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Superpower Your Note Taking Skills With nvALT and Simplenote

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nvALT is a powerful and fast note taking tool. It’s great for keeping running lists and creating reference documentation on–the–fly, and is absolutely essential to my daily workflow. Plus, since it syncs with Dropbox and Simplenote, it's the perfect tool to manage your plain text notes no matter where you keep them.

In this tutorial, I’m going to show you a number of nvAlt's best tips and tricks, so you too can get the most out of your plain text notes.

Search or Create

The nvAlt feature that you will use the most is the “Search or Create” box that your cursor rests in by default when you launch the app. From this starting point you have the power of full text search across every note you’ve ever taken.

nvALT search resultsnvALT search resultsnvALT search results
nvALT search results

If your search comes up zero simply type a file name in the search field that represents the documentation you want to exist and hit enter.

nvALT empty searchnvALT empty searchnvALT empty search
nvALT empty search

This will automatically create your new note and refocus your cursor inside the body of your new note.

nvALT on the fly note creationnvALT on the fly note creationnvALT on the fly note creation
nvALT on the fly note creation

Now you’re ready to start typing to add contents to your new note.

nvALT type your new notenvALT type your new notenvALT type your new note
nvALT type your new note

Speed Things up With Keyboard Shortcuts

For any app you use frequently, you can gain a lot of speed by learning some of the app’s keyboard shortcuts. I recommend that you find one thing that you have to grab the mouse for and learn the keyboard shortcut for it. Then immediately force yourself to do that action only via that keyboard shortcut. Adding in one or two shortcuts at a time until they become second nature will yield better results than trying to memorize an entire printed cheat-sheet of all the shortcuts within the app. Print that cheat-sheet, but start small. Doing this will save you a lot of time, I highly recommend it.

Here are some of the most useful keyboard shortcuts you can immediately put to use:

  • ⌘J - move down in the notes list
  • ⌘K - move up in the notes list
  • ⌘⇧E - edit your notes in an external editor of your choice (whether that’s Byword for additional markdown tools or MacVim to show off your time–bending macro skills).
  • ⌘⇧T - add tags to your notes to create additional structure around your notes
  • ^⌘P - preview your markdown formatted notes as HTML with live updating as you edit
  • ⌘⇧D - add a note to your nvALT bookmarks
  • ⌘0 - show your nvALT bookmarks
  • ⌘1, 2,N - go to the 1st, 2nd, or Nth bookmarked note

The keyboard shortcuts for bookmarks prove very useful as you can quickly access go-to documentation by pressing ⌘1, ⌘2, etc.

nvALT BookmarksnvALT BookmarksnvALT Bookmarks
nvALT Bookmarks

Filename Tagging

Including tagging data in filenames is a trick that has been made famous by the likes of Merlin Mann and others so let’s shamelessly borrow it together and make it your own. To get you started, here are some example prefixes you can use or adapt when naming your own notes:

Sample tag names

  • refx - reference
  • runx - running list
  • rcpx - recipes
  • mtgx - meeting notes
  • blogx - blog entires
  • contactx - contact information records
  • carx - auto info
  • notex - note taking for courses or lectures
  • lolx - wildcard!!!

Naming your notes with a tagx-filename scheme gives you a bit of “meta data” right in the filename for easy search and use even outside of nvALT. The tags I most commonly use myself are refx and runx. If I’m learning how to use a new text editor or solving a difficult technical problem, I almost always have nvALT open and am jotting down notes, copying and pasting reference material into a refx-thing-im-figuring-out text file. If you’re a list person as I am, then keeping a bunch of files like runx-blog-topic-ideas, runx-bucket-list, runx-girl-baby-names, or runx-mmorpg-character-names around can be quite handy.

Why the “x”? The x is purely to represent that it is a tag. If you want to find all your running lists you can search for runx and not worry about reference files that contain the word “run” cluttering up your search results.

