Tinderbox Forum

Love hate relationship and Tinderbox 7

I have to admit, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Tinderbox for years. I love the idea, I love what other people are able to do with it, as seen in the forums and in the examples Eastgate posts.

But every time I try to go beyond the very basics myself, I get bogged down, ultimately give up in frustration, and retreat to (for me) more intuitive tools. (Some combination of Scrivener, Scapple, and DevonThink Pro in my case.)

Time passes. I again become intrigued by what people are able to do with Tinderbox. But meanwhile my last license renewal has expired and either I’ve forgotten the little bit I had learned before or the program has changed enough to make it obsolete. And the cycle repeats.

The steepest part of the learning curve for me is anything having to do with export. I’m (sort of) okay as long as I’m working on things that are confined within Tinderbox, but that will only take me so far. In previous versions, getting work from Tinderbox to anything else (usually Scrivener) has been challenging enough to send me scurrying back to copy and paste, vowing never to let my data get trapped that way again.

What is the situation in Tinderbox 7, relative to earlier versions?


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Edit: correction re export.

What sort of work are you wanting to do in Tinderbox? Being an open-ended tool different people use it for a wide range of tasks. Having a sense of what you’re trying to do would help when trying to answer your general question as not all features are pertinent to all users. Export is also nuanced in the same way.

v7 doesn’t make any major changes to export see MB’s post below. This is a summary of v7 changes. The most obvious new feature is map view composites.

That’s really not true. It is very easy to export Tinderbox’s data and the TBX file is XML so can be accessed even without the app. As above, it all depends what you’re trying to do, in what context and with what degree of (technical) knowledge. :slight_smile:

Tinderbox 6 and Tinderbox 7 include a built-in Scrivener export template. This sends a container and its child notes to an .OPML file that can be imported by Scrivener.

I get what you’re saying about TBX export. I’ve just finished a pretty complicated export. I’m not a comp science person can’t “program” or “script” and when I was putting it together and working from scratch, at times I felt pretty overwhelmed. But I kept at it and now that my export templates are set-up, I have something tailor-made to my task and that is insanely powerful. Creating my end-point file (a project that would have been difficult in whatever software I chose) is unbelievably easy: I literally just click a button. So the pay-off for me has been huge.

That all said, I think that in TBX 6 & 7, a real effort has been put into making common export tasks easier for people who don’t want (or need) to fiddle with templates.

So in addition to Scrivener export, there is an option to export directly to a formatted outline and to an RTF file. Both offer some basic formatting options and produced a standard, usable document that is ready to be revised or formatted in another program. If your needs are basic (e.g. printing off a class lecture as you’re dashing out of your office) the documents are ready to use as is.

The new multi-select feature also makes cut-and-paste (a go-to export technique I use all the time!) much more powerful: select multiple notes and their Titles and Texts stack in the view window ready to be selected and copied.

TBX doesn’t have a “print” command that works the way you’d imagine, but together, these export options cover a lot of the basics scenarios where I’d want to use one and don’t want to make my own templates. They also mean that a full export of all my notes to a familiar format is usually just a couple clicks away.

On a slightly different note, I think some of the very best and most valuable parts of TBX are the “easy” front-of-the-manual tools that don’t get talked about much on the forum because they don’t involve much learning curve at all. They seem simple but most of them are unavailable elsewhere and are the reason I use TBX. Complicated actions, export, etc. are just gravy :slight_smile:

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Actually, Version 7 made BIG changes to export, with great one-touch export for lots of formats — Word, pdf, plain text, outlines, and more.

I agree with Katherine and have had the same love-hate relationship for years. Generally, my experience with the forum is that while people try to be and often are very supportive, there are two kinds of Tinderbox users: those who really understand, have spent a lot of time immersing in and learning the “tulies” of the program (who will tell you it’s easy to do, improved, etc.), and those who don’t. I’m sort of the latter. I appreciate the help a lot when I have needed it, admire those who really know how to do super creative things, but it’s just not me.

My experience has often been a repetition of a pattern in which trying to do anything that I have not done a lot of before results in getting massively derailed from whatever project I am supposed to be working on, due to getting “into the tulies” of trying to figure out how to get Tinderbox to do it. I have literally hundreds of “notes” in Tinderbox I’ve taken on the how-to’s of using it, even my own homemade “Tinderbox manual” where I keep stuff in a way that I can relocate and understand it (e.g. translating sometimes hard to remember Tinderbox vocabulary terms into something I’ll actually think to search for.). But if I don’t immerse in these issues regularly, it’s very hard for me to remember these techniques.

So I stick to bare bones techniques, things I’ve used enough to do them automatically. At this point, for instance, I avoid creating agents or doing anything that involves using (having to re-learn) tinderbox “syntax.” I use basic maps, basic outlines; I do like the new attribute browser but seldom use it. I never try timelines – which date is which and so on is hard to remember. I never, ever try to “export” anything – it is NOT easy if you don’t know how to use it and NO other commonly used software makes anything like the demands Tinderbox does to just get something out of the program (except some of the hairier export tricks of Scrivener.) I just copy-paste. It is generally much faster for me to copy-paste even multiple notes, one at a time, into Scrivener or whatever (within reason), than to spend hours of my time re-learning the latest export technique, working through “practice export” samples and so on. (Rule of thumb: if I need to practice a practice example to learn to do it, I’m already derailed from my work and will not do it.)

