Reading is an activity that requires concentration—dare I say immersion?—and note-taking is an activity that seems to work against this specific mode of concentration. Agree, disagree, both, or neither?

Note-taking is also an activity that, for me at least, can’t be done at the computer. You can’t beat holding a book in one hand and a pen in the other. That’s multi-tasking at its finest, as far as I’m concerned.

I have decided that sticky notes work best for me. I can scrawl a little note and stick it to the appropriate page. This gives me the ability to easily cross-reference the note with the text itself (since I can’t always remember what I “meant” by note days later); get an at-a-glance view of how annotated a chapter, section, or entire book is; move notes around; remove notes; and easily enter all my notes into a word processor (which, in the past, was NeoOffice). I imagine one could also use a system of colour-coded stickies to indicate various contexts, but that’s still a feature of my note-taking system that’s still very much undergoing beta-testing. :wink:

The problem is that I have generally failed to leverage my note-taking. Sometimes I have had a separate word processor document for notes which I cut’n’paste into the word processor document which contains the draft. Sometimes the draft fills in the gaps around the notes. In both cases I can’t help feeling that I’m failing to make the best of it, and I think it’s fairly obvious that Scrivener will greatly improve my efficiency in this respect.

How do you use Scrivener to manage your notes? What are your note-taking strategies? How do you manage the connections between notes and annotations (as the two are not always identical)? Tell all.

I think Scrivener is a fantastic note taking environment, so long as you can get the source material into it. The combination of semantic highlighters, inline annotations, a dedicated note field, and full screen to help focus on the document is unparalleled in the digital realm. There is perhaps one program which is better for the sort of multitasking you are referring to, and that is Curio. Load the text into Curio and with a digital tablet and pen, you can very closely get the book and pen feel. The only problem (and this is why it is a lesser option that Scriv in my opinion) is that your notes are not very portable. You can do a lot more with your notes and markings in Scrivener, than you can in Curio.

But, if you do have a tablet and pen (and cheap non-artistic quality ones are sufficient. No need to drop $500 USD on a Wacom), perhaps something interesting could be done with Scrivener. Most of these things have several buttons and pen modes that can be assigned a per application basis. You could have a button to highlight, or use the eraser end to toggle annotations on a selection. In combination with OS X’s Ink, you could free-hand your notes right in as if writing on a sheet of paper. It wouldn’t be as fast as typing, but if typing is what is blocking your brain from research, then it might be worth it.

I’ve been taking notes from a PDF document using a combination of DevonThink Pro and Scrivener. After I’ve finished with the current document, I want to look at how I could do it using Scrivener alone. For now, though, here’s what I’ve been doing.

In DevonThink Pro:

I make a new group called Clipping Room. In the Import preferences I set Clipping Room as the destination for new notes.

I import the PDF into Clipping Room and start reading. The first time I come across an interesting passage, I select it and take a rich note. This creates a new RTF document in Clipping Room with the selected passage as both its content and title.

Any subsequent interesting passages, I select them and append a rich note. This tacks the selected passage onto the end of my original note.

If I have to switch databases or restart DTPro before I’ve finished taking notes, I end up with a new RTF document from each notetaking session that follows a reopening of my notetaking database. I merge these RTF documents when I’ve finished taking notes.

In Scrivener:

I drag the merged RTF document into Scrivener and convert it to a folder. I split the editor and lock the content of the folder into the bottom editor. Then I review the notes I’ve taken.

As I come across a topic in the bottom editor, I make a new document in the folder, name it according to the topic, select it in the top editor, and drag the passage from the bottom editor into the top editor. I’ll choose a sentence or two to be the synopsis. If the passage in the top editor becomes more specific - examples, quotes, special techniques - I select a phrase, split the passage with the selection as the title, and move the new document right to become a subdocument.

The end result is a hierarchy of documents organised vertically by topic and horizontally by specificity. I can review quickly by looking at the synopses on the corkboard.

