Craft Documents and Notes

Every now and then, you use something new on a computer and quietly realise that it will change how you do things

This happened to me a lot in the 1980s. I still remember the first time I ever made a single page with desk top publishing and a laser printer; the first time I used email; the first time I used one of the first Macs; the first time I used a computerised stage lighting rig ... things that were complex, demanding, frustrating, slow and often tedious were going to be so much easier: changing not only how we did things but what we could do.

Of course, such breakthroughs soon become commonplace. Improvements become incremental. The ideas are widely copied. We take things for granted.

As I have written before, I have been looking for better ways to write, organise and use notes.

I am completely convinced that to learn (most things) is to write. You need to construct what you know, by capturing, organising and using things you experience and because a great deal of what we learn now is experienced as text, we need to capture, organise and use text. This is an active process, in which we have to make sense of what we read, extract what is useful, what fits with what we already know, what does not and so on. This is what note-taking is all about and to do it well is important.

It's also important to realise that learning happens all the time, not just while someone is studying. Picking up comments that a client has emailed, or deciding what impact news or new information should have on your decisions or even just registering the cost of things you might want to buy, are all forms of learning and most are experienced as text or can be best captured as text (e.g. a verbal comment from a person)

Using an app for taking notes has many advantages over using paper. As so many of our tasks are computer (including phone) based today, having notes in an app that can be immediately used in other apps is powerful, as are all the familiar benefits of computerisation: less bulk, easy communication and storage, the ability to search etc..

The harder part is finding a notes app that helps you make better notes. That means allowing you to write text, include clippings and media, edit and re-edit, organise within your note (e.g. with outlines or some other form of hierarchy) and use visual hierarchy (e.g. headings and sub-headings, lists and groups). It also means allowing your to organise notes as documents into groups that make sense to you and to link between them. All this should be quick, intuitive and friction-free. Anything else will distract you, and that is very bad when you are trying to learn. Finally, the notes you produce should be be useful: that means that you have to be able to find things within them, but also so they make sense. Some of that is how they are written, but attractive, easy to read and visually structured notes are important, especially if they are to stand the test of time and make sense months or years later or in new contexts.

Trying Craft to Make Better Notes

I tried Craft after Appstories raved about it. The review they wrote sounded very interesting, but I have had the experience of seeing Federico Vitticci's infectious enthusiasm and recommendation for a new app wane within days or weeks, leaving you wondering why you paid for it. Fortunately, Craft has a generous free tier that allows you to experience properly before you make a commitment.

I loved using it, immediately. Although it synchronises via a web back end, it is native and feels fast, responsive and reliable with none of the stutters or delays that you can so easily see with apps that are the front-end to web apps. Its visual design is excellent, with clarity and space working very well and just enough customisation to help you make better notes, but nothing to distract you and nothing you ever need to "play with". Drag and drop (e.g. of photos) or copy and paste of text or links worked very well. I paid my subscription well before I had filled the free tier. It took no time to get used to "mentioning" other notes and seeing links and backlinks created wherever you needed them.

Within weeks, it became possible to create sub-folders and import and export more easily. The team has been very responsive in fleshing out version 1 and mapping how it will continue to develop. I simply love using Craft to make notes. I have moved all the notes I had in Ulysses, Notion, Notability and quite a few that I had in Devonthink into Craft. It was easy to import, required very little tidying up and I was soon living in Craft: one of the apps I use several times a day, every day.

One important aspect of Craft is that it is easy to export into a range of common formats. I back up all my Craft Notes once or twice a week as textbundles, which gives me a folder organised as Craft is, but with documents as files I can open in a number of other apps. That takes less than 5 minutes, is automatic (export all documents and tell it where) and I keep the last three backups. I do not feel locked in as I often did with other note apps. I would be sad if Craft disappeared, but I would lose nothing.

How Craft Works

Interestingly, there is nothing in Craft that is officially called a "note".

Everything in Craft is a "block". This is most often a line or paragraph of text, but can also be an image, a heading, a text or code or maths snippet, an iPad drawing etc.. A document is a collection of blocks. Blocks can be moved and edited freely within the document or be sent into a new document. Documents live in folders and subfolders that you create and can be moved or duplicated between them.

Blocks within a document can easily be grouped (Highlight and do cmd-g). For example, if I am writing a document and realise that several blocks are really a sub-topic and not strictly necessary for the main document, rather than putting them somewhere else I can group them. This creates a "page" — a block that contains other blocks.