There is still a lot of love for the program, and really for the underlying philosophy or concepts (e.g. in Tinderbox Way). And I do appreciate the brilliance Mark B and Mark A and others have invested in developing and interpreting the program. I have hundreds of Tinderbox documents and about three that are massive, thousands of notes in them. I use it daily many times. But there is a lot of stuff I have learned that for me, it’s just not worth my time to try to once again figure out, or re-learn. Often that’s stuff for use in rejiggering a document, e.g. to make a “dashboard” or something, that it will be a lot of work to figure out, that, once it’s in place, I will not change it for a year or more. So if I have to do it again, I’ve not been practicing, won’t remember how I did it. Better uses for my time and there are indeed other programs that, beyond a certain point, do the job better (e.g. Scrivener, Scapple, Daylite, etc.)


I agree that the whole exporting business had been the hardest part of TB, for me.

But I also agree that the latest version has a lot of simplifying improvements. In addition to others mentioned here, there is the extremely useful Copy View as Image command, which you find on the Edit menu (right after Cut and Copy).

Why does this matter? You can create a map view; use Copy View as Image; and paste the entire map view into Preview, or anything else. Here’s an example – deliberately small to obscure some of the text, but giving you an idea. I use this frequently for speaking notes etc.

Main point: I too had found exporting the main challenge, but I think a lot of work has been done there.


The day I discovered Tinderbox on a weblog, I immediately tested it to experience that it was not for me because I did not see what kind of usage I could do with it. Then, I re-gave it a try, again and again. Today, I would like to feel again that strange impression to discover what Mark Anderson calls an open-ended tool. I mean : a lot of applications do the job straightly and you do not have to learn how they works, but you already know that their capability to follow you where your imagination goes is very very limited. In my experience, Tinderbox is a “vicarious” tool : if you learn a little how it works, you could find in its numerous functions the way you would like it works for you. In this point of view, it is for me an artisanal software, in the best sense of that word : it helps you cut your tools. But, it is true, sometimes, remembering Twig, I wonder if I would not like having also a big box you could access by simply entering a request. With regard to this, Twig was a nice idea : while you could both map and outline your ideas, you could also find a note by using the “noter” as in National Velocity. And I dream of a Big Tinderbox file reachable by a quick entry as one can do with DevonThink or Omnifocus. No matter: it is really a child’s play to export your notes into Scrivener or a Latex editor if you use it.


As others have said, one of the virtues and challenges of the program is precisely its malleability and mutability. I mention that in relationship to the Attribute Browser, because I use that feature more than I use any other aspect of the program. For me it’s the ideal and intuitive (yes!) matching to the way I like to think about things. You categorize or tag or label or otherwise assign your info in any way that suits your needs. And then, via the Attribute Browser, you can see them group in any way you would like. More details and examples here. This is the artisanal and it-constitutes-its-own-language part of the program. Also it can be a starting-out challenge, compared to programs with more straightforward (and constrained) ranges of use.


It’s interesting that Scrivener is perceived as “intuitive”. I love Scrivener, but it’s like tuning a Lamborghini. A heck of a lot of work. “Intuitive” is Apple Notes, with almost zero options. Versus Scrivener which has nearly infinite options.

But, so does Tinderbox. And DEVONthink, really, under the covers. (The DEVONthink scripting dictionary leaves the program more exposed to customization than any other application on the Mac.) All of these (and Curio, and Keyboard Maestro, and a few others) are the products of extremely generous and clever author/developers. Great riches in small packages.

So what to do if we lovehate Tinderbox, Scrivener, and the rest?

Well, either hate it and stop.

Or try to learn it by thinking simply about what @mwra always asks:

“What are you trying to do? Let’s think about how to do just that thing.”

And then try to go a bit further with the next project, and then the next. I guarantee you – Mark Anderson did not buy a copy of Tinderbox and write aTbRef the next day.


Ah, yes - I was thinking in terms of OPMl/HTML and overlooked the RTF side. I’ve amended my post up-thread as a result. Apologies!

That’s really not true. It is very easy to export Tinderbox’s data and the TBX file is XML so can be accessed even without the app. As above, it all depends what you’re trying to do, in what context and with what degree of (technical) knowledge.

Uh, no, XML is not a reasonable alternative to an export function for anyone who is not a programmer.

As for export being “easy,” I have not found it so. Quite the opposite. YMMV.



Yeah, I tried the Scrivener export template in Tinderbox 6. It didn’t go well. That was the reason for my most recent abandonment of Tinderbox.


Now we’re getting somewhere. Give me an easy way to send a stack of notes to an RTF file and I’m happy: everything in the world – and especially Scrivener – can read RTF files.


