Streamlining Your Academic Digital Workflow #1: Reading and Annotating with LiquidText

A while ago, I wrote a piece arguing that we, as researchers in the humanities, need a better system to streamline academic digital workflow from reading to writing. In this post, I will introduce how I use LiquidText, a very useful application for annotating digital texts (such as PDFs and Microsoft Word documents). This is also the first post on how I created a digital workflow system for myself that works, as well as tips on how to set up one for yourself.

When we read and annotate a digital text, let’s say a PDF, most of us would open the file via Adobe Acrobat. We would perhaps use the “highlight text” function to make certain parts of the text stand out, and we would perhaps click on “add sticky note” to add some notes here and there. After you have finished reading and annotating the text, all of the highlights and sticky notes can only be reviewed linearly within the text, as you scroll through dozens if not hundreds of pages. Of course, you can review all of your editorial changes in the “comments” section, but they are listed out again, in a linear fashion. There is no way to see how your annotations connect to each other, unless you map them out on a piece of paper and/or write them out in a fresh document.

I desperately needed a tool that could help me consolidate my digital annotations and margin notes in a more “at-a-glance” kind of way. I wanted something that enables me to map out the passages that I’ve highlighted in a text in structures and networks, in a way that is possible with a pen and a piece of paper.

The closest solution that I have been able to find so far is LiquidText, a super handy digital annotation application (compatible with both Apple and Windows). Although the app can be used on a laptop or PC, I think its potential is best fulfilled when used on a tablet that supports handwriting (I currently use an iPad Air plus Apple pencil).

Speaking from my experience with the app (about 2 years), I think LiquidText not only covers all of the basic note-taking needs of a researcher in the humanities (such as in-text annotation and margin notes), but it also offers many of the benefits that only handwritten notes can provide (such as mind maps and separate notetaking).

If equipped with a tablet that supports tablet pens/pencils, reading and annotating PDFs on LiquidText feels very close to the pen-and-paper experience. Highlighting (or even double highlighting for added saturation), underlining, circling, etc., can all be done quite smoothly with the tablet pen. I can scribble anything I want into the margins (or anywhere really) of the digital text, as I would in a paper-based document.

In addition to in-text annotation, LiquidText also provided a space on the right-hand side of the digital text for me to take notes and draw diagrams. It’s like having a blank notebook laid out next to the book you’re reading. Here, in my opinion, is where the magic really happens.

One really useful function that LiquidText provides is “excerpt anything.” This means you can select whatever passage/diagram/figure from the digital text and place it into your digital notebook on the right. LiquidText will automatically link that excerpt to its original place in the text. Imagine touching the phrase “key ideas from Chapter 3” in your notebook and “zoom,” the exact page where those key ideas were excerpted from in the book would open right in front of you. This is a hugely useful function because it allows you to recover the context of anything you excerpt immediately, without the hassle of flipping or scrolling through pages and pages of text. A cool feature with “excerpt anything” is that all of the excerpt bubbles can then be merged and linked together in whatever arrangement you like. This is super great for taking structured notes that show more leveled and complex relationships between ideas.

A workspace on LiquidText. The digital text (PDF) is on the left-hand side with highlights and annotations. The digital notebook is on the right-hand side with excerpted bubbles connected to each other and their original places in the text.

Another incredibly useful function that LiquidText offers is that it allows you to connect anything to anything. Literally anything on and within the digital text itself, between multiple digital texts, and between the digital texts and your note-taking workspace on the right-hand side. Just choose something within the workspace with your tablet pen, drag it onto a thing that you want to make a connection to, and release. Voila, connection created. How one wants to take advantage of this function, I think, is really up to the individual and their purpose with the text(s), but there can be so many potentials!

For example, when I read a monograph, I would highlight passages in the book, draw stars and circles to mark importance and interventions, but I would also take notes in the digital notebook on the right-hand side at the same time. However, instead of dragging and excerpting everything I’ve highlighted into the notebook, I would write or type out things like “Research Questions,” and “Main Arguments,” and link to them places in the book that address these items. When I do drag and excerpt something into the notebook, it’s often to show and piece together webs of ideas that are not immediately legible from the linear narratives of the book. Just as we would take a pen and a piece of paper to map more complex ideas out from a book so that they would become clearer to our eyes, LiquidText allows you to do the same. The only difference is that if you touch/click on an idea/passage from your LiquidText mind map, it will immediately take you to the exact page of origin. With paper notes, you would have to meticulously jot down page numbers and flip/scroll through the original text.

For those of us who need to read different parts of a single text back and forth for various purposes, LiquidText offers a great solution that would save you from the annoying scrolling back and forth (or having to open multiple copies of the text in different windows): “pinch search”! On LiquidText, you can pinch two specific pages of a text together, minimizing all the pages in between, so that you can compare and read them easily. This is helpful, for example, when you are trying to read about something while trying to look at the data provided in the appendix. With LiquidText’s “connect anything to anything” function, you can also draw links between any two places in a single text, creating convenient “portals” for fast referencing.  

Two pages are pinched together for easier view and comparison. Note that links and intratextuality can be created within the same document.

Saving and sharing annotations and notes are quite easy on LiquidText, too. It allows you to export both the annotated PDF, and the digital notebook on the right-hand side. What’s really cool is that once your annotation work has been exported into a PDF (and safely saved somewhere), you can still click on your excerpts and links, and they will immediately take you to the exact place of origin.

The exported version of my notes on the digital text. The original PDF with my annotations (highlights + scribbles + margin notes) is combined in the same document with my notes. Clicking on one of these excerpt bubbles will immediately take me back to their original place within the text.

In short, I have been extremely impressed by how well LiquidText works for all of my digital annotating and notetaking needs. Pricing is also very reasonable. I use the free version and I am very satisfied with it. But others can also pay a one-time fee of $29.99 (USD) to get more functions or pay $7.99 (USD) or $9.99 (USD) monthly to get cloud storage and reference manager integration, amongst other additional functions.

Lastly, although LiquidText is a fantastic tool for annotating and linking ideas within individual texts, the end product (exported workspace and annotation) is still an individualized one, meaning that they will end up being individual PDF files saved somewhere without meaningful connections to the other notes you took on other texts. The next post of this series on Streamlining Your Academic Digital Workflow will feature tools that could help you establish and visualize the intertextuality between different notes. Please stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “Streamlining Your Academic Digital Workflow #1: Reading and Annotating with LiquidText

  1. I am very curious to see your next post. After exploring various similar apps over the last 4 years, I am now re-considering LiquidText as my main PDF reader and note taking app. The ability to streamline what I do in LiquidText with the rest of my knowledge management system is where I am still getting stuck and I would love to gain some additional perspective on the matter.

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