There are various options to display a "page" where you created it, but by default it shows a heading and the first part of the page's content. Clicking on it opens the page to view, where you can edit (and create pages) as you wish. You quickly get used to creating and going "into" pages to capture or dig down to more detail or a useful aside. It's an intuitive and powerful way of folding a lot of information into a manageable form. You see an overview and dig down to see more. Grouping is easy to change at any time, as is breaking up a document into other documents, or organising and reorganising into folders and sub-folders, so you just start to make notes and build structure that is useful to you as you go.

I find that I write better notes in Craft. It's an app that "gets out of the way" and lets me concentrate on what I am trying to think about or capture. It's more than minimal: you can create bullet, numbered or toggled lists, for example, and there are some choices of font style and layout as well as more than one level of headings and highlighting. But it's not full-featured. There is no format or font bar. Styling is at the block level except that you can emphasise words with bold or italic or you can colour text.  You can use markdown as you are writing. 

The balance is almost exactly right for me, though that is always a personal opinion. There is enough to allow me to show a visual structure and semantic hierarchy (e.g. lists look like lists) as I am writing or reviewing and without having to preview, but not enough so that setting it up takes any thought or effort. Images in documents are well displayed and without needing any thought. My notes are elegant, they make sense to me and are worth revisiting, but I have not had to divert energy to thinking about how to format, style or lay them out.

You create links to other places within your notes by typing @ (or wiki brackets [[) and starting to type. Search brings up the nearest matches it can find for you to select and the text after the @ becomes an internal link. External urls can be pasted or typed and automatically become links, often shown as a summary of the linked content. If a document has been linked from another note, the "backlinks" automatically show in a toggle section at the bottom.

Craft allows you to share documents with "secret links" so that they can be seen on the web and you can also share whole collections (or "spaces") with other Craft users, allowing comments, co-editing and so on. There is almost zero effort required to "publish" a note so that people you choose can read it, and it looks and works beautifully.

Still Developing

Craft is already very good, but is developing fast too. The company has a strong view about its app and future, but listens well and responds to users.

Right now you can embed pdf and image files in a note, and drag and drop text from other apps, but Craft will increasingly allow more and more file types to be "dragged and dropped" and to be displayed sensibly while being attached. "Craft connect" allows very easy sharing with other apps that have API features to allow it. This allows you to send or link blocks to other apps seamlessly. Right now this includes Drafts, Omnifocus, IA Writer, Devonthink, Day One, Things, Ulysses, Bear and Note Plan with many others on the way. The app also uses the system share sheet well

Tables are due very soon (but will not be "databases" like in Notion) and other requests (like the ability to keep the sidebar with the folders and subfolders visible all the time) is imminent, as is being able to access your Craft in a web browser as well as the app.

Craft is a native, local app with its own proprietary internet back end, so it can sync between your devices. It is reasonably secure and uses some encryption but is not suitable for genuinely sensitive content yet. A recent update now allows you to create "spaces" (collections of documents) that will not be synced through their system, allowing users to keep some or all of their notes on a single device or use their own choice of synchronisation (including iCloud or DropBox), and to control and "own" their own data.

Why I like Craft

As I have said before, there is a tendency for people to become very territorial and opinionated about the features and details of apps. This strikes me as counter-productive, but I do like using Craft.

I take notes in order to learn things. As well as recording information for future use, trying to make a good note will be part of understanding or problem solving. Trying to express a thought will help complicated things to make sense. Sometimes I do this purely for pleasure and interest and sometimes to help me do things.

For me, it's the ability to structure, organise and re-organise what I have captured in a note that is important. In order to structure, I need to outline: to make a framework (e.g. a bullet point list) and then flesh it out with more detail and examples.

I find that Craft offers intuitive, easy ways of outlining and structuring information and then detailing it, all under my control. I don’t have to do anything to see how I have organised things and it is fluid and immediate when I want to re-structure or re-organise. What I put together is in immediately useful form and does not have to be previewed or exported to be available to me.

In the months I have had it, I have used it every single day: much more than I have ever used any other note- or knowledge-based app. It is still a pleasure.

Conclusion

I think Craft speaks for itself. It's free to try or even to use (with limits on the total number of blocks and storage you have) but for me it's worth every penny of the annual subscription (that I pay for myself — I have not link or affiliation with Craft beyond being a customer). I am using Agenda for briefer notes that are naturally time-linked (e.g. notes for practical projects or keeping track of my piano practices) but all my learning or thinking notes are now in Craft and I am not looking for anything else.





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