Yep, this is me.

FWIW, I agree that exploiting the full power of Scrivener’s compile function can certainly send one very deep into the weeds. But the most basic “dump all these documents into a single file, formatted like they are in the editor” is orders of magnitude simpler than the equivalent in Tinderbox. (Is there even an equivalent in Tinderbox?)


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Per Mark A.'s request upthread, a little more about what I actually want to do with Tinderbox.

First, an organization and planning tool. It’s the closest electronic thing that I’ve found to a white board covered with sticky notes. As long as I stick to the whiteboard metaphor, my Tbx skills seem to be up to the task. But my monitor isn’t big enough (not Eastgate’s fault!), and so I start messing around with agents and such to add an additional layer of organization … whereupon things seem to go rapidly downhill and next thing I know it’s been months and I haven’t even managed to open the program.

Second, as a notetaking and outlining tool. Capture notes, based on both reading and interviews, organize into an outline structure, export the whole thing to Scrivener for the actual writing. These days I’m doing most of my notetaking directly in iOS Scrivener (which I love, and which didn’t exist the last time I tried Tinderbox). I think Tinderbox has some advantages – such as the nearly unlimited metadata – but the export hurdle is a big one and, the last time I tried it, made the whole experiment not worth the bother.


Don’t know if you’ve seen this Vimeo tutorial on exporting to Scrivener: https://vimeo.com/161019693.

The process is as easy as working within Scrivener itself, it seems to me:

  • You choose Export from the File menu
  • You then choose Text / Scrivener from a drop down list
  • You choose to export the whole doc, or selected notes
  • You give the file a name (or accept the default)

The video then shows how to import the resulting file into Scrivener.

As someone who has resisted (and never spent the time to learn) the HTML export routines, I find the Scrivener export routine to be extremely simple, and when coupled with Copy View as Image (which lets me print out map views) or Export As RTF (which lets me capture other things), it allows me to do what I want with, again, mental effort that is certainly no more challenging than Scrivener.

But this is not for everyone, and if you’re mainly frustrated, maybe that’s a sign.

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To be clear about the context here, I believe that @mwra was responding to the note in which you expressed concern that your data would be “trapped” in Tinderbox, if you finally abandoned it. (“vowing never to let my data get trapped that way again…”)

Data-trapping in non-standard programs is a genuine issue: Back at the dawn of time, Lotus’s marvelous Agenda program had its own proprietary format, so you needed to pry stuff out of there item by item when it was taken off the market. I think something similar is true of Evernote now.

Mark Anderson’s point, I believe, was: whatever the goods or bads of Tinderbox from your point of view, data you enter there wouldn’t ever be “trapped” or lost. If you needed to excavate or export it, the XML format means that could be done – if not by you, then very probably by someone you know, on a not-very-difficult one-time basis.

So, Mark A was not recommending reliance on XML for routine export. I believe he was addressing the data-trapping concern, fwiw.

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No, I hadn’t. This was a couple of years ago, but I don’t remember the Scrivener export being nearly that simple. (Between my lack of patience and Tinderbox’s sometimes non-helpful documentation, I’m more than willing to entertain the possibility that I simply missed it.) I’ll have to take another look.


PS Huge fan of both your work and your notes on process, by the way. Thank you for both. (And yes, I’m an Atlantic subscriber. As a writer myself, I know that’s what really counts.)

I think “I don’t remember…” is key. For instance, I know that I’d seen Dominique’s video (love his videos!) and at least tried this sort of export some time in the past. But amid all the comments pro export on these posts today I did just make a few stabs (without consulting my notes, memories, recalling that there even were old videos, or that I’d done this before)… just trying to see how “easy” it is. And none of them worked. Just as one example, highlighting one note, then going “File- export as HTML” led my large Tinderbox doc to export several thousand documents that look like HTML docs to my desktop. But each of them, when clicked, says “unable to find this template.” Leaving the average “just figure it out by trying it” user to wonder, “what template? What are they talking about?”

Now I don’t really want any advice here – I know “learning curve” and so on, blah blah. I’m just, I think, giving an example: a naive user or even one who has once, in the misty past, figured out how to export, will do EXACTLY something like this because it is by no means self-explanatory or obvious what one is SUPPOSED to do.

It’s not an everyday action, it’s not all that easy. I agree that whatever one does often, one knows. But when you don’t keep up the skill, you know.

My perspective as a psychologist is to just think that frustration with non-obvious solutions is going to be natural because it’s not typical of the majority of software that most people who are not programmers use everyday. I’ve said this before on the older forum: the original concept of “Murphy’s law” was an engineering problem at NASA – they engineered a part the installation of which would not be obvious; inevitably someone installed it upside down (it could be installed either way), and a potentially catastrophic crash resulted. “Murphy” was the chief engineer and he made the point that if there was a right and a wrong way that one COULD install any part, sooner or later someone would install it wrong. (Hence his law: don’t - ever - build anything that you can install wrong.) There are about ten ways to screw up “export” and there is a non-obvious right way to do it. All I’m saying…

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