re: How do you take notes? VIEW POST

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If I'm reading a book, either paper or ebook, I take notes on paper. I have a hardcover A5 spiral bound notebook for all those notes taken as I read, as well as notes on movies as I watch or any other in-the-moment notes. If there's some text that I want to excerpt, then if it's a paper book I make a little note with the page number so I can go back later, and for ebooks I take a screenshot of the page. Screenshots are automatically synced to my PC, so I can extract the text at my leisure. I also maintain a reading journal in which I reflect on what I'm reading, at a little further distance--after finishing a chapter or completing a book, or after I've had a few days to consider things.

For long-term storage, I have built from scratch a custom database/wiki which is personalized for my workflow. I put into that entries for everything I read to which I attach the (cleaned up) notes or excerpts. It also handles my todo list, diary, and any other kind of data I need to capture. If there's something I need that it doesn't do, I code it up, so I have a single resource with all the information I want to store.

This works very well for me, but that's only because I've sunk a few hundred hours over the past few years into it. I learned a lot about web development doing it (and parlayed that experience into professional web dev work), but it was only really worth it because making detailed notes on materials I read or watch so that I can summarize and analyze them is a major part of my learning process, and I use it daily. I expect to spend thousands of hours using it, in the coming years, so it works out, but if you don't have such extreme needs as I do, then I don't suggest reinventing the wheel.

People have suggested a lot of web-based solutions. I prefer to do things locally when it's practical, myself, so let me suggest a few alternatives. Before I resolved to write my own solution, I made use of a number of tools:

  • Emacs org-mode is extremely nice, if you like Emacs, and it's worth checking out even if you don't normally use Emacs.
  • WikidPad is also excellent if you want something outside of Emacs and more wiki-like. I used it for a couple of years and my only real complaint was that note-taking is really all it is good for. Its metadata capabilities are good enough to help organize notes, but fall short if you need to record structured data or do more complicated things with it. It can also be a bit slow if you have hundreds or thousands of links on a single page.
  • TiddlyWiki is also very handy, though its popularity seems to have decreased over the years. I used a few of these at university to organize my research for term papers and such. It's a reasonable alternative to WikidPad, if you prefer this kind of interface.
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