nvALT: Notetaking Stripped of Mental Blockages

I’ve written before about how much I like to take notes in plain text. In this post, I want to introduce an elegant, and simple way on the Mac to do this with an application called nvALT.

On a Scale of Notetaking Nerdiness

On a scale of notetaking nerdiness that stretches from popular software like Evernote, which you wouldn’t be surprised to see your parents using, to something more obscure like Emacs, which you might expect someone from the programming crowd to use, I think nvALT would fall more towards the latter. This shouldn’t dissuade you from using it, though! It is easy to learn and a potentially powerful tool for students and faculty alike.

An Overview of Notational Velocity

nvALT is derived from an application called Notational Velocity (ノテイショナルヴェロシティ in Japanese, or 驚的速記 in Chinese), which Zachary Schneirov originally created to “loosen the mental blockages to recording information and to scrape away the tartar of convention that handicaps its retrieval.” That is a tall order, and might leave you wondering exactly what kind of magical software you are downloading!

The screenshot shows the interface, and as you can see, the app packs a lot of possibilities into a clean interface almost completely devoid of icons or “wasted” space. Even the name bar at the top is minimized to conserve space.

  • Search: If you type in a search query, and do not find a note to match what you are trying to find, just hit enter to make a note with that title.
  • Tags: using these, you can easily organize your notes into categories.
  • Internal Note Links: When you use a double bracket around a word or phrase [[ ]] the app creates an internal note link. This enables you to create a personal wiki.
  • Markdown: The app has support for markdown, and this makes it possible for you to have formatted text even if you are using plain text.
  • Encryption: Although not shown on the screenshot here, you could choose to encrypt a single note, or every note in the database if you would like.

Notational Velocity Design Philosophy

In an interview with Surat Lozowick, Zachary attributes the inspiration for the combined search/create behavior to Jef Raskin’s The Humane Interface (especially this passage), which motivated him to explore ideas of modelessness and monotony for his app. In line with this philosophy, you’ll find no toolbar, no buttons to push, and really nothing to do but search or create notes from the search field.

“Notational Velocity” v. “nvALT”

Because Notational Velocity is open source, you can find tweaked versions of it on the Web. One of the best of these is called nvALT, and is developed by Brett Terpstra and David Halter as a joint project that merged their two versions into one “alternate.”

Notational Velocity is only sporadically updated by Zachary, and lacks a lot of features I like to use in nvALT, so I would recommend the nvALT version. There are lots of little things in nvALT that add up to a better experience. For example, recent changes to how the database is saved will greatly improve the reliability of the Dropbox sync.

Putting nvALT to Work

Here are some ideas about how to incorporate nvALT into your workflow.

Web Clipping:

  • Imagine yourself doing research for a paper or article, and you come across a page on the web that you want to save. You could save it as HTML or PDF into a folder somewhere on your computer, but why not put it into nvALT? Of course, copy/pasting a website into a plain text app will lose all of the formatting, and you might end up with an unintelligible mess. There are two options for you:
    • Drag the address from your web browser into the note list. That’s it. nvALT will do the rest for you. It works well for most of the websites I try to clip, but some sites with complicated / strange formatting will not render well.
    • Give Marky a try. It converts websites into Markdown, so you’ll have access to all of the content without all of the distracting ads and so forth. Below is a page from the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery website. It looks great, except that it is missing all of the artwork. That is one of the downsides of working in plain text.

Research Journal:

  • Make a research journal for each day. I recommend using a YYMMDD + keyword naming convention for the title. For example, today’s journal is called “130401 journal monday.” A screenshot of my journal template is below. You can also list all of these journal entries and create internal note links to make it easily navigable (see the second screenshot).

Personal Wiki:

  • Designate one note as your “home page” (there is a “bookmark” function for that). Link to other notes from there using the double brackets to generate internal links.

My Favorite Feature: Plain Text Files

The best part of nvALT is that it keeps all of your files in plain text, and that means they are completely compatible with any software on any operating system. Because notesy, Nebulous Notes, SimpleNote, and many other apps on the iPad all sync to Dropbox, you can move between nvALT and the iPad. On Android, give a try to Epistle.

Something I Wish It Had: iOS Support

nvALT does not have a dedicated app in the iOS store, so you are at the mercy of products by other developers. A large number of notes (I have about 10,000) makes searching almost impossible in any app that currently exists, unless you limit yourself to titles alone, and even then it can be very slow.

There are other drawbacks as well, and bugs in all of the apps I mentioned above make it impossible for me to access my notes on the iPad at the moment. If you have relatively few notes, or relatively short ones, you should be fine with any of them, but they don’t seem ready to scale up quite yet.

DIY Notes and Organization

As much as I enjoy nvALT and working with plain text, I have to admit that the workflow I just described is probably not well suited to everyone’s needs, because it requires a kind of do-it-yourself mentality.

I encourage you to give it a try, but I understand that learning markdown, working without icons in the interface, and organizing without folders might seem like more trouble than it is worth. I get it, and I plan to write more in my blog about other apps like VoodooPad and Evernote that you might want to try instead.