ConnectedText template for reading notes

Several people have asked me recently how to use ConnectedText (CT) for taking notes for academic research and for writing a literature review. I’m in the middle of writing my own literature review, and unfortunately I don’t have time right now to construct a sample database (my own is confidential) for a tutorial. I will definitely do it one day. In the meantime however here are a few pointers.

  1. Think of CT as a traditional slip-box with index cards. Just drop your notes into CT (each note as a separate “topic”) and add some categories at the bottom or the top of the page, e.g. [[$CATEGORY:politics|Barack Obama]]. That’s it. You now have a reading notes database with two categories (“politics” and “Barack Obama”).
  2. You can create links between the “index cards.”
  3. You can create a bibliographical database in the background by adding “attributes” markup to key data such as [[Author:=Smith, J.]], [[Year:=1989]], [[Publication:=Journal of Sociology]], [[Abstract:=<value>]] etc. Clicking on any of these links will create a dynamic meta-topic that displays a list of topics with those values, such as a list of all the authors with links to the topics that contain those authors. Inserting [[$SUMMARY:]] into a new topic creates a table with your complete bibliography automatically.
  4. You can use the headings tags (=Heading 1=, ==Heading 2== etc.) to annotate your reading notes (e.g. quotes that you have pasted into the topic), which will be displayed dynamically (as you type) in the Table of Contents pane, giving you a quick overview of the contents of your note.

ConnectedText iconsBelow is a template I have created for my “Reading Notes” database in CT. You can copy and paste this into a text file and save it in the folder “My Documents/ConnectedText/Templates.” Then when you create a new topic in CT, select this text file in the “new topic” dialog box from the “Template” pull-down menu, tick the box “Always remember last used  template,” and select an icon to represent your notes (I have imported my own 16x16px icons that I’ve downloaded from the Internet, so notes, categories etc. all have their own icons). Similarly, tick the “Always remember last used icon” box. Icons are useful not only for visual browsing but also because you can filter topics in the Topic List pane by their icons.

You can of course alter this template to suit your own needs by using Notepad. If you haven’t used Categories or Attributes before, you may want to read up on those topics first in CT’s Welcome Project (Help file). By the way, the [[$INFOBOX]] markup will create a neat box that looks like an old style index card (assuming you have marked up the bibliographic data with attributes)! Very satisfying… :) (Obviously you will need to switch from edit mode into view mode to see what these markups actually do.)




### Paste reference from EndNote here

### Add attributes to Author name [[<Attribute name>:=<value>]], e.g. [[Author:=Smith, J.]]
### Add attributes to Year, e.g. [[Year:=1989]]
### Add attributes to Title, e.g. [[Title:=<value>]]
### Add attributes to Publication, e.g. [[Publication:=Journal of Sociology]]
### Add attributes to Publisher, e.g. [[Publisher:=Oxford University Press]]
==Cite as==
### Paste "raw" citation from EndNote here
### Drag & drop PDF or URL here
### Add attributes to Type, e.g. [[Type:=journal article]]

### Paste journal article abstract here and summarise its main point as [[Abstract:=<value>]]

### Paste keywords associated with journal article here
### Paste quotes from readings here
### highlight important information in yellow
==Quote 1: description==
### Annotate quotes with headings
===Comment 1: comment on quote 1===
### Add comments under own headings
### Draw conclusions, summarise key learning points here
### Summarise key contributions and/or shortcomings of article as [[Verdict:=<value>]]

=See also=
### Drag & drop related topic links, external files or URLs here
### Add categories below, e.g [[$CATEGORY:politics]]

This is what a new CT topic with this blank template looks like in view mode. It would need to be filled in with content as discussed above for the attributes to spring into action and produce the Infobox, as well as for the Table of Contents on the left to display the headings as annotations. For now this is just a skeleton for a note (index card):

blank CT topic with template

ConnectedText for me is part of a bigger note-taking system that I don’t have time to describe right now, though it’s similar to the one discussed here. For further examples of how to organise academic reading notes and bibliography see Steve Zeoli’s example here and Glen Coulthard’s tutorial video here.


For me each “topic” represents a specific publication, such as a book or a journal article. I name the topics using the author’s name and the publication date, such as “Smith 1989″ or Smith & Tailor 1988” or “Smith et al. 1977.” If there is more then one publication by the same author, then I use “Smith 1989a,” “Smith 1989b” etc. For historically important books, I also record the original publication date in parentheses: “Smith 1989 (1886).”

This naming convention is helpful because the Topic List pane lists topics in alphabetical order, so it’s easier to find authors this way. Also, if you decide to write up your literature review in CT, you can just drag and drop the topics from the Topic List straight into the body of your draft chapter and they become linked references automatically: “According to some observers (Smith 1989a) …” In edit mode it would look like

According to some observers ([[Smith 1989a]]) ...

This note-taking approach can result in fairly long topics, if they contain summaries of entire books or particularly important journal articles that I have annotated heavily. For me there are benefits to keeping a particular publication in one topic. However, one could just as well pursue a more granular approach and implement the traditional index card format more literally, by breaking down notes about articles and books into much smaller chunks.

Using links, categories and attributes/properties would be much more important under the latter scenario, for threading all of the related notes together. With my approach it’s not a big deal if I forget to add categories or attributes because I can find the relevant publications by their topic names. CT’s powerful search facility comes in handy in both scenarios, as sometimes searching for a single word or phrase might be the quickest way to find something (yes, it’s your own mini-Google :).

9 thoughts on “ConnectedText template for reading notes

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  5. Hello, Dr. Andus. I’m trying to use your coding workflow in order to combine two approachs making reading notes: one consists of making long topics like those you mentioned and the other relies on little chunks. First, I set one topic for the reference I’m concerned at the moment. There I’ll put all the notes I took from that reference, and after I’ll code them. At this moment I would separate those notes which could together summarize the reference, those of quotes, those of my commentaries, etc. What do you think about this? Thank you in advance.
    Thiago Dória

  6. Hi Thiago – the best thing is to just have a go and see what works for you. It’s fairly easy to either break up or recombine CT notes, should you change your mind about the structure. I’ve tried both using multiple short topics and one single long topic for a particular publication. I’ve decided to stick with one long note per publication, partly because it keeps my Topic List cleaner (every topic represents one single publication, so it’s easier to find what I’m looking for), and partly because it is quicker to get an overview of what’s inside a topic (e.g. by using CTRL+I to do incremental searches fast for a keyword). And also I just find it too tedious to be creating, naming and categorising each small topic. Although using the “Cut to new topic” (CTRL+ALT+N) to do that after the coding should be fairly easy.

    I should add that I have changed my note-taking habits since writing the above post. These days I organise and annotate (or “code”) my quotes in Freeplane in mind-map form first, then I organise those notes in Bonsai in outline form further, and then I import that outline as RTF into CT. So in fact I started to have two topics for each publication: “Smith 2010” with the bibliographic info and links, and “Smith_2010” that is the imported reading notes via Freeplane and Bonsai. I suppose I could combine them into a single topic, but the imported topic is usually very long, so I prefer to keep it separately, as a record of my reading.

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