Note Taking

I have been obsessed with finding/developing a note taking method. I have put way more time than I can admit on reading about note taking approaches and finding the right tool for it. At one point I got so deep in to trying out different tools that I felt incredible guilt about being so distracted about something that should help me get things done. So here are a few thoughts on the things I have looked into. My current method and the tools I use are at the end of the post.

One cannot think without writing ~ Niklas Luhmann

Methods/Approaches

Note taking is an art. Consider it as an extension of your thinking. For the longest time (to this day) my note taking is nothing but a dump of thoughts, links, todos, all and sundry.  I know I have a problem. Problem is that I write many notes, but I am unable to make use of it in any extended way other than just temporary use for immediate function. I am not able to offload and utilise the connections between the varied notes and thoughts I have for any future functional use. All note taking apps are too constraining.

Notebooks > Sections > Pages > Notes. It's a straight-jacket. Think of OneNote, Evernote, Google Keep and the ilk. I have hundreds of notes on each of these; particularly on Evernote and OneNote. I never quite used Keep.

The idea is to see connections between notes. To be able to follow your line of thought in a particular direction and then being able to branch out at a point where a fork exists. This fork represents the associated thoughts and readings I did while on a certain topic. If you create a separate note (as in Evernote et al.) the fidelity of those connections is reduced significantly. The new note simply becomes independent. This may work in many cases but it would be good to be able to see the connections in a meaningful way. Tags can do that to an extent. Tag could help in collating disparate notes with the same tags but there are usability issues here. Sorry, a digression is in order:

Note taking process is an incredibly personal thing. What works for me will most likely not work for you. The only way is to experiment and see what works for you.

Since tags are made on the fly, I generally tend to make duplicate tags. For example, I would have tagged a note with "article" for something I read on the web. The next day I would be reading something and I would tag it with 'articles' or 'blog' or 'to read'. Anything that seems natural at the time. But you see the issue. Too many cross tags. Now, I could be careful about the tags by a) looking up existing tags (mostly autocomplete) while adding new tags and b) by limiting the number of the tags. System is constraining me already. Still, I think tags are powerful and with practice and judicious use they can be your good friend. I still use them and at times I have to force myself not to tag too liberally.

I read Sonke Ahren's How to Take Smart Notes (get here) which is useful in thinking about the process of taking notes. Many, including myself, get stuck on the tool and don't really change the workflow. Tool is only a part of the workflow. I also read up quite a bit on Niklas Luhmann's Zettlekasten method. I recommend reading about this method. It is a rabbit hole. So be mindful.

Markup

I write only in Markdown now. Markdown is a very simple and easy to learn markup language. I use Markdown for the following reasons:

  1. I can't stand the overdone distracting UI of word processors. Markdown editors (I'll suggest a few below) are cleaner, light weight and fast.
  2. I like my data to be interoperable and last for a long time. I actively try to avoid proprietary file types. Markdown files will last a long time.
  3. You can switch editors as you like. I have tried over 15 editors. All will take ".md" files without issues.
  4. Converting to any other file type is easy. I don't need to convert much (occasionally in to .docx or .html or .pdf). Pandoc will do that for you. Pandoc is a markup converter. All my notes live in markdown only.

Editors

Depending on the OS you have, there will be tens of options for markdown editors. I moved to Windows after 10 years on Mac. Another digression:

Most of the software I use is open source. I believe in and support the open source movement. (Yes, I am on Windows on my laptop. Ubuntu and Windows on desktop. I need Windows for graphics softwares)

I'll list a few, mostly free/open source options:

Windows

  1. Zettlr: Made by one person, open source. Very responsive developer.
  2. Typora: Clean, distraction free editing window. File tree and document management is not to my liking.
  3. iA writer: Not opensource. Currently free in beta. Clean minimal UI.  Doc management is not to my liking.
  4. Joplin: UI seems dated. But powerful and feature loaded. Also, mobile app available.

Mac

  1. Zettlr
  2. Ulysses: Looks pretty. Expensive. Not tried
  3. Bear Notes: Free plan available. Very popular currently.
  4. FS Notes
  5. Joplin

Code editors/IDEs

After exploring many markdown editors I moved to exploring code editors. Code editors are primarily used for, well, editing code. Markdown happens to be a language available. Very powerful. But can be a bit overwhelming.

  1. Sublime Text: Free, extensible.
  2. VSCode: Free, extensible. Feature packed. From Microsoft.
  3. Atom: Free, loads of extension packages. From Github.
  4. Emacs: Don't even think about it unless you want to spend 10s of hours learning to open a file, save a file and do basic operations. It is maddeningly powerful but for markdown editing it seems an overkill. I spent inordinate amount of my time in Emacs Org-mode. Single most difficult software I have every used. I am not a developer/IT guy and have no formal training in coding (I am a mechanical engineer and a humanities guy). For coders, Emacs or Vim might be a good choice as you can do your developing and also use it for prose writing/note taking. My exploration with Emacs org-mode would take another post all together. Maybe I'll come back to Emacs one day. Currently, I don't need the todo and agenda features of org-mode on emacs.

My Setup

There are lots of options. You need to figure which works for you and your workflow. My current setup is:

  1. Good old notebook: Wiring longhand while reading and where I can actually write (for e.g. if I am reading in the car, not while driving of course, I can't write in a book. In such situations go to option 2).
  2. TiddlyWiki: I really like this piece of software. Free. It has a moderately steep learning curve but can be useful within a couple of hours. There are tutorials on the site. If you are stuck let me know. There is also a great help forum on Google groups. Here the smallest unit of information is a Tiddler. The idea is to note the smallest piece of information that makes sense independently. The associations of a note or a tiddler as not predefined, unlike a regular note taking app where you are pre-deciding where a particular note, and therefore your thought, goes. I can build connection later, as I write. The key benefit of TW is the back-linking. If you  see in the image below two words are blue. Clicking on those take me to that note with a backlink to this source note. This way you can keep branching out and make connections.
TiddlyWiki layout: I have added some additional plugins, so it might not look like vanilla TW

Atom: Currently my favourite editor. Fast, light and lots of extension packages. Most of my writing happens in Atom. The UI is clean. It has dark mode (necessity now). I have many extensions which help me in my writing process. That's the key thing about Atom, its extensibility.

I hope this helps you in some way.

Remember, it is not really about the tool, it is the workflow. How to move from ephemeral thoughts while reading, to quick notes for recall to connected long form writing.

“Writing is the medium of learning and research, not just its outcome.”

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