Maybe I should put on record that my working with texts happens in the field of literature, poetry and prose. No scientific papers etc. Which means – to find causal chains between notes is a bit more difficult and complex. Above all when your working phase stands in the foggy fields of finding your appropriate subject. In literature you’ll find yourself having lots of sentences and/or scenes BEFORE you know where all this material may fit in. So, the work with a slip box (Zettelkasten) is not only to collect notes with ideas etc., but the need to puzzle around with your index cards (Zettel) and read them over and over again, try different combinations and so on. To cut it short: You’ll need a software that at least offers a super powered search function. (BTW: A nice place to read about this topic is Zettelkasten.de )
For years I worked with nvALT as my digital Zettelkasten. nvALT is a minimal yet powerful piece of software. The focus is on searching, writing and editing .txt files – simple, super fast, reliable.
Now, by accident, I stumbled upon Sublime Text which is a multifuctional and stunningly sophisticated text editor. First I thought, no, that’s something for code nerds only. Then I’ve read the article by Dan Sheffler which made me try Sublime Text. And yes, I now left nvALT and converted to Sublime Text.
This is not a review – I just will tell a bit about my impressions and hopefully can show, that Sublime Text is a perfect tool for Zettelkasten nerds.
14 reasons why Sublime Text is good for a Zettelkasten
1.) Sublime Texts reads from a folder, where my Zettelkasten with all the .txt files is located. The folder will be shown in the sidebar. If you want to work with different folders at the same time you can do so by having subfolders in your main. I tried this with nvALT – unfortunately it didn’t work there.
2.) The design factor – there are many templates and color schemes you easily can add. And you can build your own.
3.) You can change the layout drastically, which can be very handy while working with your texts. I like the Grid Layout, where I see 4 different Zettel (index cards) at the same time. Makes working with a Zettelkasten more interesting – maybe you remember when working with analog index cards? To lay out cards on the desk to boost your ideas…?
4.) It’s possible to have different views of your text in one window: Plain Text, Markdown (and a ton of different views for coders). No need for an external preview solution.
5.) The search is more advanced than in nvALT (regular expression; case sensitive; whole word) – this is very helpful at least when your texts are in German (‘cos we have that funny thing called compound words (Komposita) which needs an exact search function when you don’t want to get too much search results of which most you don’t need). And:
6.) The search is at least the same fast as in nvALT. And the search speed was what I loved most in nvALT.
7.) Sublime Text will show a page with excerpts of all your search results. The results are linked, by clicking you will access the chosen file. Nice.
8.) With some addons (packages) you can make Sublime Text able to have Wiki links (hope, this is the correct terminus). More about that you can read here. Important for a Zettelkasten. What I like: Sublime Text links to the file name only if you like (cmd + p). nvALT searches for everything.
When you create a link without having a correspondent file – Sublime Text automtically creates this file for you. Secondly: it’s sufficient to place your link between single square brackets – like so [your Link] instead of [[the links in nvALT]]. Sweet.
9.) Word count, line numbers – even a column count. Sublime Text has it!
10.) You have two versions of a draft? The package Compare Side-by-Side is your friend. Cool!
11.) You cannot print from Sublime Text.
O.k., there are packages out there (e.g. Simple Print Function) – but none of them worked for me (maybe due to my poor computer skills).
But I have a solution using Keyboard Maestro. With an easy tweak now it only needs a shortcut and my text will be copied in Sublime Text and opened in Byword, from where I can print. Only a shortcut – bam, your text will be printed on paper or as .pdf. Takes one second.
There is more than one way to skin a cat – e.g. this article on Plaintext Productivity.
12.) No need to mention, that using Dropbox everything stays sychronized. If you like it. (I do not use cloud services).
13.) Another nice feature – you can view images without an external program. This comes handy when working on literary texts as well as scientific papers. Not possible with nvALT.
14.) There is a nice addon (package) called PlainNotes. You’re able to create colored Zettel to flank your project(s).
Also quick notes (‘Jotter’) in between (which are stored in an inbox for later development). You also could use this for GTD etc. Very nice.
P.S.: Many years ago I couldn’t imagine to keep my notes in a digital form only. I collected everything in notebooks and on index cards. Now I use the digital form. Pen and paper between. Even though the sensual aspect of working with pencil, fountain pen, paper and nice Moleskin notebooks on the whole sadly disappeared, the advantages are overwhelming. No. 1 for me: The searchability. In less than a second you have everything, what you need; for that you could spend hours with notebooks. Makes working with Zettel and a Zettelkasten more efficient. And more fun. Sublime Text makes it smooth.