posted 2012-04-07 16:17:57

Write Better!

Technically Correct

Brand Maister

Staff Writer

You, as a student, do more writing than almost anybody else on the planet. But, despite the dramatic advance of computers over the last sixty-odd years, most people don’t use writing tools more impressive than a glorified typewriter. This column aims to change that by showing you that better tools exist, and describing a bit of the landscape.

Let’s start with the simplest and most obvious extensions of pen and paper: note- taking programs. The landscape of bound paper products—books, magazines and newsprint—is being slowly but steadily eroded by gadgets. Consternation arises over the sentimental—my children must grow up with books! The practical—how will I take notes on electronic books? And the paranoid—why do Amazon, Google and Apple all believe that they have the right to delete books that I bought from them on their devices?

The last point first: when you “buy” books on any of the various app stores out there, you aren’t actually buying the book — you’re leasing rights to it. This means that they can revoke your rights whenever they want: they can delete things from your phone or pad for almost any reason at almost any time. Most commonly it is apps that disappear, and it’s because someone discovers that there is a virus. However, in some cases books have been deleted. Ironically enough, Orwell’s 1984 was the first time this appeared in mass media as a concern—Amazon deleted thousands of copies of it from their users devices because there was a copyright snafu. If you need a book for school or work, and you’re just paranoid enough, it makes sense to buy the book as a PDF, separately, and sync it to your device— the app and bookstores only have the rights to delete things that you bought directly from them.

But now we are back to the question: how to take notes on a PDF document? Apple fans are the luckiest here: OSX’s built-in “Preview” program allows you to draw and type on PDFs, and there are several iPad note-taking apps that do it, too. None of the iPad apps that can mark up PDFs are free, but one app called Notes Plus is versatile enough to work ridiculously well for taking notes in class. It’s $8, but with that money you get to throw away all of your spiral binders, even for math class, and so you could think of it as saving you money. And, importantly, since you don’t want to trust just one company with all of your notes, it includes DropBox storage so that you will always have access to your notes, no matter what happens to Notes Plus or your iPad.. The situation is a bit worse on Windows and Linux—but Jarnal (jarnal., though a little ugly, is free and will satisfy your needs if you can read the documentation. (Hint: you need to set the PDF you want to annotate as the background.)

The programs mentioned so far are smaller competitors to the giants of the note-taking market. Evernote is far and away the most popular note-taking-and- management application— it’s got a huge number of passionate users, a web app, desktop clients for Windows and Mac, and apps for most smartphones. It’s even popular enough to have a Linux clone built by someone who just wanted access to his Evernotes from offline. Basically, Evernote lets you keep your notes organized without emailing them to yourself, clip things from the web and generally incorporate other media into your notes.

If you are a Windows kid then you should know about Microsoft OneNote—it is the age-old 800lb gorilla of the note- taking scene, with a massive interface and all kinds of interesting ways to do free-form note-taking. The only major downsides to it are that it only works on Windows and the price: it is only available

With Microsoft Office, which means it’s at least $100 even with a student discount.

Now that we’ve got the note-takers out of the picture, it’s time to look at the really new things that computers enable: mind maps. These are programs that let you visualize knowledge as an interconnected web of thoughts.

The screenshot above this column shows what iMindMap (, a gorgeous but expensive mind mapper, looks like. Fundamentally these apps are supposed to help you draw connections between, and visualize what, you already know. They look like the pinboards used by the FBI (or the conspiracy theorist) in an action movie, just after something very dramatic has happened. But the difference between this and the pinboard is crucial: first of all, your roommates won’t call the psychiatric helpline (1-800-LIFENET, if you’re in NYC) if they see you using it.

More importantly, though, is the fact that you can use these anywhere you’ve

got access to your computer, and you can rearrange things quite easily, while saving different versions that track different parts of your understanding. There are a few cheaper-than-$250 alternatives: FreeMind is, of course, free, and certainly among the best-in-class of the mind mappers. There’s also, a free web app, if you want to try mapping your thoughts without needing to install anything.

The tools mentioned in this article can become an extension of your mind, dramatically improving your memory or your ability to communicate. It is important to know that there are thousands of people around the world working to make things to help you. You should feel entitled, when you feel like you deserve better tools you will regularly think to yourself: “Agh! I can’t believe no one has invented a better blank.” Because when you think it you realize they probably have, you look for it, and you find it.