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Taking notes

How do people take notes these days? I’ve poked around this list of outliners and note takers but nothing seems to do exactly what I want. But my needs are pretty simple and pretty common, so surely somewhere there’s a piece of software that’ll help.

I’d like an outliner. It doesn’t even have to be very sophisticated. As I read a source, I want to type in brief notes that I can stick into that outline, with some notes stored in multiple places. I only want to type in the bibliographic information once, so it needs some way of annotating the notes with a reference back to the source. That’s it. Anything more than that is gravy. Well, here’s one important lump I’d like in the gravy: I’d like to be able to assign multiple topics to each note and then be able to sort them by topic or source. (Sticking them into the outline structure should count as assigning them a topic.) So, yes, this thing at its heart is a database with an outliner for presentation and manipulation. Is that too much to ask?

I have Microsoft OneNote (see disclosure), but it’s too unstructured for my needs, and it lacks the bibliographic function. A bunch of the applications I looked at have strong outlining capabilities but don’t recognize that entries strewn about the outline actually come from the same place.

Surely I’m working the way lots and lots of people work. What are y’all using?

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19 Responses to “Taking notes”

  1. I use one of two tools:

    1) A plain text editor (often using wiki markup, as I will likely be posting the results)

    2) Paper

  2. Have you tried MindManager? It’s more free flowing, but makes it easy to export to Word as an outline.

  3. I believe Tinderbox can do that, and you can even export the results to the web in a variety of interesting ways.

    What do you think of OneNote? It sounds pretty interesting.

  4. Ah, another seeker. What do I use?

    For beginning writing, a one pane outliner, tkoutline.

    For what you want, the closest thing I am aware of is Ecco Pro, a discontinued product that I recently fell in love with. It is available as a free download and works with Win 9x through WinXP. I beleive that Scott Rosenberg of Salon is using it for the book he is writing — he would be the best person I know of with whom to discuss using it for writing.

    Or you could wait for Chandler :-)

  5. I also use ECCO, and have for ten years. I can confirm its utility and robustness.

  6. Tinderbox looks like an excellent freeform tool. It apparently meets my requirement of having notes retain their link back to the book they are about. But, it’s only for Mac right now. And it may be more freeform than I want.

    OneNote is a great way to collect freeform notes and looks especially useful for tablet PCs. (I don’t have one). But its outliner is a bit weak and it doesn’t come close to having the database-like capabilities I want.

    Tkoutline looks interesting because of the ability to link outlines: One outline could be my book notes and the other my chapter notes. The specific feature I need is the ability to link an _element_ in an outline with another outline. I’ll take a look.

    I used to use ECCO, a loooong time ago, and haven’t kept up with it. It looks like they have a zillion products. Which one should I be looking at? Thanks.

  7. Sadly, 4.01 is the last version of Ecco Pro. It is available as a free download at
    . It is probably the same version you used long ago. I haven’t found anything better, though, and I have done a lot of looking.

    There is an active yahoo group, plus various websites that support it, like

    Good luck.

  8. How do people take notes these days?

    Using these.

  9. Since I work entirely on my computer, I have been looking for note taking tools as well. My solution is to use OneNote, because I can easily clip from the web and organize my clippings to augment my thinking. But I am not totaly satisfied with OneNote, primarily because it does not have the outlining functionality.

    I use EasyBib ( for bibliographies. It is a very easy tool and makes it simple export your citations to a word document or OneNote.

    I am very interested in improving my tools set so I will watch this thread.

  10. Inspiration is big in High Schools. Their web site says grade 6 through adult.

    I see a free trial there.


  11. I highly recommend Keynote. ( I’ve been using it for about two years and it is still revealing its power. I came to the conclusion that it does everything OneNote does and more – with the exception of stylus input. I suspect it is even more powerful than the author realizes.

    The notetaking area supports all RTF functionality – so it supports all the formatting you need with the exception of tables. You can use the tree structure to link to local/network files, URLs and other tree nodes. By leveraging this functionality, you can use Keynote as a front-end to an entire project.

    The only real weak area is exporting the file structure. You can tweak the export but I’ve never managed to get the output I really want.

    I use Keynote for outlining in advance of writing, for storing/managing research, for To-Do lists, as a small database, etc, etc.

    Like many non-commercial apps it is slightly idiosyncratic but more than repays the effort made for mastering the features and functions.

  12. Don, Keynote looks great. I’ve downloaded it and tried it briefly. But I don’t see how I can do what I want with it. I want to be able to assemble the children of various nodes into a new document or tree, while maintaining their relationship to their original root. That is, each book I’m taking notes on is a branch, and each note is a leaf; I want to be able to drag leaves from various branches onto a new branch (= chapter) and have the leaves remember that they came from a particular book. Am I missing how I would do that with Keynote?

  13. Tim’s right, I’m still using Ecco Pro, and I’m not sure what I’d do without it. I’ve got two years of notes in it, vast quantities of text, organized and annotated with metadata. I’ve never lost anything due to file corruption, which is (sadly) still the #1 reason I avoid many other programs.

    I’m reasonably sure it can be used to do what you’re describing, David, though it might take a little bit of wrestling. As a simple outliner Ecco remains my total favorite; when you start getting fancy with it, it’s even cooler, but it has some quirks (what program doesn’t?) that can trip you up until you understand them. If you are crazy enough to want to use not-updated-in-7-years code (but rock solid!) there’s some useful documentation and tips available here:

  14. enter the iron fist in the velvet glove: VI

  15. Have used many described here. ECCO had been a fav over the years. Recently found and using GoBinder 2.0. Good outlining, notetaking, etc. The print to notes from any source is particularly useful. Great search feature as well.

  16. I’ve used Ecco Pro since 1995. It is the most versatile information manager ever invented. There is nothing like it on the market today. It is customizeable and has the ability to do some things you may like: 1)data resides in one place but can be seen in any configuration you wish to create 2)you can create a custom form in the phone book to enter bibliographical information 3)you can pick and choose which information will appear in custom views which you create 4)It will do simple calculations

    Here is a link to a download.

    Because it was abandoned 8 years ago, the roller scrolling doesn’t work with Windows XP. You can restore roller scrolling by downloading and installing Katmouse. Katmouse is free. Here is a link.

    A last note about Ecco Pro. It can be overwhelming at first. I kept coming back to it over the years until, now, I develop all my thoughts and organization in it. I am using it to focus my thinking on a new home improvement book.

  17. I just recently found a new website that allows you to generate a works cited page in APA format for free, it seems like the design is better than other works cited generators as well and has every resource imaginable, this website really helped me with my work cited page, and most of all it allows you to export it directly to microsoft word

  18. Started outlining in HighSchool and never stopped! Wish there was something better, but still use ecco pro to outline. Found a tool that helps gather items/subitems at which seems to be still currently developing for the program. Recommended.

  19. Try emacs org mode:

    This is a very simple yet powerful outliner in which you can insert links to a certain line of a text file. You can also insert links to your bibtex bibliography or other data bases. Lots more too.

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