A story of note taking, enabling tech, and me
Note taking is an incredibly personal thing. Some like paper, others record their voice, and then there are those brave souls who wade into the hundreds of applications available that strive to be the best thing since lined paper.
In a previous article I wrote a few years ago, Welcome to the Note Taking Apocalypse, I discussed the issue of app store choice when it came to finding a note taking application that had a balanced mix of key functions with an interface that feels frictionless which gets out of the users way.
I also discussed how most developers felt the need to reinvent rather than refine their features time and time again. Which perhaps has more to do with the need to produce a change log and show the progression of an update cycle than actually performing any research into how, or why, a particular feature would be useful.
But I’m not here to rehash an older article to you, I’m here to talk to you about my experiences with Bear.
Some history of mine
For years when I’d write notes it was in all sorts of varying platforms and formats, both physical and digital. My trusty paper notebook is still something I hold onto, but the more I write the less I use it or structured note taking and more for journalling, or doodling.
It was once I’d rejoined the Apple ecosystem with the iPhone 6 that the role of Apple Notes became incredibly apparent to me. I was still struggling to lockdown my writing process in those days but still understood the value of keeping notes and writing separate. So it was with dangerous abandon that I threw my existing (read: broken) processes aside and embraced Apple Notes.
I thought I’d hit the jackpot, here was the notebook I always had on me, no matter the time and place, be it walking down the street or waiting in a queue, I could write. This changed everything for my writing as I’d find myself taking notes even more than before.
But there was always something that felt missing, a few years beforehand I’d taught myself to write in Markdown and in Apple Notes it was the need to break my flow just to format a heading or a link that really didn’t gel with my note taking practices, so back to the digital coal face I trudged.
A new workflow
After I’d bought my iPhone 6 I soon invested in a MacBook Pro to get a handle on the full Apple experience and I bought into iA Writer on both platforms to extend my writing further (and let’s be honest, write in markdown).
I started note taking in exclusively on my phone in iA Writer, and because of its excellent CloudKit integration I transferred all of my notes across to gain even easier access to my notes. The flow was great, write a note on my phone, access it on my MacBook, start a new document on my laptop and keep pushing forward.
IA Writer will always be a part of my toolkit, there are times where I find myself using it almost exclusively when writing to get away from the thousands of knobs, switches, and buttons that other applications have.
Here comes a new challenger
When Bear was first released I scoffed a little. It took me some time to crack open the Bear-shaped door and peek through. This is due to a the vast majority of people reviewing the app comparing it to Evernote.
I’d never been a fan of Evernote, in fact I despised its often strangely cobbled together interface. I already had a note taking practice which I thought was working for me. But I craved more organisation, the simple approach that IA Writer bore (at the time) of files-in-folders still appealed to me, but I needed another way to interact and organise my notes.
Like I’d mentioned in my previous article, I’m an organiser. I like to keep the words I write in nicely labelled drawers so I can reach back in and grab out what I want as I need it. So with a little trepidation I downloaded bear…
In pursuit of organisation
I couldn’t believe I’d held off for so long as Bear immediately spoke to my needs. Once again I sieved my notes from one app to another and started my note taking practice again. This time it felt right, this time I knew that I’d found a home for my note taking… and boy was I right.
After a few days of transferring over notes, making sure the markdown held up, and a little reformatting I was now a full blown Bear user. I immediately purchased a subscription for Bear Pro to unlock some of its more aesthetic features and haven’t looked back since.
Hashtags for all occasions
Tags, tags glorious tags. I’d written about the problem of using tags in online ecosystems before, but here they sang. With the simple implementation of tags at the bottom of a note I could not only organise where the note sat, but also define the sidebar structure at the same time.
Themes make the dream work
Themes are a huge part of my writing happiness, for some this may sound like a strange statement, but they are incredibly important.
One of my pet peeves of all writing applications is that the default is black text on a stark white background. I get it, it’s an attempt at emulating the written page, but use a writing app for more than five minutes with black on white schemes and I feel like I’m peering into the sun. You may have guessed already that I’m a big fan of dark themes, but I’m also a huge fan of colour theory. There is an enormous body of work on the emotional effects of colours and how the use of colour in the right way can enhance an experience.