I want to thank everyone who’s posted a how-to tip lately, because I’ve used a lot of them in working out how to do things.


In all my writing work, my notes come almost entirely from printed books, so the biggest challenge for me has been getting them into digital form so that I can manipulate them to begin with. Typing them in has always resulted in bouts of RSI, and even though I type fast, it’s tedious. I finally bought a MacBook Pro, and can now run Windows on Bootcamp. This means I can use Dragon Naturally Speaking, the only really decent voice recognition software I’m aware of. (Nothing on the Mac comes close enough to even be usable - it’s like magic.) I read out all the passages I’ve underlined in the book. This I can do as I read the book, but usually do afterwards, leafing through the pages to locate the sections I underlined while reading on the subway or in a cafe. My own thoughts I put in brackets. I use Windows’ basic text editor, whose name I forget at the moment, but it comes with XP.

What I wind up with is an RTF file that I move over to a folder on my Mac partition dedicated to all the notes for my book project. I then import it into Scrivener. This is all very well in cases where I just need a digest of the book, but the full document can be anywhere from 1000 to 8000 words long, so it’s not always practical to work from that when I’m looking for specific quotes or anecdotes that I want to drop into my own writing. Compounding that is the fact that I’m using several dozen books as sources, so even a Spotlight search in Scrivener can be unmanageable.

My solution for this came from a long discussion with other Scrivener users in another topic. Basically, I wanted to divide the long files of notes from each book into bite-sized passages, and I needed to be able to tag them using a pretty extensive list of tags. I wanted to be able to quickly survey all the passages pertaining to certain themes (in the case of this book, Britain, paganism, Romanticism, etc.) even if those words didn’t appear in the passage itself. I wanted it to work something like an old-fashioned, cross-referenced index-card system, but without all the duplicate cards. So I bought the notebook software Mori, which is nicely minimal but with lots of plug-ins if you need 'em, and fast, and copied the snippets to a notebook dedicated to this project. Then, I go through and tag them as appropriate. The source of the passage goes in the comment field of each note’s metadata.

This has turned out to be a lot less time-consuming than I thought it would be. The only real time-suck is the dictating, but it’s so much faster than anything else I’ve tried, including typing, that I’m OK with it. Now, as I’m writing along in the main document and I think “It would be good to include an anecdote or quote here to illustrate how X dominated his brother,” I just pop over to Mori, search on the brother’s name, and every snippet that includes that name or is tagged with his name is instantly at my fingertips and very easy to rifle through, much like those index cards.

I write about books for a living, and while I won’t often need something like Mori to manage my notes for shorter pieces, I do hope to store most of my notes for each piece digitally in the future. I currently have stacks of the old steno notepads I used to carry around with me to write down thoughts and page citations as I read. They worked fine during the week or so that I was writing the review, but all the information stored in them is essentially inaccessible now. That’s a shame since I’m sure if I created a DevonThinkPro database of all that stuff I could use it while writing pieces in the future. An example: While reading a history pertaining to the early church leadership of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, I came upon the tidbit that one of the church fathers tried to pass a law requiring women to wear veils in public. This came in handy when I was trying to make a point in another piece about Islam a few months later, observing that religious reform movements are not necessarily liberal in spirit. For that stuff, I’ve have to rely on my own crappy memory and hope that I can find it in the original source (if I still have it around) and that all this won’t take too much time.

One thing I am using Mori for apart from the current book project is to create a version of the old commonplace book of miscellaneaous interesting quotations and notes. Mori kind of utilitarian for that sort of thing, and it would be nice to have something prettier like Circus Ponies Notebook, but that seems a little extravagant. Maybe when I get the next installment of my advance!

