Scrivener, SimpleText & Notational Velocity

Sorry to repost, but I didn’t even know this topic existed. Gotta scroll down to get some Zen. Hope you enjoy this usage scenario:

You’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelette, right? Well, I kinda like to make a mess of my creative workflow before I figure out how it’s supposed to work. Here’s one that has been working nicely for me lately. The idea to write about this came from this post about exporting documents to Simpletext:


Shortly after I bought Scrivener, I got WriteRoom for iPhone. With the syncing, I’ve basically always got a version of my writing on me. In order to get the good stuff onto my phone from Scrivener, I would always have to copy and paste whatever I was writing into either the web or Wifi interface for WriteRoom. It wasn’t a huge nuisance, but it was about 3 more steps than I would have liked (Open browser, go to, login, etc.). Then I discovered the SimpleText application for Snow Leopard (unfortunately not available on 10.5). Basically it adds a folder to your User directory that automatically syncs with the web interface whenever something is added to it. Plain Text only, but it works, and fast.

So with Scrivener, you can save a file or even compile a draft straight to that folder, then boom, it’s up on SimpleText and just a click away on your iPhone. Sure, formatting gets stripped out, which is a real shame, but if you just want to keep plugging away while you’re out, it’s a quick way to get stuff onto the phone. For awhile I would just launch TextEdit to jot down addresses and phone numbers, then save them out to this directory too. Of course, SimpleText (and WriteRoom) became bloated.

Enter Notational Velocity. This app became pretty popular quite recently because they added Simplenote syncing. Now, Simplenote doesn’t sync with Scrivener, so there was no chance I was going to switch, plus it’s missing all the comfort of WriteRoom (the configurable colors and document statistics). Notational Velocity is basically a little app that allows you to search and create text documents intuitively and quickly. It’s difficult to explain how it works because it’s so simple you might not believe me if I told you. Just download it and take it for a spin.

The best part about Notational Velocity is that you can point it to any folder on your mac, and it will read any text document in it. I got this tip somewhere on the web (I forget where) to point notational velocity to the SimpleText folder on your Mac and voila! There are all of your notes, quickly accessible and searchable. Better yet, you can create new notes right in NV, so those snippets I mentioned earlier (addresses, phone numbers) can be added in no time. And all of this syncs to, and therefore WriteRoom.

WriteRoom features a very fast and convenient search, so don’t get scared when your app starts filling up with lots of text. Whatever you need is still searchable. And it’s searchable in Notational Velocity. And it can be imported to Scrivener.

Now, what does this have to do with writing? It means you should never be afraid to write whatever you want wherever you please. Export a 7000 word Scrivener draft to Simpletext, then tweak it on the road. The let it rot in simpletext for a week, as you start and stop with new paragraphs in various WriteRoom projects. When you get your bearings the following month on what was going on, you can search in Notational Velocity for all the scraps on Humpback Whales or whatever, then drag and drop it back into Scrivener. Then submit your story to a magazine and become famous and such.

So that’s it! It seems like a lot, but it’s not really. Once you set it up, it’s just there when you need it. I’ve probably used it once or twice since I set it up, but that once or twice I pulled together strands were worth it if I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. Phwew, I can’t believe I wrote so much on the matter. Links!

Thanks for posting this explanation. I have NV, WR, simpletext and simplenote, but it’s the last I wind up using by far the most because it seems simpler to me than the simpletext set up, even though it lacks WriteRoom’s goodies. In my iphone usage, these are just simple notes, after all, so formatting doesn’t matter much. I just want to be able to write something on my iPhone or Mac and know that it’s saved the cloud and to the other device, and simplenote does that.

One question, though. I downloaded NV after hearing so many good things about it, but never could figure out the advantage of using it instead of, say TextEdit or Bean to create text files. And pardon my obtuseness, but I can’t quite apprehend from your post why NV improved your workflow efficiency. Can you elaborate a little? I mean, it seems like you still have to create a text file, and I can do that using Services with TextEdit or Bean just as easily as creating a new NV text file. How does NV improve things? Thanks for your patience.

