How to Become a Note-Taking Ninja

I take a lot of notes. I’m talking, a lot of notes. I take notes for all sorts of reasons. For years I’ve worked to create a perfect, zen-like note-taking and writing setup and I think I’ve finally hit pay dirt. This system has helped me manage my information flow so much that I thought I would share it with the world. If you want to be a note-taking ninja like me then begin your journey by following the instructions below.

The Weapons

The following is a list of the weapons you will need to begin your ninja training. Each is deadly in its own right; together, however, they form a deadly arsenal of portable, ubiquitous, and eternally synced armaments. Download them now to get started.

On Your Computer

On Your Mobile Device

Got ’em? Good. Let’s begin.

The Text Editor (your katana)

Arguably, the most important and powerful weapon at your disposal is nvAlt. It is a simple and well built text editor that allows for instant search and note creation plus the ability to use Markdown to render all of your notes in HTML goodness. This app is a port of the original and venerable Notational Velocity and is one of those apps that continues to surprise me with both its versatility and its rock solid operation.

Why nvAlt you ask? Just give it a try. The all-in-one search / create bar is one of the more amazing and most used features. Open the app, type in a title for a note, hit enter, and start writing. It autosaves your document as you type so you’ll never lose a word. Head back to your search bar and type a word that exists in one of your notes and you’re instantly provided with a list of notes containing that word. This feature has to be seen to be believed. There are a bunch of additional stuff to discover (full screen writing mode, different layout capabilities, themes, etc.) so make sure you explore what this app can do. I also strongly recommend you memorize the keyboard shortcuts to make you a blazingly fast, notational ninja.

Dropbox: A Ninja’s Utility Belt

If you don’t have a Dropbox account then crawl out from under your rock, go to www.dropbox.com, and sign up for your free account. You are provided with 2GB of storage right away that you can use for any kind of storage you can think of. In order to get the full benefit from the techniques in this article you will need to modify a preference setting in nvAlt by following the steps below:

  1. Open nvAlt
  2. Open the app’s Preferences
  3. Click on the Notes tab
  4. Click on the menu item labeled Storage
  5. Look for the drop down menu below the words Store and read notes on disk as: and select Plain Text Files
  6. Above that look for a drop down menu labeled Read notes from folder: and choose Other…
  7. Create a new folder in your Dropbox folder called Notational Data and select it

Now, every note you create in nvAlt will be automagically synced to your Dropbox account, allowing you to access to your notes from anywhere, at anytime. There are several Dropbox enabled apps for iOS that will allow you to access, edit, and create notes from anywhere. This means your notes follow you everywhere you go. You can even access them from within the browser!

Notes On the Move

On your iOS device I recommend Plaintext which is a simple and free writing app from HogBay Software. It is a minimal writing app with an interface similar to nVAlt’s. It is ad-supported but the ads are small and non-obtrusive. I’ll mention some other great (but paid) alternatives at the end of this post (see Advanced Ninja Weapons below). I used this app for well over a year on my iPad as my go-to mobile note-taking solution. The beauty of this setup is the ability to instantly access and edit (or create) notes in your Dropbox account on the go. Did you do some research at your desk for that meeting you’re at now? Pull them up for reference on your iPad. Took some notes during that meeting in Plaintext? They’re available immediately when you return to your desk.

The Techniques

We will all have different techniques when it comes to taking notes. The beauty of this setup is how unrestrictive it is. The methods for organizing and storing your notes can be as varied as our individual personalities. I have developed (and in some cases, borrowed) the following techniques over time to increase my note-taking (and finding) efficiency.

Titling Your Notes to Make Them Easier to Find

Due to nvAlt’s incredible (and breathtakingly fast) search capabilities, it will benefit you greatly if you to take that into consideration when titling your notes. I usually try to use some conventions when creating notes, knowing that I’ll need to find them later. The following are a few ways I do this:

Notes About Clients or Projects

When a note I’m taking refers to a specific client or project, I start the note’s title with the client or project name, then a dash, and then a short but descriptive title. This allows me to locate all related notes just by typing the first part before the dash.

