How Instapaper could be an even better research tool

Instapaper has become so much more than a reading app to me. It has become a fantastic research tool too. As good as it is, it could be better (or, at least, it could do one thing better). Bear with me, I’ll explain.

As you may know, Instapaper introduced highlighting and commenting (or Notes) some time back. If you are using the “free” service you are limited to just 5 notes a month but if you become a Premium user for a mere $29.99 for a year (or $2.99 for a month), you have all the awesomeness that is Instapaper available to you.

My work involves a fair amount of writing. I typically write around 3,000 to 4,000 words a week in the form of blog posts for my employer’s blog. I also write guest posts for industry websites now and then and edit blog posts that my colleagues have written. My writing tool is Byword and I am a big fan. Reaching the point where I write those articles usually means doing a fair amount of research. That involves finding useful materials, saving them to Instapaper where possible and later going through my saved items in Instapaper to review them more closely.

Comments and highlights in Instapaper
Comments and highlights in Instapaper

At that point I use the highlighting and commenting tools a lot to pick out phrases and ideas that I want to incorporate into my articles. I created IFTTT recipes (here and here) that take highlights and comments and add them to running Evernote notes for each article.

The results are nicely laid out Evernote notes with all my highlighted texts and comments. It’s a useful way to aggregate all those highlights and comments in a central reference that I can go back to when it is time to write my article.

Comments from Instapaper collated in an Evernote note
Comments from Instapaper collated in an Evernote note

Instapaper has a Notes tab which has a list of all your highlights and comments but I haven’t used that. I’ve been using Evernote for years so it seemed like a good idea to just send my highlights and comments there rather than use the Instapaper option.

Instapaper's Notes view
Instapaper’s Notes view

I was home sick for a few days last week and my idea of rest was to research and start writing a mini-thesis about ad blocking and different perspectives on it and solutions for the challenges it creates. At one point I was highlighting and commenting so much I received a rate limiting warning from IFTTT telling me that I was about to hit an hourly limit on items sent to Evernote (I didn’t know such a limit even existed).

At the end of my research phase I had a dozen or two Evernote notes with dozens of items in each which I thought would be useful in my article. What hit me is how relatively unproductive this workflow is where I have a lot of material to review after the initial research. Making all those notes and highlights practically useful requires me to go through my Evernote notes and manually extract all of those items into some sort of outline of my article. My favourite outliner is OmniOutliner but any OPML-based outliner would work just about as well.

Usually I don’t use an outliner too because my articles aren’t generally as complex as this ad blocking piece. In this case, an outliner became essential. I was working on my outline and I realised that as terrific Instapaper is as a research tool, being able to automatically export all those highlights and notes into an outline that I could manipulate afterwards would be far more effective than flat Evernote notes.

The benefit of an outliner is that I can drag lines around and re-order the outline pretty easily. I could possibly even create an initial draft of the article in the outliner and finish it off in Byword or another word processor. It would really depend on how I structured my outline and how much of the article I’d want to write in it. In this case, I still did my writing in Byword but I split my screen and placed my outline on one side of my screen as a reference and wrote in the Byword window.

My split screen OmniOutliner-Byword perspective
My split screen OmniOutliner-Byword perspective

An alternative to this option is to just use Scrivener which is an excellent writing app. I started my article in Scrivener because it has an outlier function and the capacity to collect research materials in the app itself but I switched back to my Byword/OmniOutliner combo option – I just felt this strong need to stick with plain text in a simpler writing window.

Because my outline was more of a secondary outline after I finished my initial research, I still had to go back to Evernote to find individual quotes and arguments and combine material from both sources into my article. If I had been able to automatically send highlights and comments straight into an outliner, it would have placed all my reference materials into one outline from the start and made it a lot easier to structure that data for reference when I started writing.

So, my wish list for 2016 (I’m putting this out into the ether in case it is possible to make this a reality) is for some option to automatically export highlights and comments into coherent outlines just as I can create a similar workflow for Evernote. One possible solution is to create an integration with Dave Winer’s outliner. It should be something simple and create an OPML file that you can manipulate later to create the basis of an article or similar document.

Image credit: Writing by Unsplash, released under a CC0 dedication

Enthusiast, marketing strategist, writer, and photographer. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad. Allergic to stupid


  1. Dave Winer published a post earlier, titled “I want a structured notebook that I share” that touches on something I’ve been thinking about lately.

  2. I’ve been looking for something similar for a long time (notes/highlights –> outline) and stumbled upon Diigo ( recently. Not completely refined but pretty workable, and with a stable iOS app and API too to sending articles directly to their inbox.

What do you think?

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