ConnectedText. Tinderbox for Windows?

ConnectedText is a personal wiki and then some.

ConnectedText is a personal wiki. But it is much more than that. It is packed with functions that help you manage and make sense of your information. CT can be a database, a notebook, a knowledge base, a journal and more. It is freeform, but you can impose structure if you choose. The developer has loaded CT with many thoughtful features. The program feels rock solid to me.

I probably do not need to define what a wiki is. Anyone who has used Wikipedia knows, and who hasn’t used that ever useful online knowledge base?

So a wiki is a growing collection of related and linked notes. A personal wiki is one that resides on your own computer, and for which you control access. What is appealling to me about the wiki is the organic nature of your expanding network of notes. No structure is imposed on these notes as you create them. A link does not impose hierarchy, it merely expresses an undefined relationship. An article about pets can be linked to an article about dogs, which can be linked to an article about Fido, which can be linked to the article about pets. Wikis feel natural, and undemanding, unlike an outline. Or, to put it another way, a wiki is like a shoe box into which you drop your note cards, while an outline is more a filing cabinet that requires you to consider which drawer and folder to put each note. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It depends upon what you are working on and what outcome you need.)

The idea of a personal wiki has appealled to me since I first heard about the concept, but the applications I tried never seemed to live up to my expectations. Even CT didn’t click with me when I first bought a license several years ago. But earlier this year (2012) I decided to make the commitment to ConnectedText for recording the day to day activities of my job.

I’d been trying to do this with a number of different applications, all to various degrees of failure. I work on a Windows PC, so my favorite Mac applications were not available. There are some very good information management applications for Windows: OneNote, PersonalBrain and Zoot foremost among them. But I found none of these made the job of recording daily information satisfying — which is the same as saying I didn’t do a very good job of it. But with ConnectedText I’ve finally found my solution.

So what was it about ConnectedText that finally won me over? I’ve been trying to figure this out and think I’ve finally come up with the answer.

It’s all in the name: Connected. Text.

Let’s start with the second part: Text. I like writing in CT. It isn’t a robust editor, not by word processor standards. But it is nice and clean, just like another editor I like to compose in, NoteTab. The plain text environment has fewer distractions. It’s just a piece of paper in a typewriter (with some marvelous additions that I’ll get to shortly).

There are two modes for any CT topic (CT’s word for a note): edit mode and view mode. You need to be in edit mode to make changes to the topic. You toggle back and forth quickly with a hot-key combination of Alt-E.

ConnectedText in View Mode
ConnectedText screenshot
ConnectedText in Edit Mode

The two screenshots above are of the same note. The first is in View Mode and the second is in Edit Mode.

Of course, if CT was just an editor, it wouldn’t be any more powerful than NoteTab. But that gets us to the “connected” part of this review. First of all, being a wiki, CT uses a simple mark-up language to create formatted text in view mode, and to do some marvelous things with my information. This is what I first had trouble getting past when I started trying to use CT. To make a word or phrase bold, for instance, you bracket it with double asterisks. I’m still exploring and learning this mark-up code, but just about any formatting you can apply in a word processor can be applied to text in CT.

Yes, I know, I haven’t actually gotten to the “connected” part yet, but here it is. You also use mark-up to establish links to other topics, or to create new ones. Just enclose any text in double-brackets and you’ve enabled a link. If the text inside the backets exactly matches an existing topic’s name, the link will be complete. If it is a new topic, that topic will be created the first time you click on it.

In this way, you can grow your web of information without interupting your writing. Just make your links as you write, then go back and fill in the information. In an outline-style application, you would have to stop writing, find the place in the structure you want the note to reside, create the entry, go back to your original note to pick up where you left off, then remember to go back to the new note to fill in the information.

But wait. There’s more!

So far I’ve described any run of the mill wiki. But ConnectedText is loaded with powerful features that make it a more robust information management system. For example, there’s the date topic, which is any topic name that contains a date in the special CT format. This format is yearmonthday in numbers. So February 18, 2012, would be rendered as 20120218. Date topics automatically display a small month calendar in the top right corner of the screen when in view mode. This little calendar is now the key to building a journal or diary, because every date in the calendar is a wiki link.

Another smart feature of CT is how it handles headlines. When you bracket text in equal signs (the first of which has to be the first character on the line for this to work), you tell CT to see the text as a headline. Single equal signs on either side of the text indicate a top-level headline. You can create sub headlines by adding equal signs to the mark up. As you would expect, CT displays these headlines in differentiated text. It also includes a disclosure button so that you can roll up the text beneath a headline. Any topic that has four or more headline’s automatically displays a table of contents above the first headline for quick navigation to any part of the page.

You can add keywords, or what CT calls “Categories,” to your topics. You just add this code


anywhere in the text.

This same sort of code construction is also used for doing many other useful things with your information. You can assign properties and attributes to data within the topic. This is sort of like creating a meta-data field. For example,


sets the attribute birthday to 7/7/1956.

This is useful if you have a set of topics with the same attributes of different values that you would like to be able to query or display in summary tables.

I’ve only brushed the surface of the things you can do with your information using ConnectedText. The developer, Eduardo Mauro, has built in many thoughtful features. A really great example is that you can select any amount of text in one topic and with a simple command have ConnectedText pack it off to a new topic leaving a wiki link in the original topic. So if you’re on a roll, just keep writing your thoughts into one topic, then go back and quickly “granularize” it.

I’ve written a lot about a terrific Mac application called Tinderbox. In many ways, ConnectedText makes me think of it as the Tinderbox for the PC. No they do not look alike or even behave alike. But both or remarkably flexible note management systems that you can grow into as you learn more and more about them. But they are both very useful even if you don’t learn all the power functions from the start. Both provide useful and varied views of your information. For instance, both applications give you a visual as well as a textual reference for your notes — though Tinderbox is much more sophisticated in this aspect. Both provide outlining functions.

Here’s the difference to me: I would choose ConnectedText for writing, and Tinderbox for analysis.

Anyway, I hope to write more about ConnectedText in the coming weeks. In the meantime, an excellent source of information about CT can be found on the web site Taking Note.


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