Hi Lauram,

Your method sounds practical, and I’m envious of your ability to use Dragon Naturally Speaking. I have an iMac G5, and I use iListen, which is the best voice recognition system for the Mac, but – judging from what people say – not quite as good as Dragon’s product. However, for what you are doing (extracting relevant passages from printed material), it seems to me a handheld scanner may speed up the process: I use IRIS pen express which I got on special with their other OCR product, READIRIS for $ 99 and I use both of them extensively. I use a flatbed scanner to make whole chapters searchable, and I use IRISpen express to scan in passages as I read. You can scan into any application that you can type in and it is not much slower than marking the passage with a highlighter once you get used to it (and you can do it with library books as well). The disadvantage is that you don’t have a record of your reading in the book itself.

I use dictation for my own notes and comments, but mostly for freewriting.


What a bl00dy good idea! Thanks. I have some paper-to-screen note-taking I’ve been getting around to doing.


But does this IRISpen express work indeed well?

Well, as I said, it works well for me. Character recognition is excellent with a bit of practice (depending on the quality of the original of course). Why do you express doubt here? Have you had a different experience?

Having used both iListen and the IRIS Pen Executive, I can say from experience that neither compares to DNS. I bailed on the IRIS when I got iListen, which was somewhat easier, but DNS blows iListen out of the water.

The trick with all of these methods is how fast/accurate they are when you’re inputting the material AND how fast/easy the correction process is for any errors it does make. The IRIS is very finicky and slow, and it makes a lot of mistakes. I found using it onerous, but it has the advantage of being something you can take to a library and use quietly. The software for it is terrible, really terrible, though they did recently upgrade the OCR . My experience was that in say 3 longish sentences, it would make about 7 mistakes. You need then to leave the scanning software and correct it in the word-processing software. At least once a session it freezes or otherwise loses the ability to read the scanner and I’d have to restart the whole computer to get it to work again.

iListen is helpful in that it doesn’t make a lot of dumb errors like OCR, but its correction software is elaborate, confusing and slow. Plus, it requires a lot of memory and frequently freezes. The dictation mode and the correction mode are in the same software, but the correction mode works in this strange way and you have to be very careful with it because it can “lose its place” (hard to explain) and mess up the text. The dictation part of the software needs lots of training and you also have to be careful with the correction process or it can mis-train the dictation part. Also, it’s dumb, with a small dictionary apparently, and you have to add a lot of words and names to it that DNS already knows.

DNS is fast, astonishingly accurate with only 15 minutes initial training, and the correction process can be done while dictating. I’d say it’s about 4 times faster than iListen, and a lot less frustrating, because fixing errors is always annoying, if inevitable. Like I said, I’m not crazy about having to partition my disk and install Windows (a nasty thing to see on a brand new Mac), but DNS is really worth it.

Hm. I would agree with you that IRIS Pen does not compare with DNS because it’s a totally different thing (at least as I use it). I haven’t used DNS, but everyone says it’s much better than iListen, though iListen 1.7 did decrease the time it takes to train it and increase accuracy. What version of DNS are you using? I know the professional version costs something like 900 $, the “preferred” version is 300 $. iListen without a microphone is $ 99. I agree that many aspects of iListen are frustrating, but you can dictate into any Mac application with it.

Now that you say you’ve compared them all and DNS is so much better, I am even more envious. I’ll just have to wait until I have the money to buy a new mac, Windows and DNS.

I’m not sure where you’re getting your information…The Standard edition of DNS is only $99 as well. The Preferred ($200) and Professional editions mostly add group-oriented features like ability to transcribe from dictation machines, network support, and so forth.


@ jottce: I expressed doubt because my experience with IRIS’ OCR-software is far from positive. Some years ago I bought Readiris 9, which immediately revealed itself a huge disappointment. But I really needed and still need a good OCR-program, so last year I decided to upgrade to Readiris 11, hoping and praying the many deficiences of version 9 would have been eliminated in the meantime.

But unfortunately, I had to experience one more time that Readiris is not the stable and reliable OCR-program I’m looking for.