What sets NV apart is its ability to both search and create at the same time. In the search bar, let’s say you type in “frogs” and you find 6 notes with the word frogs in them (or tagged with the word frogs) then it’s done its duty. You have quickly and efficiently gotten all of your frog notes.

Now, let’s say you really have frogs on the mind but you can’t remember if you wrote about them a year ago. You type in frogs in the search bar and nothing comes up. In an alternative like spotlight, you would then have to launch your text editor and get that frogs thought out and save it to a memorable directory. With Notational Velocity, you just keep on typing. When you hit enter, whatever your search string was is now the title of the brand new document you have started typing in. No launching an app, no fiddling with files. Just your thoughts.

Now, I like the ability to fiddle with those files if the time comes, so I set Notational Velocity to store the notes as text files, so they are always accessible in the file system and movable. You can also tag notes in NV, but I can’t tell if this has any use outside of NV. Anyway, by combining text search and text creation into the same space, you can efficiently get your ideas out of your head while catching up on the old ones. Make more sense?

Also, with a regular text editor like TextEdit, you need to save a file, pick a file name, navigate to a folder etc.; all steps that are really time consuming, when all you wanted was to jot down a quick note. NV auto-saves as you type, so you never need to worry about saving your note. Also, if you use Simplenote on the web or on your iPhone, NV syncs to the Simplenote server unobtrusively in the background.

As Poritsky says, NV is efficient to use as the title field and the search field is one and the same place in this app. To search for a note just type your search term, and scroll up/down with the arrow keys to find what you were looking for. If you want to create a new note, type the title of your note in the search field and hit enter. Now you got a title for your note and the cursor placed in the text field. When you’re done, close the window and everything is saved and synced.

On my Mac, I’ve set NV to launch (hidden) upon logon, and set a shortcut (in my case ctrl-cmd-space) to open NV at any time (NV must be running though, which is why it launches when I logon to my Mac). This way, to make a new note, I hit ctrl-cmd-space, assign a title, hit enter, write my note, and hit ctrl-cmd-space to close the NV window again. All very quick and easy with no mouse interaction at all, which is really nice if you’re already in Scrivener writing.

Ah, thanks for elaborating. I see now how NV just saves a few steps for quick note jotting. Still, I don’t think it quite helps my workflow the way it might for many others. For one thing, I don’t keep that many notes on my iPhone, usually just a to do list and a few other things. so it’s not a big deal to save a textedit file into the simpletext folder. (although, weirdly, I tried to save your original post into the folder, and it’s sitting in there now, a .txt file, saved as text from textedit and then from NV, but it stubbornly refuses to show up in WriteRoom on my iPhone, even though I’ve hit the sync button. maybe I’m just forgetting how to use it, since it’s been awhile since I put anything in there.)
Second, I use services text clippings so much that I’ve set up an easy keyboard shortcut and it’s just a habit to quickly clip stuff to bean or textedit. And maybe it’s just my years of using Mac GUI, but I actually like sorting things into folders. I’m sure if I went to the NV method, I would be at least as fast if not faster at finding things. But then wouldn’t I have to import all of my thousands of rtf files and convert them to txt files so NV could see them? It sounds like a lot of trouble, but if I don’t do that, I still need to use spotlight to find things anyway. So I don’t think I’ll be using NV as my main text reader, but I can see how it might work as a quick note jotter to get stuff on my iPhone.
Anyway, thanks again for the tips! It is pretty cool how we can use simpletext to work with some of our scrivener files on the iPhone and, I guess, iPad. Assuming I can get that little problem mentioned above all sorted.

In the end it’s all about finding a workflow that fits in to your personal style of working. One thing I really like about NV is that it doesn’t force me (or even encourage me for that matter) to organise notes. I just jot down an idea, a list, or a weblink into NV without tagging. My notes are sorted by creation date (with the most recent on top), and that combined with search is usually enough for me to find information rather quickly.

