TiddlyWiki Review

Here at Commons Knowledge we like to talk about all of the various options out there for personal and information management tools, so today we’re talking about TiddlyWiki!

“It’s like a hypertext card index system from the future” -Jeremy Ruston, in the TiddlyWiki intro video

To summarize: this is a British, somewhat tricky to use, free and open source note taking and information management linked web wiki platform made in Javascript. TiddlyWiki is mostly used for task management. Still, if you’re looking for a way to manage all of your information and feeling particularly adventurous (and not at all into aesthetics, as TiddlyWiki is an ugly website — though CSS customization is possible) you might enjoy TiddlyWiki.

Everything in TiddlyWiki is a small piece, a tiddler —  a British word for a small fish — which you can stack, arrange, and link however you like. Tiddlers are individual units that you can incorporate into larger tiddlers through a process called “transclusion.” To have a tiddler all you need is a title. This is very similar to Scalar CMS where all content is equal, and can be linked or embedded in each other to tell both linear and nonlinear stories. However, TiddlyWiki is not as pretty and is focused more on note-taking and information management than presentation.

An example of a Tiddler

There are a lot of options for customization, as well as an active community that keeps the project alive and adds new customization options for different purposes (such as for writing a thesis). There is a WYSIWYG editor and formatting options, though you will still need to become familiar with the WikiText language in order to use more interesting formatting and customization. The WikiText language is similar to Markdown. There is also a plugin that will let you write your tiddlers in Markdown if you are more familiar and comfortable with that. You can add images and scribble all over them, as well as save links to websites with a download and some difficulty. TiddlyWiki includes search functionality and tagging, which is especially useful, as you can click on a tag you get a list of pages that have that tag. There are encryption plugins, which I have not tested, to create password-protected tiddlers and offer some basic security (though neither I nor the creators of TiddlyWiki endorse putting sensitive information on one of these sites).

You can use TiddlyWiki with TiddlySpot, Tiddly Desktop, or various browsers as well as node.js or a variety of other options for saving the program. Get started here.

Setting up where your files save so you can find them again is probably the hardest part of setting up a TiddlyWiki. It creates one HTML file that you update as you save. If you’re using Firefox and using the Firefox plugin I recommend downloading an empty wiki and copying it from your Downloads and pasting it to your G:Drive or another place where files aren’t deleted automatically. After, you can click on the cat icon and set it to automatically save your changes to your file on the Desktop.

Clicking on

Note: Don’t save things to the Desktop on Scholarly Commons computers long-term, as files are routinely erased.

Let us know in the comments if you have any other personal information management systems that need more love!

Writing the next great American novel, or realistically, finding the “write” tools to finish your thesis

The Scholarly Commons is a great place to write the next great American novel; in fact, I’m surprised it has not happened yet (no pressure dear patrons — we understand that you have a lot on your plates). We’re open Monday-Friday from 9-6 and enjoy a well-lit, fairly quiet, and overall ideal working space, with Espresso Royale and the Writing Center nearby. But actually getting that writing done, that’s the real challenge. Luckily, we have suggestions for tools and software you can use to keep writing and stay on track this semester!

Writing Your First Draft:

Yes, MS Word can be accessed for free for University students through the Web Store and you can set it up to better address your research needs with features like the Zotero and Mendeley plugins to incorporate your references. And don’t forget you can go to Word > File > Options > Proofing > Writing Style and select Grammar and Style and Settings to set what Spellcheck will check for so that passive voice gets underline. However, believe it or not, there are word processors, other than MS Word, that are better for organizing and creating large writing projects, such as novels, theses, or even plays!


Scrivener is a word processor created with novelists in mind that lets you organize your research and notes while you are writing. With an education discount, a license for Scrivener costs $38.25. Scrivener is very popular and highly recommended by two of the GAs here at Scholarly Commons (you can email Claire Berman with any questions you may have about the software at cberman2 [at] illinois.edu). To really get started, check out our online copies of Scrivener: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide and  Scrivener for Dummies!


Unfortunately, Mellel is only available on Mac. An educational license for the software costs $29. To some extent Mellel is similar in style and price to Pages for Mac, but also shares similarities with MS Word for Mac. However, this word processor offers more options for customizing your word processing experience than Pages or MS Word. It also provides more options for outlining your work and dividing sections in a way that even MS Word Notebook version does not, which is great if you have a large written work with many sections, such as a novel or a thesis! Mellel also partners with the citation managers Bookends and Sente.

