Taking Notes, Part II – A toolbox round up

Yesterday I wrote about the nature of taking notes on a laptop or tablet, highlighting some of the pitfalls which might arise when shifting to a digital platform for note taking. Today I’d like to highlight my three favorite favorite note taking apps as a starting point for anyone who’d like to make a successful jump from paper.

Notability

Notability is an amazing piece of software, and it works well with Apple’s Pencil. Its last update even added the ability to convert hand-written notes to text 1. I use Notability to take notes the way I did in college, I create flow-charts which organize a lecture or presentation into whatever structure I see fit. It’s slow 2, as is all long-hand writing, but effective. Notability is available on the iPad, iPhone, and Mac – though I only use the iPad app. It’s also an excellent way to annotate PDF’s. Notability’s iOS and MacOS versions cost $9.99 each.

A piece of a notability document.
My left-handed chicken scratch. But you CAN see how my notes are structured around snippets and thoughts, connected by arrows.
This note was created during a police chaplain training event I attended.

iThoughts

iThoughts is an elegant mind-mapping app for iOS, Mac, and Windows. It has easy shortcuts to create new nodes on the mind-map, which work with both physical keyboards and soft keyboards, and the export features are phenomenal. Because mind-maps have a hierarchical structure by design, I use iThoughts when a project fits that reality. It makes filling in my data simple and fast, and the notes feature allows me to interject my own thoughts at will. It is also possible to create a number of different mind-maps in a single document and create visual links between the different clusters. Creating the links between the different elements requires a number of taps, which can be daunting, but as each new element becomes a mind-map in itself this may be a good balance of both freedom and structure. iThoughts costs $11.99 for iOS and $49.99 for Mac and Windows, respectively. The expense for the desktop application might deter some users, but iThoughts is a productivity tool well worth the cost.

A mind map depicting a Maundy Thursday service.
A traditional mind-map, which works well when dealing with projects which have a defined structure.

Scapple

Scapple is the application I wish I would have had back in college 3. While it is technically a mind-mapping app, that description doesn’t do the application justice. Scapple is a blank slate on which information can be placed in any way a user chooses. Links between different blocks aren’t hierarchical, but visual, which means the only structure a Scapple file has is what the user creates. This makes exporting into other formats a bit less simple than iThoughts, but the freedom inside the app makes the trade off worth it. Scapple is the closest I’ve gotten to utilizing a mouse and keyboard to create notes the way I use pen and paper. It’s a piece of art, and if it had an iPad app I might take all my notes in it. Scapple is the kind of app which makes me wish I was in a degree program, just so I had a reason to use it as often as possible. It’s available for both Mac and Windows for $14.99, and is only $12 for students! If you’re on a laptop instead of a tablet this is a great app to have.

A Scapple map depicting the various levels of managing a WordPress site.
A free-flowing Scapple file, the only structure is defined by the creator.

Conclusion

As you can see, each of these apps creates a way for note takers to utilize that crucial element of mental processing during a lecture or presentation. Whether through the natural slow down which comes with using a stylus to write, or though the visual cues of a mind map, notes stop being a copy was what was said and are transformed into an interpretation. In so doing, the material becomes internalized by the note taker.

The truth is, notes should be personal, as they a reflection of the note taker’s mind during a presentation as they are a representation information which was shared 4. The tools used to take notes should free a person to express their own personality and reflections, rather than constrain. This is one reason why I’m so fond of Scapple and Notability, these apps are true blank pages which leave the design of my notes up to me. iThoughts is also useful for notes which require a strong structure but even that app is capable of being used in a “blank page” methodology, it’s just not as intuitive as it is in the other two apps. It’s not difficult to treat iThoughts as a blank page, just different 5. I always tell people to find whatever note taking style which best reflects their personality, through either digital or physical means, and they will do well 6.

What tools have you used for successful note taking?


  1. Though it can’t do much with my terrible left-handed scratch 
  2. My writing, not the app. The app is lightning fast. 
  3. The mid-90’s. AKA, “The Dark Ages.” 
  4. In my case my brain always looks like a scary mess. 
  5. As a side note, Scapple documents can be opened in iThoughts, which I find very cool. 
  6. Just as long as they don’t think verbatim notes are helpful. They aren’t. 
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