So before buying the IRIS-pen, I really want to be sure it works better than the application does …

Well, that would certainly make it comparable. I have the information from the (dismal!) Web site. That one does not mention a standard version, at least not in any easily visible way. I double checked now and the Nuance web site has the standard version for 99 $; I hadn’t seen that because I didn’t know that a history of acquisitions placed the rights to DNS products in the hands of Nuance. How windows to have so many different versions…

So, thanks for pointing that out. So still more reason to be envious. I watched a demo video and that was certainly very impressive.

Definitely a good idea to check that first. Your requirements may be higher than mine. I have READIRIS 11 and am quite satisfied with it. It takes a bit of tweaking in terms of how you scan in the text (300 dpi, grayscale works pretty well most of the time). Recognition is not 100% – far from it – and it sometimes crashes, but I haven’t found a better solution. Same goes for IRIS pen. Don’t expect a perfect product.
Take care,

I admit that the combined cost of Windows XP and DNS is a disincentive, but I managed to obtain discounted (OEM, presumably) copies of both, XP on eBay and DNS from Amazon Marketplace. Both have worked perfectly.

iListen does not come with a supported microphone, which is a hidden cost of using it if you don’t already have one. DNS does come with a mike, although my copy of it arrived as a naked disk - no box or manual or mike. Fortunately, the mike I bought for iListen also worked perfectly. Then, a few days later, a mike for DNS arrived under separate cover, for reasons unknown.

True, you can theoretically use iListen to issue commands to your software, though I’ve never tried it, and that might be appealing if you have limited use of your hands. But if that feature is as glitchy as the dictation, I would probably wind up in tears after a couple of hours using it.

Ok, that actually makes Dragon naturally speaking cheaper than iListen. Since I’m in Germany and wanted both the German and the English version I bought the download and a separate microphone, which was an additional 50 €. But the German language pack was only 79 $.

However, ultimately even if DNS were much more expensive, if it made your life easier, it would definitely be worth it.



I had one for a day. Sent it back the next. It is an excellent idea who’s implementation left me wanting for (much) more.


Yes, I guess it depends on your expectations. Neither speech recognition nor character recognition software gives you perfect results. It’s probably another case of is the glass half full or half empty. I’ve had an IRISpen for several years now and I’m very happy with it.

I would indeed be very interested to hear about note-taking tools that do a better job. I like IRISpen and iListen in spite of their imperfections because they allow me to write in any application on the Mac, but I would switch in a second if I found something that is better at what they do. I do think though that you should give them more than one day to test them because both need a bit of practice to get them working right.


I agree, Jeanne. It’s nice not to have to do everything in a text file in Windows. The only way you could use DNS for email, for example, was if you switched entirely to Windows (ack!), or got Parallels.

It all seemed like such a nuisance that I put off upgrading my computer until I finished my book & had a little more money. The flickering screen of my old PowerBook forced my hand. Now I’m literally shuddering to think how much longer it would be taking me to digitize my research with my old tools. All that time! It really is money, and I was wasting it. I wish I’d switched MUCH sooner, which is the only reason I’m beating this drum so hard.

Lauram’s voice recognition advocacy is very convincing. This method is among the most efficient and potentially relaxing I’ve come across. I also like the idea of leveraging applications—in this case my own larynx—for which I’ve already bought the license.

The problem for me is that it is often necessary for me to do all my work on a pre-dual boot PowerBook in environments which are not conducive to narrating from a book. Or perhaps some of the books I read are not particularly conducive to public narration. Probably a bit of both. In any case, when I get home there are enough distractions: the grilling of meats, Wii, sleeping.

I am disheartened to hear of poor quality software for the IRIS. What about alternatives? Surely someone else must make a better pen scanner? What about open-source OCR software (or something proprietary but affordable) with appropriate drivers for a variety of pen scanners?

EDIT: I found a company that makes pen scanners which look a little closer to what I want. Has anyone tried anything from PLANon? I don’t think I’m going to drop $300 USD on something that is so easily lost, but they have cheaper models. Anyone tried them?