Taking notes

Notes on notes on notes

Advanced note taking

Org-mode, zettelkasten, plain text notebooks, means and philosophies of writing stuff down to aid thought.


Why takes notes? Everyone cites How different is Vannevar Bush’s memex, which is a classic, although I am not totally convinced that his imagined way of thinking would be helpful for me personally, so much as an endless distraction. Nonetheless, the vague outline of the idea is powerful. Via Cheng Soon Ong, Mike Caulfield’s The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral contrasts the “cultivating a garden” feel of maintaining evolving notes with the contextless stream of social media reposts.

Jethro Kuan, How To Take Smart Notes With Org-mode:

The primary purpose of note-taking should not be for storing ideas, but for developing them. When we take notes, we should ask: “In what context do I want to see this note again?”

His blog post is an intro to the philosophy; you can bleep over the technical implementation details.


A popular thread here is the Zettelkasten system, (i.e. note box, but exotically written in German) which is a particular collection of habits for sorting notes into topics and serendipitously rediscovering them This seems to be an easy thing to yak shave, and there are a lot of notes online about how to make better notes.

I would like to see empirical validation of the usefulness of particular techniques, (“I was 74% more creative while using Zettelkasten and achieved 12% more insight!” etc) but not so much that I will do a literature search right now.

See, e.g. abramdemski’s Zettelkasten diary, or There is a list of Digital Zettelkasten tools on the r/Zettelkasten/ wiki.

I am heavily into tagged notes but my own organically evolved slightly messy methodology does not have a name (It is precisely the blog you are reading now, which represents a compromise between ease of note-taking and ease of online publishing).

Methods not analyzed here as I will not use them

  • taking notes on paper cards. This is not portable enough for me, and too easy for me to lose.
  • Mind-mapping, or any other tree-structured hierarchical assumption. That kind of singe-taxonomy-hierarch always ends up annoying me.

Maybe TBD:

  • the intersection of note-taking and reading annotations, for diverse resources such as PDF articles and so on. Right now, annotating literature falls in the crack between note taking and reading workflows.

Covered elsewhere:


For me, my notebook is mostly this plain text blog, which I construct inside VS Codium. I auditioned a few methods before I settled on this. What follows is a messy collection of such note taking software options from the perspective of my needs.

Good advice from the Zettelkasten wiki:

Note that it is likely that the tool you use doesn’t really matter all that much. The original Zettelkasten was a huge stack of paper slips and even that worked great. There is one case where the choice of the tool has a huge impact, namely the case where the tool you use is discontinued. To avoid being left with a stack of 5000 notes that you can no longer access, prefer tools that export/save to common formats.

I also prefer tools that enable secure note taking.

Notational velocity

Notational Velocity / nvalt 2 — Text-oriented with search-based navigation. This is a classic system but seems to have become unfashionable for reasons that are opaque to me. Lack of mobile support?

NOTATIONAL VELOCITY is an application that stores and retrieves notes.

It is an attempt to loosen the mental blockages to recording information and to scrape away the tartar of convention that handicaps its retrieval. The solution is by nature nonconformist.


  • Modeless Operation Searching for notes is not a separate action; rather, it is the primary interface.
  • Incremental Search Searching encompasses all notes' content and occurs instantly with each key pressed.
  • Transparent Database Encryption All content is compressed and encrypted (enabled optionally) before it is recorded to disk.
  • Mouseless Interaction Notational Velocity’s window was designed for keyboard input above all else, and thus has no buttons.
  • Data Instead of Documents > There is no manual “saving” in Notational Velocity; all modifications take effect immediately.
  • Complete External Access Synchronize natively with Simplenote, or via files in Dropbox […]

Sounds more or less like the usual bullet points of Zettelkasten to me?


Joplin is a cross-platform client for note-taking. Its clever feature is that it, it backloads end to end encrypted notes into a pre-existing sync service, NextCloud or Dropbox or Google drive or whatever. Of course, you could do this with any note app which stores its content in a sync folder then use file sync encryption. However, then you could not edit it on your smartphone. Joplin is thus the only one which is secure across all platforms. It even has an iOS client, and apparently full ability to import from Evernote. It supports proper text editors.


FSNotes is a macOS/iOS notes editor. The complete lack of polish on the name reveals much about both its aesthetic and functionality. Let me quote Andrew Kortina, the author of the even-less-artfully-named VScode Markdown Notes:

Of all the dedicated notes apps I tried, my favorite was FSNotes. It self describes as:

File System notes (FSNotes): is modern notational velocity (nvALT) on steroids.

It has a kind of ‘coder ethos’ which I like. Everything is stored in plaintext, you can use textbundle if you want, it is backed by a git repo so you have version history, it is open source, and there is a mobile app.

By default it will use iCloud to sync and is pretty reliable (but you could also use Dropbox or Google Drive to sync as it is filesystem based).

There’s no inline image support (uses a side preview instead) and no vim keybindings.

It supports mathematics, which is important for me. I sorta like the look of it, although due to recent financial embarrassment I now have non-Apple laptops and this kind of Apple-only system does not cut my mustard.