While Bear only has a limited number of colour themes and no out-of-the-box custom theme capabilities, it still touts a good number of dark themes. My favourite is Dracula (as you might have noticed in that gif above).
Wiki-like features are key
Ah, the humble double bracketed internal link. For those who have written in wiki-markup have used other tools that tout this feature you’ll know just how simple and stupidly useful it is. Its purpose is not only link two pieces of related writing together, but also to allow a writer to drop a placeholder for another thought right into the sentence they are currently working on.
Example: This is a sentence that has a [[ link to another thought ]] right in the text.
This is critical for writers who want to maintain their flow without the distraction of starting another document immediately. I use them as reminders to go back and write more on a linked topic and as a pseudo-personal wiki.
Markdown support is wonderful
Hoo boy, this is the big one.
Markdown for me is sublime. I’ve always been a plain-text note taker and prefer my own structured formatting over anything imposed by the app I’m using.
So when I found Markdown I couldn’t learn the syntax fast enough (it’s pretty darn easy if you want to try) . One of the issues with Markdown however is the wide array of flavours that have sprung up through different implementations and the lack of a true Markdown Standard.
Bear is very kind when it comes to Markdown, it follows the basic CommonMark Syntax so you can basically just start writing and it will produce great looking Markdown-rendered documents with ease.
Shiny Frog are currently working on improving the editor for Bear via an open alpha test on macOS which should tighten up the experience and provides many more options. After downloading the alpha editor and playing around with it (and providing some feedback) I’m excited to see it integrated to the main app.
But there are some things I wish Bear would do better…
Image handling could be better
I’m a visual person, so the handling of images is another important thing for me. You can probably guess from this that I love a good Pinterest board. I like to add visual material to my notes where possible, especially when I’m writing down my thoughts about fictional topics.
Bear does a pretty good job at this, though its not perfect. While it allows for images to be inserted, there is only one option for display, and that’s to show only thumbnails of the images. Which would be perfectly fine if it made the thumbnails more uniform (perhaps a grid?) but it’s a feature with much left to be desired.
Mostly use images in Bear as a spice, not as the main course.
Web clipping is a bit broken
This is where I’m a bit more disappointed. I’ve never been a huge web-clipper in the past. If I want to store or archive a webpage or website for later reference then I use an in-browser screenshot tool to grab the content and PDF it.
I appreciate that Shiny Frog has thought about those who use web-clipping frequently, and I would switch if a couple of things were changed.
I find that when I use the Bear web-clipper it often will not grab all the content on the page.
When I clip that page I only get a small portion of the total content, all of 161 words and a single image. When I compare that to the original page it is instantly obvious that it hasn’t done a great job at collecting information.
Perhaps I’m using this in an unintended way, as I do also use it to take highlighted snippets from a page which works much better.
The one thing I’d prefer is that when clipping highlighted text from a single page source that Bear wouldn’t create a new note per clip, and instead add them all to one note per page so they were all contextually together.
If I could have one wish…
Bear already has some great publishing features built-in, publishing to raw Markdown, PDF, HTML, Docx, Jpg, and RTF. But where it would shine is publishing to online sources, especially WordPress, Medium, and other blogging and micro pub services.
Other applications like iA Writer, and Ulysses both have this capability, so its not a huge ask to have this included in Bear. I’m also aware that this is a very commonly requested feature.
I have my fingers crossed that with the new editor this feature will become available to us all. It would elevate Bear as the go-to tool for a lot of writers.
This is only the start
All-in-all, Bear is a part of my forever toolkit. I love using the Bear for everything I can think of when it comes to note taking. The three year journey I’ve been on using the app has been a joy and I won’t be stopping anytime soon.
Right now it won’t replace other apps like Ulysses or iA Writer for long form writing for me due to the lack of online publishing capabilities, and a few other key features, but damn it comes close.
With future improvements already in the works and a dedicated team of developers working on this single app, the future of Bear continues to be bright.
Also published on Medium.