes, why not build it with an app that was designed for the purpose. An app that, as it says on the box, is nimble and calm.

On Using the Zettelkasten

The Zettelkasten blog is a kind of sprawling object lesson. Part demonstration with a whole lot of reflection on research based note taking. There is a post overview if you’re looking for a front page, although by design there is no how-to guide as such. At the same time, the most succinct and recurring advice is this: start taking notes and your archive will take shape. If the move from thinking of your notes as singular annotations, to both particular and part of growing whole is subtle, it is also more than enough method.

The forum has examples of Keyboard Maestro automations, snippets and other innovations to help you along. The beauty of both the system, and The Archive as an app is there is nothing to lock you into a particular way of doing things. I found looking at examples of notes to be useful for getting started. You will find a baseline at Zettelkasten.de, and Dan Sheffler has posted one as a GitHub gist.

My own setup is very simple at this point. My notes consist of front matter, body, and a reference section. I currently use Zotero to manage my references, with a combination David Smith’s applet  and Dean Jackson’s mind boggling ZotHero workflow for Alfred to insert the citations. Users of TextExpander can download my snippets below for both front matter and back matter to use as a guide, but I recommend building your own, or at least adapting these to your own needs. There is also a shamelessly basic Alfred workflow for opening the Archive with a search query. There is little point in creating one for note creation as the app already comes with a very useful hot key function for quick entry.

Reclaiming the Object of Note Taking

Evernote did a lot to confuse the object of note taking with their everything-bucket aesthetic. The push back against that has been encouraging for both the purpose of privacy, and in the rediscovery of a more deliberate practice of thoughtful note taking. nvALT, the long-time anathema to the hoarding elephant, received its last official update a little over a year ago. There have been whispers of a commercial replacement for some time, but the developers have other projects to keep them busy. I have no doubt it will be an outstanding candidate should it eventuate. In the meantime for all you plain text nerds, the Archive is worth a proper look. Even if you share my distaste for all manner of functionalism and its scions.

Downloads

Text Expander Snippets

Simple Alfred Workflow

  1. Although, given the history and purpose of Drafts as a sort of weigh station for text it makes more sense.
  2. Frankly, iCloud Drive on macOS is also a mess in need of hacks to make it usable
  3. I don’t have much time for the kind of sociology Luhmann practiced, and there has been some suggestion the method is implicated in the ideas.
  4. And again,  not to confuse the subject and the object 
  5. I cannot put it better the Christian, who writes in the forum: ‘proprietary file formats do serve the devil’
  6. It is for that reason I recommend Notebooks for anyone who wants a feature rich, multipurpose notes app (not for Zettelkasten)  

Zapier’s Markdown Guide

Zapier has posted a handy introduction to Markdown. There are a lot of these guides around, but they look to have done a good job here. If you are still mystified by how to use Markdown syntax, this might help. I am working on a bit of Markdown for academic work content, in the meantime, if this guide whets your appetite I also posted some links very early on to a YouTube series on using Markdown for academic writing

Still the Best App for Plain Text Note-taking

Update 10-01-2019:  For an update on plain text note taking for macOS:  Thoughtful Plain Text Note Taking with The Archive and Zettelkasten

In Praise of Plain Text

If you happened to have read any of the posts I have made about note-taking, you might think I have a problem. The real problem is not so much being torn between numerous different tools, but being torn between waiting on an old favourite to be reincarnated, so to speak, and moving on to something new. There are trade offs no matter which way you look at it. Apple Notes, for example, has some hard to overlook advantages – native integration means an unparalleled user experience when it comes to sharing material with the system-wide share extension on both the macOS and iOS. The Apple Notes share extension captures URLs in a form it calls rich links, which includes a thumbnail and text snippet to make captured links that much easier to recall. This rich text approach is both the major strength and weakness of Apple Notes, at least now that iCloud syncing has become so reliable and fast. Rich text relies on a proprietary database, meaning portability and future-proofing are open questions for notes kept in a system that relies on them. For that reason, I find myself only using Apple Notes as a kind of place holder for links I will use immediately, or when very basic collaboration is in order.

Apple Notes

A plain text system is the antithesis of proprietary, it is as open as you can get for storing text. Plain text also has one more significant advantage, the speed at which you can work with it. Which brings me back to the aforementioned problem. Where haste is concerned, for a long time there was a pretty clear favourite among the mac community. nvALT was tool of choice for quick text capture where keyboard ninjas were concerned. Nerds might roll their eyes – a detour through the history and utility of nvALT would be an undertaking of its own – but nvALT remains as useful as ever, despite being eclipsed by a new wave of notes apps in the past couple of years [1]. Brett Terpstra is promising a commercial replacement to nvALT, with an app called BitWriter apparently close to beta release. You can use nvALT wit any iOS text editor you choose as a companion, just set the default folder inside nvALT to your favourite cloud service and sync between the two apps. The official stamp of approval for an iOS companion was given to 1Writer, another app I have no hesitation recommending, and one that includes a Javascript automation enginE. OR if you would prefer you can synchronise it with another stalwart app, the minimalist and reliable Simplenote.

Nvalt Plain Text Notes

When it comes to capturing text as quickly as possible on the Mac, I have a hotkey set for nvALT, so it has become so ingrained that it just happens. You might wonder why I would recommend an app kept in the barest of maintenance cycles while the developer openly builds its replacement. To which I would suggest that first, I can’t imagine Bitwriter will depart from the nvALT workflow much at all [2] – the user base for Bitwriter are nvALT users, so moving to the new app will be trivial when it happens. Second, even if there were significant changes, this is the beauty of plain text, moving to another app will not break your system. Having said all that, I have recently been made aware of another Notational Velocity [3] clone out there that is in active development. So if you are looking for an a lightweight plain text, open source, note-taking app, then FSNotes is worth a peek.


  1. I should probably add that nvALT can also handle rich text, but I believe most people use it to work with plain text  ↩

  2. Although I do hope there is a native iOS app too  ↩

  3. The app original app that nvALT was forked from  ↩