Markdown Editors like Ulysses

Ulysses is a simple and straightforward word processor for Mac, but you do have to write in Markdown without a WYSIWYG editor. It costs $44.99 for Mac and $24.99 for iOS. However, it has many great features for writers (such as built in word count writing goals for sections of a paper, and Markdown makes outlining work very easy and simple). We have discussed the value and importance of Markdown elsewhere on the blog before, specifically in our posts Digital Preservation and the Power of Markdown and Getting Started with Markdown, and of course, want to remind all of our lovely readers to consider doing their writing in Markdown. Learning Markdown can open up writing and digital publishing opportunities across the web (for example: Programming Historian tutorials are written in Markdown). Plus, writing in Markdown converts easily for simple web design without the headache of having to write in HTML.

Staying Focused:

Maybe you don’t want to buy a whole new word processor. That’s fine! Here are some tools that can help creating the “write” environment to get work done:

Freedom : costs $2.50 a month, so Freedom is not free, indeed. This is an an app that allows you to block websites and even the internet, available for Mac, Windows, iOS devices. This app also has a lock feature that will not allow you to make changes to what is blocked for a set period of time.

RescueTime : another app option. Taking a slightly different approach to the rest here, the lite version of this app helps you track how you use your time and what apps and websites you use the most so that you can have a better sense of what you are doing instead of writing. The premium version, which costs $54 a year, allows you to block distracting websites.

SelfControl: a Mac option but Open Source, with community built Linux and PC versions, and most importantly it’s free! This app allows you to block websites, based on their server, for a set period of time, in which there is basically NOTHING you can do on your computer to access these sites. So choose which sites to block and the time limit wisely.

Editing Tools:


Named after Ernest Hemingway, this text editor is supposed to help you adapt his style of writing, “bold and clear.” When you paste your text into the free web version, the applet gives you the text’s reading level as well as pointing out instances of awkward grammar, unnecessary or complicated words and adverbs, and sentences that are too long or too complicated.There’s a Desktop version available for $20 though I honestly don’t think it’s worth the money, though it does give another simple space on your computer to write and get feedback.

A note about Grammarly 

This is an alternative to MS Word spell check with a free version to add to your browser. As a browser add-in, it checks automatically for critical spelling and grammar mistakes (advanced ones cost a monthly fee) everywhere you write except situations where you’d really want extra spell check such as Google Docs and can be wonky with WordPress. You can always copy and paste into the Grammarly window, but at that point, you’re probably better doing spell check in MS Word. There are also only two versions of English available, American and British (take that Australia!). If you are trying to learn English and want instantaneous feedback while writing on the internet, or studying for high school standardized tests, or perhaps a frequent YouTube commenter in need of a quick check before posting, then Grammarly is for you. For most people at Scholarly Commons, this is a plugin they can skip, though I can’t speak for the paid version which is supposed to be a little bit better. If you uninstall the app they try to guilt trip you, so heads up.

SpellCheckPlus: It’s BonPatron in English! Brought to you by Nadaclair Language Technologies, this web-based text editor goes beyond MS Word’s spellcheck to help identify grammar errors and ways to make your writing sound more normal to a native (Canadian) English speaker. There is a version that costs money but if you don’t import more than the allotted 250 words of text at one time you will be fine using the free version.

Let us know what you think and any tools we may have missed! Happy writing!

And to learn more and find more great productivity tools, check out:

Personal Information Management LibGuide

Scholarly Smackdown: Ulysses vs. Mellel

On today’s edition of Scholarly Smackdown we are looking at Mellel and Ulysses, two word processors for Mac created with novelists, playwrights, and thesis writers in mind. Both of these programs let you control and customize aspects of your documents and give you control over your word processing experience in ways that MS Word and Google Docs do not. Both also have features such as easy-to-configure automatic saving, version control, outlining, and are adaptable for languages other than English.

The Basics:

Mellel actually is probably most similar to Pages for Mac but with less default templates to work from or MS Word for Mac 2011.

Blank document in Mellel

I’m not sure what the hieroglyphs in the top left corner mean, or my general feelings about the user-friendliness of Mellel.

Mellel blue and yellow document with font tab open

A lot of options for customization!

Mellel features  a WYSIWYG editor. For example, in Mellel if you drag and drop photos into the window they appear and can be edited there. However, you can’t see the videos or other media content when dragged and dropped in Ulysses.

