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Tools for notetaking

Over the last 5 years I have done a fair bit of note taking. Lets go through the different tools I have used.

- None

- Pen and notebook

- Pen and scrap paper

- TiddlyWiki

- Emacs Orgmode

- Zettlr

- Joplin

- Plain text files

- Vimwiki

As one might plainly observe, I have used a number of them. Lets go through them one at a time. Firstly no notetaking is mostly silly, though from it I and occasionally taking no notes about things, I know very well that not everything needs to be noted. In this regard, Lectures for example I rarely write notes and instead spend time understanding the content of the lecture. This may also be helped by the fact my profession is Software Development, so I get to practice what I learn. It may also help that I have an interest, or am already aware of a fair amount of it.

Next is Pen and Notebook. This work alright, but is a linear form of notetaking where it is linear in the time axis. As a result, finding particular notes is difficult. Where this shines is in the case of learning your notes by writing them. It's not a particularly useful method.

Next is Pen and scrap paper. This is... Alright it's shit. I only do this for incredibly temporary notes. You probably also do this... right?

TiddlyWiki is the first note taking application I actually spent a bit of time. It is a single HTML document with all the JS and CSS inside it. I am a fan of it, but I don't personally use it. A single HTML file and having to redownload it and overwrite your current one is a bit of a janky system for keeping notes, but the main benefit of it is that it's incredibly portable. I don't personally use it, as the minor annoyances of it being a HTML file outweigh the benefits of it being portable. Portability is something we'll discuss a bit later.

=> An example of a Tiddly Wiki taken to its logical extreme

Next we have Emacs Orgmode. Now this is simply brilliant... if you like Emacs. Personally Emacs did not click with me. I grasp why it's nice, but I do not grasp how to use it well and even after putting in some time to use it with Doom Emacs, I still did not like it. The fact it integrates note taking, note exporting, tasks, calendars and a lot of other features really well into one application makes it a recommendation to investigate if you can understand Emacs and its quirks. I would also advise against the default bindings in emacs, as using Alt is a sure fire way to RSI.

Next is Zettlr. Zettlr is a markdown editor with LaTeX support and citation support as well so for academics it is likely a good option. The fact it creates the files in a pure way means they are also relatively portable, so you aren't locked in. The actual usability of the application isn't quite there though, as I couldn't organise notes quite the way I wanted to on the sidebar, or move notes around- though I suspect this is an issue WRT to my Window Manager and Zettlr as in the documentation this should be possible. Even still, I would say Zettlr is worth a look. I also believe it is an Electron application but I may be mistaken, so it has a performance tax.

Another note taking application I had a brief look at was Joplin. It seems promising but I didn't stick with it, and the way it does syncing seems to recommend locking yourself into a particular ecosystem. Even so, what's there does impress me. It can also take snippets of websites for notes, though I'd rather leave that to a dedicated screenshotting tool.

Plain text files are also an option. The benefit of this is obvious, any text editor can be used. The negative of this is also obvious, you lose a lot of formatting, and easy linking around, and tend to have build your notes in a hierarchical format following the directory structure which isn't too useful.

Finally, what I personally use is Vimwiki. This is a somewhat personal choice as I use vim quite a lot. I can navigate the directory structure using NERDTree, and edit files easily using vim. I also get linking for free within the application, get all my bindings and plugins for vim alongside it so I can easily format files in a breeze. It is also just using vim, so I get the benefit of it being incredibly lightweight. Moving between files and folders is easy in the default mode, I can assign a word to be linked in the current directory so creating new links is very quick and snappy. It also has functionality for keeping a daily log(another concept I think is quite worthwhile, but for different reasons and a discussion separate from Notetaking).

Now I will take a brief discussion on syncing notes. There is a few methods for syncing notes I have experimented with. I sync them across platform for Mobile, my home Linux machine and I will likely consider extending it to my Windows work machine, so I can make software development notes and snippets.

Firstly is the classical rsync. This requires a server of some kind to be running in order for that to work well, it also requires the command(noteworthy as windows and phones don't have this by default). Secondly is git. This is worth considering, but requires you make your work public unless you use either a private Git repo with an SSH key(bit of a pain), or accept making your notes public. Thirdly is syncthing, where your folder syncs across the local network when changes are detected. These changes going to systems that also use Syncthing. I currently use syncthing and haven't had problems with it so far.

All of the methods noted so far are FOSS. I will now take a brief walk down the wilted park of proprietary solutions. Your mileage will vary with this.

For synchronising you have the expected, Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox and probably some other services of that nature. For tools you have Notion(Can't tell if it's FOSS or not), Obsidian, Evernote, Google docs and other such tools.

I'm not a fan of the proprietary solution as notetaking is somewhat personal, and changing your tools and methods to make it easier or navigate it easier is worthwhile considering. A proprietary tool doesn't make changing easy, as it locks you into its ecosystem.

Published on 2022/10/25

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