July 22, 2011

workflow / productivity / nvAlt

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4 min. | 839 words

One of my favorite Mac programs is Notational Velocity. I do a lot of writing with it – everything from meeting notes, to jotting down ideas, to creating reference files and running lists, even occasionally to write up longer-form content like blog posts or research (though I tend to use TextMate for most long-form writing).

Notational Velocity (or the fork I use, nvALT) follows the One Thing Well philosophy:

  • It’s lightweight.
  • It allows you to just write no frills text.
  • Text is saved automatically.
  • Text can be found very simply through the built-in progressive search.

The entire system makes it very easy to focus on writing. You don’t need to click “New File” or anything else – simply type in the new file you’d like to create and hit Return and you’re ready to go. You never have to use the mouse, even; just hit Cmd-L and your cursor is placed in the location bar. Type in your file, press Return, and start writing.

My Setup

My setup is pretty simple. Here a few things I’ve done with my setup:

  1. Under Preferences, I’ve set up Notational Velocity to store everything as plain text files. Plain text, after all, is the most portable, the most searchable, the most light weight medium for your writing. I can work on my writing on my laptop, or access the files on my phone if I need to.
  2. I use to have the system synchronize with Simplenote, but I’ve turned this feature off recently. Instead, I have all of my notes synchronized to Dropbox. Everything is backed up and with me where ever I have an internet connection.


Now here comes the geeky side of things. My system is very similar to the system used by Merlin Mann:

  1. All of my notes are appended with, for lack of a better word, “tags” that I use to group items together and reference things quickly. For example, my blog post brainstorms or drafts are prefixed with “blogx” followed by a potential post title and finally I use a TextExpander snippet to insert the full date and time (for example, a Notational line for this post might look like “blogx jahx Using Notational Velocity 2011-07-22_23-05-06”). Like Merlin, I use the “x” at the end of my prefixes to quickly find things. I want to see all my blog material? I type “blogx”. I want a list of my running lists? I search for “runx”. Some of these are narrowed down: blogx is usually followed by “jahx” (my initials, a post meant for this site) or “tcx” (a blog post for Tumblr).
  2. For frequently used items I use Merlin Mann’s “q trick”. If I have a file I reference frequently or want to locate quickly, I follow it with a number of q’s, starting with at least two and usually going up to five. For example, I have a file called “TODAY agenda [qqqqq]” that I store my “most important things” to-do list in of things I want to accomplish that day. It’s faster to type multiple q’s rather than start searching for the individual file.
  3. I may draft up ideas for blog posts or research projects in Notational Velocity, but I normally do most of my writing in TextMate. I like the feel of TextMate, and it also just does One Thing Well.
  4. There’s nothing that doesn’t go into Notational Velocity. I currently have around 270 text files in Notational Velocity, sometimes nothing more than a single line of text. I frequently dump often-used snippets into Notational and are titled with a “refx” prefix (like an HTML snippet or command line function like the one I use to convert markdown to PDF; if used often enough these become snippets in TextExpander).

The point of all this crazy taxonomy is to allow me to not have to think very hard about what I’m after. I want to find what I’m looking for immediately, without having to waste a lot of time searching the back of my brain with the half-remembered thought. Nor do I want to always fire up a browser and search for what I’m looking for. If I’ve found a method that works and that requires a reference or running list or whatever, it goes into Notational for future reference.

The additional advantage to this system is it isn’t tied to a specific computer platform. If I left the Mac operating system for Linux, for example, I still have all of my plaintext files that I can easily still write in or search through the command line or an equivalent program in Linux. I also like having everything with me in Dropbox where ever I’m at. If I’m waiting at a doctor’s appointment, standing in line at the store, or just killing some time, I can pull up my files and find something to work on or scratch out an idea.

Finally, everything is written in Markdown. Whether I’m working in Notational Velocity, Epistle, TextMate, or Scrivener, Markdown is my preferred plain text writing syntax.

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Greetings! My name is Jason Heppler. I am a Digital Engagement Librarian and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a scholar of the twentieth-century United States. I often write here about the history of the North American West, technology, the environment, politics, culture, and coffee. You can follow me on Twitter, or learn more about me.