Yet despite lacking a WYSIWYG editor, Ulysses is much easier to use. Ulysses’ documentation is incorporated right into the app itself while Mellel forces you to scroll through its user guide (which, to its credit, is well written and accessible). Yes, as much as we praise Markdown here at Scholarly Commons, before Ulysses I felt pretty indifferent to Markdown, but now I may convert. This is a great Markdown editor for people who have never used Markdown before — it includes a plethora of instructions on how to use Markdown, shortcuts for using Markdown, and other useful features. Plus, Ulysses has lots of neat features like setting writing goals, and it lets you preview how your document will look in different formats.

HTML view of Markdown text in Ulysses and example of writing goal feature

Text in Markdown in the background, HTML version in the foreground! Easily set easy to see writing goals!

Typewriter mode allows you to focus on the sentence you are writing and encourage you to keep your writing and your story moving forward, instead of getting stuck editing the same sentence again and again. Also, typewriter mode is fun if you miss using typewriters (especially since one of the few places on campus that still had typewriters available back when I was an undergraduate has had its original building condemned and is being rebuilt).

For Your Thesis:

But I know what you really want to know: can I use this to write my thesis? Well, to get a better idea I inputted my thesis outline into the software from MS Word for Mac 2011 Notebook layout. I can see, though from playing around with the titles/headings/etc., how useful Mellel’s features would be for creating outlines for a thesis structure. It may even present said outlines even more effectively than Microsoft Notebook. Mellel, unlike Ulysses, is known for allowing users to have multiple types of footnotes/endnotes. However, when I imported my MS Word Notebook into Mellel it did not keep my endnotes or acknowledge the sections.

When I repeated this experiment, and opened my thesis outline on Ulysses, it also was clear some of the usefulness of this program. To start, it preserved my Notebook document’s structure and linked the endnotes in the HTML view which was beautiful to behold.

Levels of text with example of a linked footnote

Look at that linked endnote, absolutely gorgeous.

If you have already started writing in MS Word and have documents to convert this could be one advantage of Ulysses, though it did put all of my Notebook as one very large document instead of giving each section it’s own page. However, it converts back to MS Word with very different formatting.  With Ulysses it’s easy to create outlines and formatting. Also because it’s easy to create sheets and connect them together moving around sections is a lot easier than in MS Word, even in Notebook layout.

The Verdict:

Ulysses is the clear winner here. But Mellel has some advantages especially if you’re a Bookends or Sente power user and are really attached to having a WYSIWG editor.

Learn more here:

Link for Mellel

Link for Ulysses

And remember Scholarly Commons is a great place to work on your writing and get expert help with your research!

Digital Preservation and the Power of Markdown

My markdown file in Notepad++.

My markdown file in Notepad++.

Many of us tend to think of digital documents as everlasting, and don’t put a whole lot of thought into how we’ll access our Word documents ten years from now. However, digital documentation tends to become obsolete within five years — as compared to a book, which lasts thousands, or microfilm, which lasts five hundred — and needs to be constantly refreshed. If you’re someone who is paranoid about losing your work, or who knows that they won’t remember to convert their documents every few years, saving important documents in markdown can be an easy way to ensure that you never lose the digitally-born documents that are most important to you.

There are a number of places to learn how to write in markdown. For example, you can take a look at our quick and easy guide to the basics of markdown, but that’s just one of many markdown language cheat sheets.

Write your document in a text editor — make sure that it’s in plain text mode, especially if you’re working with TextEdit — and save it as a .txt file. That .txt file can then be converted into other files with the styling in tact. To convert, you will probably need to download a specific piece of software. Most of us at the University of Illinois iSchool use Pandoc, but there are alternatives, if you’re interested. Using Pandoc and your command line interface, you can then convert your markdown file into whatever kind of file you need, whether that’s html, docx, pdf, or some future kind of file that we haven’t even heard of yet.

The input I put into Command Prompt in order to have Pandoc convert my document from .txt to .html.

The input I put into Command Prompt in order to have Pandoc convert my document from .txt to .html.

My file as an HTML file, viewed on Internet Explorer.

My file as an HTML file, viewed on Internet Explorer.

While this may seem like a lot of work today, it’s helpful to remember that you’re doing this for the you of tomorrow. Important research, dissertations, or even love letters can get corrupted, lost, or just become obsolete. Saving things in markdown allows you a safer route to long-term preservation in an uncertain digital world.