Ideas For Future Writing

Throughout the day, I often come up with ideas for topics I want to write about. I borrowed the “q” trick from Merlin Mann and it works beautifully. You just title any note that is going to eventually become a draft with qqq - (or however many q’s you want) and you have a way to instantly search and view a list of ongoing draft ideas.

This trick can be extended to any abbreviation scheme you can dream up. For instance, when I’m doing research and development on something I try to include R&D in the title so I can locate those notes quickly.

To-do Lists

I title my to-do lists with the following pattern: to-do - [year]-[day]-[month]. This makes it super easy to find my to-do lists just by searching for to-do and looking for the date in the title. I use Textexpander’s incredible date completion feature to make this titling process lightning fast.

Those are just three ways to use the power of nvAlt’s note structure and search capabilities to make writing and searching a quick, painless process.

Write EVERYTHING in Markdown

That’s right, I said it. Everything you type should be in Markdown. I’ll save the nitty gritty for a later post but Markdown is basically your shuriken. It gives your plain text files the power to be so much more. This entire post was written in Markdown and then converted to HTML for posting. All of my notes are written in this format. It allows me to turn any text file I have into a presentation-ready document in just a few keystrokes.

Familiarize yourself with its syntax now. Anyone can learn the basics in a few minutes. Here are some examples of the simplest and most used markdown idioms:

  • **bold** turns into bold
  • *italic* turns into italic
  • [42](http://www.the42.com) turns into 42
  • * Unordered List Item turns into the following:
    • Unordered List Item
  • 1. Ordered List Item turns into the following:
    1. Ordered List Item

There are a ton more ways to mark up your text files so check it out now. Give your plain text files secret ninja powers!

Armed with the information above you can now exist in the shadows of the note-taking world, secure in the knowledge that your notes are synced, backed up, marked up and ready for service.

You can post to blogs. Slice!

You can send nicely formatted PDFs! Hiya!

You can access and edit your notes from anywhere, anytime. Chop!

Go now, ninja warrior. You are ready.

Advanced Weaponry

In your quest to become a note-taking, ninja warrior, I have provided you with the best free tools and services available in this post. That being said, if you’re willing to shell out some cash there are some great paid apps out there that are worth mentioning here. I won’t go into great detail but you might want to check out each one on your own to see which weapon suits your style best.


Byword is a beautiful, distraction free text editor for Mac ($9.99) and iOS ($2.99). It is the app I do most of my polishing and editing in. This app is a joy to use and now that its iOS counterparts have seen the light of day, it is available on all of your Apple devices. It’s also Dropbox-enabled!


Writeroom ($9.99) is another popular contender in the distraction-free writing app arena. It’s a beautiful app and really nice to use but since it lacks Markdown preview support, I tend to prefer Byword. Writeroom is made by the same people who make Plaintext and it is also available for iOS ($4.99).

Writing Kit

WritingKit ($4.99) has been my go-to writing app on my iPad and iPhone for some time. With its integrated browser and quick search I don’t have to leave the app to research links, search for images, or get definitions and Wikipedia articles. This is a huge boon to productivity so I keep it around when I’m writing a piece that requires additional research.


Elements ($4.99) falls into the same category as Byword and Writeroom, but currently, it only exists for iOS. This was the editor I had on my iPad’s dock since it was released. Only recently did I replace it with Byword. Elements is a frictionless writing environment and is a great piece of software so I’m not knocking it in any way. Byword just feels right to me so I’m sticking with it for now.

These are just a few of the options you have when looking for a writing environment. The important thing is to find a tool that suits you and then use it. Learn it inside and out. Then write something. A good set of tools can only take you so far. It’s the creating we do with them that matters most.

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