Taking reading notes with Freeplane

For some time now I’ve been using Freeplane as my reading-note capturing application. I would be reading a book at my desk, in front of my computer monitor(s), and use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate my notes and quotes into DragonPad first, and then paste them into Freeplane. In the case of electronic materials, mainly journal articles in PDFs, I would convert the PDF into a Word file with ABBYY FineReader (so that I preserve word-wrapping and formatting while copying), and then would paste the quotes into Freeplane.

What are the advantages of this method? Firstly, it allows me to reverse-outline the book’s argument by organising the quotes and notes into a hierarchical mind map. Such a reverse outline helps with reconstructing and understanding the main train of thought of the reading, as the hierarchy records logical relationships between ideas. Here the mind map format has an advantage over a traditional vertical outline, as the individual nodes are easier to see and comprehend when distributed across a wide monitor in landscape form.

Secondly, each node can have a title and a note, and the latter can be seen inline (as opposed to being separated into another pane, as in most dual-pane outliners). Also, Freeplane can preserve rich text formatting (unlike let’s say Natara Bonsai). You can use icons and different styles to mark important notes. It is easy to restructure the outline by dragging and dropping nodes and branches around.

Thirdly, it is easy to convert a Freeplane mind map (which uses Freemind’s .mm file format) to other file formats. I use iThoughtsHD on iPad as my Swiss-Army Knife converter of mind map formats. I usually convert it into OPML, in order to import it into Bonsai, if further organising and analysis is needed, or simply to convert it into RTF, so that it can be imported into my main database, ConnectedText, which is the final destination of all my notes. I also link to all the different formats of a file (.mm, .opml, .otl, .rtf) from the final CT document, so I can easily find them later.

But Freeplane is useful not only for capturing and organising my reading notes into a hierarchical outline. It also comes in handy when it’s time to write up the notes for a chapter or article. I start a new Freeplane file as my outline for the new piece of writing, and I can simply copy and paste selected nodes and entire branches of quotes and notes from other Freeplane files, thus gathering relevant information for one author from let’s say five other mind maps with notes for five books by that author. (It is useful though to have two monitors for this, to take full advantage of the landscape orientation of mind maps.) Then as I write the final piece, I use a big red X icon to mark off the nodes and branches that have already been discussed.

Freeplane reading notes

I hear people complain about Freeplane not being pretty or visual enough. To me that is an advantage. I find pretty colour schemes distracting. All I want is black font and a white background. I do like the automatic colouring-in of the lines representing the branches, as that guides the eye and helps comprehension. But otherwise I want to be the one who decides when to apply additional colour or an icon to introduce new visual information. And I only do that to highlight important nodes, so I can quickly pick them out from a complex mind map. I thank the developers for keeping the main interface simple.

By the way, don’t be confused by the screenshots on the Freeplane website. Obviously, the developers are trying to show off all the different features. However, pretty much all the colour noise can be switched off, and you can use it as a minimalist, almost black-and-white (or whatever colour-combination you like) note-taker and organiser.



6 thoughts on “Taking reading notes with Freeplane

  1. Pingback: My minimalist writing environment | Dr Andus's toolbox

  2. Hi,
    interesting article – thanks a lot for sharing!
    I’m also using Freeplane and currently trying to develop a good structured approach for note taking.
    As you often seem to work with Journal Articles in PDF format and want to cite information from electronic ressources, did you have a look at Docear? (http://www.docear.org/ ),
    It is based on Freeplane and allows e. g. importing highlighted text or notes created in PDF files directly into the mindmap (together with a reference to the original source).
    I’ve not much experience with Docear yet, but it looks very promising.

    Kind regards, M@rtin

  3. Thanks for the suggestion. I have looked at Docear a few times, but only superficially. I guess I should really try harder to figure it out, as I’m replicating much of what it does manually in Freeplane. But I’m still not entirely convinced that a mind map is the best format for a notes database (i.e. as an interface for navigating all your notes). I like mind maps for individual documents but I still prefer the wiki format (ConnectedText in my case) for developing and managing an entire knowledge base for the long run.

    • Hi,
      I absolutely agree with you. Though I’m currently storing a lot of information in Freeplane Mindmaps, I’m not sure if this is the best way and I have other (wiki-like) structures for handling notes in parallel. This creates ambiguity and the problem where to search, so I’m planning to define a clearer workflow for my note-taking and knowledge management.
      However it very often comes down to the question “when and where did I get that information from, originally?” – even in a business context far from scientific work…

      • “However it very often comes down to the question “when and where did I get that information from, originally?”

        Recently I’ve started using so-called date topics in ConnectedText to mark the date and time of every reading note taken, exactly to solve the problem you refer to. I also create a topic template with the given publication’s bibliographic data, so that new notes have the source information automatically inserted. But I don’t use CT for every type of information. For collected web pages, I still use Surfulater, which automatically adds a timestamp and keeps the URL. And for bibliographic references I still use EndNote.

  4. Pingback: Taking reading notes with ConnectedText | Dr Andus's toolbox

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