Bringing Notational Velocity to a new level of massive text editing

(Or should it read “Bringing massive text editing to a new level of Notational Velocity”?)

When working with different notes in a similar context at the same time in Notational Velocity, I might have a few ideas at the ready to tackle your needs. And, even more importantly, you might have thought about this problem as well and would like to offer suggestions or modifications to my approach so I might implement a new feature set to ease our pain. In any way, this post might be just for you.

Ease the pain of working with multiple notes

Usually, I want to edit a bunch of notes during a distinct time: There is a task I want to work on but which tackles more than one topic so I take notes in two separate lists as needed—or I use two notes right away, with one list and topic in each. Or I’m in class and can not anticipate what the professor is going to elaborate on, thus different subtopics branch off of a main topic “root”.

Taking notes in class

When I take notes during the two hours a single session takes, two kinds of notes seem to repeat:

  1. Notes on a specific question; the professor will explain the problem and
    ideally offers some possible conclusions. The session evolves around this
  2. Notes on “facts”; when explaining, the professor tackles a few related
    topics and influential persons from history to make the breadth of the topic
    approachable. Also includes theory outlines, quotes and such.

Sometimes, I create a new note early and capture the session’s topic/question only to find myself creating loosely related sub-notes for later reference, bare information that might be of use later, in a totally different context—a kick start when searching for, say, “philosophy of mind” in about a years time. I can easily tackle connecting these notes via Hyperlinks. But when I create a new note, the previously used search term or “filter” is gone. That behaviour is intended. It just does not prove to be usable in this situation.

Connect notes with metadata

I can link from one note to another. These are direct or strong links. When not directly linking two notes in the content, one can “loosely” connect notes by the use of tags. I do not and will never use Notational Velocity tags since I’d henceforth rely on NV’s internal tagging capability. But I want plain text: everlasting and portable without information loss. So when talking about “tags”, I mean a way to put keywords into a file itself. (Theoretically, both content or file name would work; but for me, a file’s content is the place to go.)

I could implement my own way to “tag”: write a artificial string at the end or beginning of the file (like @foobar or #foobar or the like) to virtually group notes when I search for that term right after creation. I see a better way concerning my workflow: MultiMarkdown offers metadata in its document header, so I will utilize existing features and put the tags right there. The process goes as follows:

  1. Class begins. Professor starts talking and introduces us to the topic.
  2. Create note A. Insert “Keyword: 5-semester, week-4, philosophy-101” into
    the header section. Save that line to clipboard for re-use.
  3. Create new note B for sub-topic. Paste header keywords.
  4. Replace search term (= new note’s title) with clipboard contents.
  5. A and B are found. Repeat 3 to 5.

Tell NV to remember I’m in a certain situation

My first approach is: tell Notational Velocity that I’m in class for the next two hours and that probably every note I create in the meantime will be realated to this session. This equals to NV inserting the Keyword line into new note’s headers automatically. Every note I create is loosely connected to other notes from class of this week by a term I can search for. I call this setting a context.

This automates step 2 and 3. But still I’d have to search for this session’s term afterwards manually to retrieve all notes in the same context, i.e to search for the current context, finding its loosely connected notes.

Retrieve notes automatically

The fourth step can be automated as well. This section is more like brainstorming: I will present two ideas, only roughly sketched. Both base not on: (i) an automated re-search of the last term after creation, or (ii) a special “Create note without touching the search/title text field” dialogue, because the first option will come in your way most of the time you’re not in context-mode and the second option is a total discontinuation of Notational Velocity’s simple interface principle. Instead, I think of two new ways to search in NV.

1. Two different search modes to switch between

After creation, the new note should still be focused on. (That’s what NV does currently.) But instead of wasting the list to display only the current and all-new note, I still want to see the whole context. There is one way which seems most pragmatic for me. Via shortcut, switch between two search modes:

  1. normal search like it works just now,
  2. “context search” which selects all notes from my current context;
    the search field might be useless then, or maybe it is used to drill down
    one of the many notes I created during the last two hours. Call this
    one focus mode and everyone should be thrilled right away.

2. Using Nested Search & Creation

Another approach I shall call nested searching, that is performing a search on a previously found set of items. Maybe you now the Twitter client Tweetie for Mac. When you expand on a tweet/message or user profile, at the top of the window a navigation bar changes, just like breadcrumb navigation on websites.

NV uses this already, but limited to one level. Search for a term which makes one or two notes appear. Then select a note from the list with your keyboard or mouse. See how the “search/title bar” changes its content? The text it now contains is something different from a search term, hence the other results of your search do not disappear when you select something. The text field is now in title display mode. Click inside the list, but not on an item (i.e. below the last found item, in the gutter or white space). The contents change back to your search term, so the text field is in search term display mode.

Imagine Tweetie’s breadcrumb navigation set to your current context. This is (1) a search, but also (2) template-content for all notes you create while in that context. If your context is not too specific, just add another level of nested search (why limit to only one level if there can be infinite?) within your current context. Applied to Tweetie, it is like looking at @zen_habits timeline (list of all tweets) first, focusing a specific conversation with someone (i.e. a reply to someone’s tweet), which results in a navigation like this:

Tweetie Breadcrumb

When you create a new note while in a nested search, the combined search terms will be put into the file as plain text to suffice current search criteria. Requires nested search and does not work with NV today, because one needs a way to tell NV to preserve previous search terms. (Like hitting Shift-Enter will add a level of search instead of creating a new note with this name, clearing the text field afterwards.)


Especially concerning automated note retrieval for a current context may present a few problems. All of this is the product of my own thinking and a short conversation with Eddie Smith1 and not at all thought out.

Please send me your feedback via mail or Twitter @ctietze!

  1. Link updated, pointing to a new post of Eddie (2010-11-06). 

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