Strictly using macOS/iOS? Maybe try want Bear.app which is a pretty-lookin’ subscription service with clients for various apple products. AFAICT it is a glossier cousin of FSNotes. Optional encryption via your fingerprint, which is fine as far as you trust mandatory backdoors in your local jurisdiction presumably. USD15/year.

VS Code

Of course VS code fans made a note taking app many many note taking apps for that text editor.

There are some listed below, distinguished by being documented well enough to be sure that they actually are note taking systems. More candidates pop up on a google search, each more ambiguous than the last.


Thanks to Dimitry in the comments, my favourite pick of these is Foam. They reimplement some of the clever UX of roam but open-source, self-hosted and extensible. This looks like my jam. Foam for VSCode (Wikilinks to Markdown) - Visual Studio Marketplace. Awkwardly I already invested too

VScode Markdown Notes

Don’t be fooled by its name, which is so unmemorable that I have already forgotten it, VScode Markdown Notes might be usable. Maybe your first note can be the name of this particular VS code extensions so you an find it again?

Anyway the author has made a sensible design document with which I agree in every detail apart from the necessity of vim keybindings in this context, so I guess that is good?

VS notes

One is called VS Notes. It seems rather… busy? With some extra configuration and strategic ignoring some of the fripperies it seems it might furnish an acceptable workflow. I suspect this is abandoned as of 2021.


wiki.js is a feature-heavy node.js wiki engine that supports various workload including multi-user wikis but also single-user note-taking. It has its own database but will also sync with text files in git. It seems over-engineered for me, supporting many features I do not need, but it is nice that it keeps the website front-and-centre, which is important for me.

The Archive

Zettelkasten-focused Mac app (AUD32) that does lots of elegance branding. Stores files in plain text



A famous note-taking system for emacs nerds especially for TODO lists but it can be used as a Zettelkasten system apparently?

I was surprised to learn that org mode does not need emacs. It turns out it is essentially a file format convention, and you can notionally edit it using a variety of packages and plugins, or manually. C’mon now, though. Will you really? I won’t.

Much note taking theory is based off the clever fncy wiki-style linking, which is its selling point, in e.g the zettelkasten tuorial above.

Roam research

A hyped, quirky, exclusive, web-nerd note taking app: Roam research seems to be a popular amongst people who would like to meta-optimise their hyperlearning with doubleplus buzzword-backed techniques.

It might be good? But I would not know. That workflow hype-cycle ship has now sailed for me and I have no time for trying out alternatives at the moment. 😐 AFAICT its main selling point is that it is has good UX for associative linking.


Zettlr seems to be similar to notational velocity but with certain academic writing features such as citation support in the form of zotero integration. Like notational velocity, it is desktop-only.

Zettlr has been developed with academic writing in mind. Therefore, it offers a lot of powerful tools to help you write academic texts right out of the box. …


Simplenote is an open-source and free note taker owned by the creators of Wordpress, who provide both a sync server and client apps for pretty much every platform. It is not encrypted so if they are subpoenaed or hacked your notes will be disclosed. There does not appear to be a public API. It looks pretty and is probably usable.


Turtl is a notes syncing app. Promises host-proof encryption of “text, bookmark, password, image, and file/document”.

There is a supporting business offering hosting of their custom server in exchange for money, but it is open source. I would happily fork out money for this if they supported iOS. Has nifty features such as sharing content, rendering mathematical markup and permissions for users.


Commercial notes app whose workflow I did not really enjoy, nor the needy upselling, so I deleted it. AFAICT they were not convincingly confidential and had no features that I needed that I could not get elsewhere for cheaper and with superior security.


treesheets is an open-source data GUI which as a hierarchical freeform database might be good for note-taking? Not my style, though.


Obsidian is wiki-ike personal note-take with pretty network visualisations of the pages.

The human brain is non-linear: we jump from idea to idea, all the time. Your second brain should work the same.

In Obsidian, making and following [[connections]] is frictionless. Tend to your notes like a gardener; at the end of the day, sit back and marvel at your own knowledge graph.

Seems to be closed source? Works on all desktop platforms.

Worldbrain Memex

Worldbrain Memex!

Memex organizes your web-research so you can utilize the power of your brain: thinking in associations.

  • Full-Text Search your Web History & Bookmarks. Instantly recover anything you’ve seen before without doing any upfront work. Even if you just remember a single word, the time frame or the domain.
  • Add Highlights and Notes on any Web Page. No more copy-pasting of important pieces and thoughts. Highlight, click, done. Keep your thoughts organized with their original context.
  • Organize your Discoveries Fast and Flexibly. Tag and sort what you find online into full-text searchable collections.
  • All data stored locally - offline first, Nobody has access to your data unless you share it with someone. Your data is not our business model.
  • Open Source & here to stay. Copy. Modify. Innovate. Adapt Memex’ code and easily move your data to a version that suits your needs the best.

So that looks fun. But it does not yet sync this vaunted database between browsers which makes it an awkward fit for my workflow spread across many computers. Ultimately I prefer to just keep things as markdown plaintext and do not actually need to store webpages. Although it would be handy, 90% of the time just looking through the browser history is fine.

1 comment

GitHub-flavored Markdown & a sane subset of HTML is supported.