In addition to filename tagging you can also use nvALT’s built in tagging system with the keyboard shortcut ⌘⇧T mentioned above. This allows you to add tags to your files or edit existing tags.

nvALT note taggingnvALT note taggingnvALT note tagging
nvALT note tagging

Once tags are added, this is how your entry will look.

nvALT saved tagsnvALT saved tagsnvALT saved tags
nvALT saved tags

Write With Markdown

I highly recommend you take a look at writing with markdown if you have not ventured down that path already. Markdown syntax is easy to type and readable to people who are unfamiliar with markdown. Your notes remain in portable readable plain text and can be easily exported to fully formatted HTML or RTF. Writing in markdown format is definitely essential to my plain text note taking workflow.

nvALT writing in markdownnvALT writing in markdownnvALT writing in markdown
nvALT writing in markdown

You can also preview your markdown notes as html right from inside nvALT with the keyboard shortcut ^⌘P. If you leave this preview window open the HTML preview will update live as you edit or add to your notes.

nvALT markdown previewnvALT markdown previewnvALT markdown preview
nvALT markdown preview

Though it’s not markdown specific, another feature that can really enhance writing in markdown is “Auto-pair”. Much like working in other text editors designed for programming tasks, this will auto close parenthesis, brackets, and more.

nvALT editing settingsnvALT editing settingsnvALT editing settings
nvALT editing settings

Wiki-Style Links

Another great trick with nvALT is the ability to link from one note to another with wiki-style links. This is very valuable for referencing information you may not want to create or duplicate within your current note. I recommend you rely on the very fast full text search across all your notes to find what you want and just use wiki links for reference on occasion, rather than maintain a table of contents style text document, but it is an option if that fits your particular use case.

To create one of these reference points just type the name of another note inside of double brackets. As you type an autocomplete pop–up will appear to make this process faster.

nvALT wiki link creationnvALT wiki link creationnvALT wiki link creation
nvALT wiki link creation

Once you finish creating a reference similar to my example, try clicking it to see how it takes you right to that note. In my example clicking “refx-common-lisp-commenting” takes me to information I feel is relevant and related to a topic that I’ve already created a note for elsewhere and do not want to duplicate here.

nvALT wiki link clicknvALT wiki link clicknvALT wiki link click
nvALT wiki link click

Your Notes, Everywhere

Sync notes with Dropbox

Having your notes folder located in Dropbox is a great solution. This makes your notes very portable and easily accessible. Many iOS text editors have Dropbox support for accessing your notes on the go. I personally prefer Nebulous Notes, but there are many choices.

Sync notes with Simplenote

In addition to syncing plain text notes via Dropbox, you can turn on Simplenote sync for even more options.

nvALT simplenote sync settingsnvALT simplenote sync settingsnvALT simplenote sync settings
nvALT simplenote sync settings

Here is a quick look at Simplenote’s great web app that almost makes you feel like you’re using nvALT. Before you point out that there is a Mac app, I’ll remind you that this is a tutorial on nvALT, don’t push your luck (I jest).

Simplenote web appSimplenote web appSimplenote web app
Simplenote web app

The iOS apps for iPhone and iPad are very nice looking and have great functionality.

Simplenote iPhone app
Simplenote iPhone app
Simplenote iPad appSimplenote iPad appSimplenote iPad app
Simplenote iPad app

Here are a few of cool features that Simplenote offers in their apps.

  • Publish: This allows you to generate a URL to share this note with other individuals.
  • Collaborate: You guessed correctly; this allows you to grant other people the ability to work on this file with you.
  • History: This can be especially handy if you’re using the collaboration feature, as it allows you to view and revert to previous versions of a file.
Simplenote iPhone sharing  collaboration
Simplenote iPhone sharing & collaboration


nvAlt is a much more powerful notes app that it appears at first glance, and it has a ton of hidden features that'll help you take notes and find them easier than ever. You'll be able to quickly write down everything you want to remember, and then quickly find it again whenever you need it, whether you're syncing through Dropbox or Simplenote.

If you have any more questions about nvAlt, Simplenote, or taking plain text notes, be sure to leave a comment below!

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