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.


Nuance software 50% off in the UK this weekend

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 is an indispensable tool for me and this weekend (begins midnight Thursday, ends midnight Monday) Nuance has a 50% off sale for the home edition, and also for some other software, at its UK online store. I’m not sure if these offers are also available to non-UK shoppers but it might be worth a try. Here are the prices:

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Home – £79.99 £39.99

PDF Converter Professional 8 – £99.99 £49.99

PaperPort 14 – £49.99 £24.99

OmniPage 18 – £79.99 £39.99

I already have DNS 12, but I’m looking for an OCR application to convert entire (including scanned) PDF articles to text (that would be OmniPage then), so I can import them into ConnectedText in one go and then delete the unnecessary bits, rather than continuing with my current piecemeal method of converting bits of text with the otherwise excellent ABBYY Screenshot Reader.


After a bit more research I’ve decided to pay the extra couple of pounds and go for ABBYY FineReader 11 Pro. For one, it has generally better reviews than OmniPage 18, but also I’ve been so impressed with their Screenshot Reader – which I got for free and have been using for years – that I’m happy to reward them for that.

Update no. 2:

Wow, OCR applications have moved on since the last time I used them a few years ago! So far I’m very pleased with ABBYY FineReader. It only took a couple of seconds to convert a 17-page PDF article to Word, complete with not only all the footnotes and headings but also all of the images.

The main purpose of the scanning is to end up with a text version to be imported into ConnectedText. The scan wasn’t entirely perfect in the sense that the first page with the abstract ended up appended to the end of the Word document, but it was easy to fix that with a cut and paste job. There were a couple of italicised words in the original that weren’t kept in italics in the scan and some block quotes didn’t end up looking the way they were supposed to, however the OCR-ing, which matters to me the most, was very close to 100% accuracy.

Update no. 3:

Correction: in fact the ABBYY FineReader scan was perfect: the problem I mentioned regarding lost italicisation and indentation of block quotes had nothing to do with ABBYY. Those features got lost in the conversion process from .docx to .htm and the CT import process. Apologies to the ABBYY folks…