How to (almost) use Zettlr on Android devices

Are you a Zettlr user? Then you might occasionally want to, as I did, write short notes or even longer blog posts without sitting at your desktop computer and glaring at your Zettelkasten. You may be at a cafe, as many hipsters do, or attending a meeting and want to write your notes in Zettlr-friendly markdown files. This is how I set up my Android tablet to write Zettlr-friendly notes and have them seamlessly appear in my Zettlr.

We all know that Zettlr is the best text editor in the world. A low-threshold editor of text files that helps you connect ideas and build a Zettelkasten for free (being free and open source is not its only advantage). Zettlr is perfect for those moments of creativity when you want to have a text file and a keyboard and nothing more. It is not seldom that we hear people who say Zettlr changed their life 🙂

However, Zettlr is currently a desktop-only application without a mobile device counterpart. And it will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. But moments of creativity don’t just come when you are in the comfort of your office, sitting in front of your desktop setup. Often we become creative or get an idea into our head in other surprising places –in a cafe or the library when browsing books for our next project.

Note that I am not talking about “note-to-self” situations. You can use a note-to-self app or email or messaging apps for short reminders of ideas. I am talking about when you feel like sitting down and writing for half an hour but don’t want to drag your office desktop with you. Additionally, sometimes I just don’t want to be reminded of my whole Zettelkasten and want to be left alone with just this one file. These moments often occur when I sit on our terrasse with my dog and have a cup of coffee. I happen to have an Android tablet with a decent physical keyboard. Therefore, I wondered: Can I write something on this tablet while I am sitting here with my dog and drinking my coffee and have the output immediately available in my Zettlr environment?

I found the answer in an Android app called Zettel Notes (ZN). This app does much more than I was looking for, which prompted me to write this blog to share my setup with others. Using ZN I managed to have an almost identical Android version of Zettlr! Here is what ZN is currently doing for me:

Step 1: creating notes in ZN

  • ZN allows me to create a repository, which is very similar to a Zettlr workspace. I created a Zettlr repository and set it up to synchronize with my laptop.
  • You have several ways of creating what is in Zettlr called snippets. You can have multiple templates or note types etc. I used the simplest one and added a YAML frontmatter to the repository. Every note I create in that particular ZN repository has the standard YAML frontmatter. The standard frontmatter is a copy of the one I use in Zettlr for generic notes, including title, abstract, keywords –or tags, more on this below –author name, etc.
  • ZN generates an ID for its notes that is compatible with Zettlr where I use the format yyyyMMddHHmmSS.
  • So far, my ZN note looks exactly the same as my Zettlr notes, it is already assigned an ID as if it were created in Zettlr, and it has the proper YAML frontmatter.

Step 2: Synchronizing with desktop

  • As for many note-taking apps on Android, ZN supports synchronization with several destination types. I set up one type called WebDav synchronization in ZN with a folder on my ownCloud.
  • You can, of course, use other ways to synchronize. For generic synchronization supporting the most well-known cloud services, such as DropBox, search for the Android app called FolderSync.
  • So far, I have made sure that I can create Zettlr-compatible notes on ZN and synchronize them with my desktop.

Step 3: integrating with Zettlr

  • On my desktop, I open the synchronized folder from ZN in Zettlr as a workspace. I decided to keep my main Zettlr folder separate from the one I synchronize with Android. Synchronizing my full Zettelkasten was not necessary. Of course, you can choose to synchronize everything if you wish. Just select the folder containing your Zettelkasten when you set up the synchronization. (Be careful not to delete your Zettelkasten accidentally!)
  • Once I have opened the folder as a workspace in Zettlr I can continue to work on the ZN-created note in Zettlr and maybe again in ZN until I am done. Or I can choose to move the note into my Zettelkasten if I am going to develop it into something larger.

Well, this was much more than I expected when I started the process. However, after having used this setup, I see some things that can be improved, and I will keep this blog updated with other issues as they come up. If you decide to use this or different setups, you can add your own experience as a comment down below if you wish to share.

Here are some of the issues that I have experienced so far:

  • (Of course this is possible! My bad. Zettlr supports both keyword and tag) Keywords are not shared across the two apps. I have always used “keywords” in YAML front matter as my standard tagging mechanism in Zettlr. ZN, however, prefers “tags” in YAML frontmatter instead of “keywords.” Zettlr documentation says: “Zettlr recognises both properties and will treat both as valid descriptions of tags for your file.” However, this does not work. Zettlr will only recognize “keywords” in YAML frontmatter. Currently, I don’t have many notes in ZN, so this is not a huge problem. but I think keywords will be indispensable as the number of notes grows. I guess I will open an issue with Zettlr and see if Henrik will fix this issue! It will make the integration much more seamless and useful.
  • ZN uses the note ID as the file name. In Zettlr, you can have different methods for assigning IDs and filenames. Honestly, I have not given any thought about how to assign names to my files as I rarely see them in Zettlr. I only see titles and keywords and sometimes IDs. So, this does not –yet –have any practical implications for me. However, I have noticed that some editors use file names and not YAML titles for browsing and navigation. For example, the graph navigator in Zettlr uses file names, so it does not make sense for me to use it.
  • “Writing statistics” in Zettlr doesn’t register what you write in ZN. Therefore, if you organize your writing around these statistics, this can create a challenge for your.
  • As a second thought, You might be able to skip step 1 above if you always create your notes in Zettlr as ZN works well with notes created in Zettlr.

Zettlr is open source (GPL-3.0) and its main developer is Hendrik Erz –Kudos Henrik! ZN is free (I don’t think it is open source) and has an active developer called Rohit Sharma -Kudos Rohit! You can find out more in the app’s Google group. I hope the developers of the two apps keep coordinated around a small set of principles to maintain this seamless synchronization and maybe even improve it in future versions of their apps.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Zettlr, Zettel Notes, or any other brand names I mention above. I am only using them because they are helpful and I want to give back to the community by sharing my experience.