How to Take Smart Notes
I’m currently reading How to Take Smart Notes, and I’m just discovering obsidian and starting to create some sort of second brain inside it.
So, here’s the thing… I’m a fiction writer. I’ve written several plays, screenplays, short stories; I also direct a lot of my own work, and both being a writer and being a director involves connecting a lot of seemingly unconnected ideas.
My process in the past would be to write free-form, write structure pages, write synopses, character backstories, etc. and somehow being immersed in all that would produce some interesting ideas.
But the main problem with that is how unpredictable it is as to when an idea would emerge. Just to take two examples of my longer narratives: it took me 4 months to write one, and 13 months to write the other, and just by happenstance the first is my opinion a lot better on the conceptual level… It has a lot more to say, a lot more layers, …
Well, then I heard CGP Grey mention that notes should be atomic and the concept of zettelkasten, and down the rabbit hole I went, looking for a solution.
So… the idea is that if you’d use your ‘second brain’ to find connections between ideas in academia, why not use the same thing for creative writing? And then I had an issue with whether I’d want to keep that separate from a non-fictional second brain, and I decided I would keep them connected. There are a lot of different worlds in my brain at the moment, some more developed, because I’ve spent many stories in them, other just tiny areas of a short story, or whatever… But they’re all connected to the rest of ideas I read, it’s rarely that it’s a fantasy world with rules of its own. I like history, so a lot of stories are set in historic backgrounds.
So, let’s say I have a note about a city. It’s more like a main note with ideas, interesting facts, etc. as connected notes. But I keep both real and fictional information linked to the same main note (maybe a MOC of sorts, I dunno).
I am developing a 3d animated short and have used Obsidian to help organize the process of capturing ideas and making sure they are dealt with.
As opposed to my experience sticking to sketches with written callouts, using the single note system has been a gift and a curse for me.
I do not lose anything, but somehow, it almost feels more threatening to wrap everything up because the formatting and atomic nature kind of expands everything exponentially.
I have come to realize the best I can do is trust my memory, the search function for recall, and continue to constantly review and restructure everything as it helps avoid forgetting.
I can’I think academic writing (at least in my field) is more similar to fiction writing than one may think… OK, instead of characters and secrets, we have concepts and definitions and implications and such, but hey, they basically behave the same way (develop, get hidden / exposed, etc.), and we also wait for that “emerging of an interesting idea”.
I have only recently started to do my writing in Obsidian (had been a quite consistent Scrivener user before that). It’s been doable. There are a few features I miss, but the inter-linking (and esp. the ability to link to a section or even a paragraph) has helped a lot. It’s kind of frowned upon in certain circles, but I keep a separate folder for my current writing project(s), and do most of the “development” in theret tell you how often I start new vaults as it is kind of embarrassing.
In the end, one thing I know is that everything will be easier and all the functionality of Obsidian will be hugely helpful once I am actually in production with a completely nailed down story and designs.
I do link and organize everything in all types of complex multilayered organizational paradigms. In a way, this whole process of trying and failing over and over has taught me the software and really familiarized me with my content.
But what I keep finding over and over, is that most of the work feels unused other than what I realize while setting it all up, which should not be discounted. This is not to say it won’t all pay off, as I am sure it will. But what I was trying to tell you is that I haven’t really found that ultimate system I hoped for, but instead found many little helpful things here and there, with the most strength coming from resting assured of quality and quick searches with many quick and effective ways to lay things out when I am ready.
What I also find is that in the end, the most helpful actual documents are the curated notes filled with embeds of all notes in an organized way to be printed out and reviewed. Somehow, I always have this feeling that things are disappearing or are going to get misplaced or forgotten, so this hard copy eases my nerves and works well to be commented on and sketched within during times away from the computer.
The main thing that limits me is that I can’t properly interlink prose the way I want to, because then there’s no way to get a clean copy out of Obsidian. I think @Lithou was working on a solution for this? But in the meantime I just make use of headers.
Obsidian has taken the place of Scrivener + Wiki for me (the lack of export isn’t particularly worse than Scrivener, since I’m a Windows user and export was broken for years on the Windows beta of Scrivener). I make heavy use of folders (in a modified Johnny Decimal style) and tags to keep research, to-dos, character profiles (css classes are AMAZING for separating out the styling of each different type of file), synopses and prose all separate.
I find that I can use Obsidian Git to back up to Github and then see everything I need to see in read-only mode, which is fine since I do almost no writing on mobile. What notes I need to take on mobile I don’t particularly want getting mixed into my vault, so I’m comfortable “filing an issue” in my own repository, which I can do on mobile.
have built notes with concepts, inspirations, and references for my story for a long time and have gotten a good bit of mileage out of the many Obsidian features for connecting them.
But in the end when I am trying to make decisions, I have the most success when I return to the vault and do a sweep for everything on or relevant to a specific subject and build a new note with those things embedded in it in a way that makes sense to me at the moment, as many things usually have changed since I originally created the notes.
If I know it is only a few pages and I am planning to get away from the computer, I may print and fill the margins and backsides with comments and sketches to be scanned and transcribed.
If they are longer and somewhat duplicitous, I create PDFs and either read them on my phone and do sketches and comments on paper, or turn PDFs to Photoshop files and chop them up and sketch/comment on using Cintiq. I should add that all of these things make their way back into my vault and inform my restructuring and further note creation, then the process repeats.
I understand that using paper is wasteful and can get out of control, but it can really ease my mind when I am free of computers. For example, I still like recording voice memos to actual tape, ha.
But with a visual medium I can kind of simplify the clutter by taking a page of thoughts and concepts and making sure they are shown in a sketch or a sequence of events in storyboard panels.
At that point I begin to chop up the parts that I have shown and package them with the sketches and leave the unused either as they were or in a note alongside parts I have already adopted into sketches.
But more often than not I will isolate the parts remaining unused in sketches and try to clump them with other content into new notes or quickly create a sketch and be done with it, or move the note to be set aside in a folder and with a tag that explains its status and category.
For writing as your final goal I can imagine a parallel process to my sketching where you have a blurb explaining exactly how you plan to use the information contained within a note, like my sketches.
Bottom line is you are not alone with that overwhelming feeling that builds as you are surrounded by a ridiculous amount of content that you can hardly believe that you created yourself. I guess my approach really depends on how brave I am feeling at the moment.
10 Notes (/1: daily resonance calendar stuff /2: edit letters /3: academic references (which I tend to organize zettel style to help keep the different bits together if they’re more thematically interrelated)
20 Worldbuilding (/1: concepts /2: locations /3: flora & fauna /4: polities /5: organizations /6: events)
30 Characters (character profiles with subfolders organized by century of birth to help differentiate between different eras)
50 Real-world Concepts (my notes about things like science, civilizations, notable people)
70 Newsletters (that I’ve written, organized by date – my weekly newsletters are basically highly structured, heavily-sourced atomic notes on different subjects and are an important part of my research flow)
80 Stories (that I’ve written, divided like the character profiles by year the story begins – one of these subfolders is for weekly prompts using the Shuffle prompt plugin that ships with my flash fiction prompt deck)
90 Articles (basically blog posts that I’ve written for various sources that interrelate with my research and writing)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgwnpEBFNUg&t=1283s & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgwnpEBFNUg&t=1301s