I used to use Evernote for these quick notes, but the app felt quite “heavy” for the task of being a simple note taking app. Also, the Evernote UI on the Mac (as well as the iPhone) forces you to make organisational decisions every time you create a note by asking you to specify a notebook and add tags. I found that when I was in hurry jotting a note down, I never got around to use Evernote for this purpose, because it would just take too much time. Therefore, I stopped using Evernote and switched to something simpler. While Evernote didn’t work for me, perhaps would be more useful for you, Brett? I think it stores rtf-files, and you can also import Word-documents exported from Scrivener.

Going back to NV, I only use it for everyday notes. I’m an academic, so for research, note taking and writing I need something more powerful. If I get a brilliant idea when I’m on the run (sadly, it happens way too rarely I must admit!) I use WriteRoom on the iPhone and bring it in to Scrivener through the built-in import when I get back home. NV is a nice tool, but I would never use it for proper writing.

Thanks for the suggestion of EverNote. I looked at it earlier and had the same reaction you did and never went back. I think for now I’m pretty content with my current set up for quick notes: simplenote or WriteRoom on the iPhone, TextEdit or Bean on the Mac. For those last two, I confess I don’t always file my quick notes away immediately; sometimes I just leave them unsaved until later, when I get in a filing (i.e. non writing) mood and save them to the appropriate folder. Even if Bean crashes, the unsaved notes pop right back up when I open it up again. So I guess Bean just becomes a sort of in -basket of quick notes and various other imported files.
I can now totally see the value of NV, but it seems like it would just create another system to use when the one I’ve got seems to be fine. I am happy that NV now provides the option to save files as separate text documents rather than storing all the notes in the same database, because then tidbits saved in NV are still easily accessible via Bean or whatever. But probably in the end I just prefer the simplicity of working in the fewest apps possible, so long as it doesn’t slow me down. Still, I’m always willing to look around for a better solution – that’s what led me to Scrivener, after all! I will certainly keep NV on my radar. So let’s keep the discussion going. Now that so many of us are relying on several devices (iPhone/iPod Touch, iPad (maybe someday), Mac), it’s great to see what options develop for coordinating info among them. I imagine we’re going to continue to see plenty of action in this area in coming months.

I’ve adopted a work flow similar to those above with these additions:

  1. I use TaskPaper more than WriteRoom on my iPod touch. I’m mostly taking down ideas for books and I like how it separates them into an easily read bulleted list. Also, once you get the hang of it, the keyword search feature in TaskPaper is very handy. I’m delighted that something like it may find its way into Scrivener 2.0. The just-out (1.2) version of TaskPaper for the iPhone/touch is even better and is now tweaked for the iPad. You can check it out here: … 40092?mt=8

It’s one of the few products on iTunes that averages a five-star rating. It’s that good.

  1. I use Dropbox for synching various text documents that I want to have on both my iMac and MacBook.( I don’t use it for WriteRoom/TaskPaper or SimpleNote documents. I use their automated website synching instead.) I also use DropBox for off-site, on-the-go backup using Scrivener’s save for backup feature to a Dropbox folder. That way, I know if my MacBook gets damaged or stolen on the way back home, a day’s or a trip’s work isn’t lost.

  2. I use Evernote almost exclusively for grabbing links to webpages, so I can find them later. It’s my catch-all for links because it’s searchable and accessible from both Macs or (in a pinch) my iPod touch. Somehow, it seems too clumsy for note taking or writing. Even the developers promote it as primarily a giant shoebox in the sky, able to store anything you might need later.

Hope that’s helpful.

–Michael W. Perry, Seattle

Another app that looks nice as a note taking tool on paper (I don’t have an iPhone – yet?) is MindNote (touch). There is an outline view that is not available in the desktop version, woking on the side of the “classic” mind map view. Integration between an outliner and a mind map is my favorite way of drafting ideas, and I’m missing it since the time of MyMind.