Ahrens cautions against keeping a journal recording all interesting ideas. Capturing too many notes means that the wheat is not separated from the chaff, and the chronological nature of the journal will make it difficult to find notes later. Ultimately, it will be a place that good ideas go to die.

Ahrens also advises against using other standard note-taking strategies–underlining, margin notes, etc. These are useful for taking fleeting notes, but such notes must eventually (soon!) be processed into more useful permanent notes, or they'd as well not be taken at all (Ahrens, 2017, 6 para. 12.19).

John Locke had a system for keeping notes in a physical journal (Locke, 1706). Being exclusively a system for working around some drawbacks of paper, it has no particular application to electronic note-taking, and little enough value even for taking notes on paper.

How can computers help?

Making notes searchable and easy to navigate is obvious–and even a folder full of text files does a pretty good job of this, for moderate numbers of notes. This is just paper notes but more convenient. What else should be be able to do?

Documents refer to other documents, explicitly or implicitly. On the web, we can link to documents of interest, but on paper we don't have that ability.

Concretely, I was reading The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, and on page 14 is written "Schedule monitoring will be the subject of a separate essay." It is discussed in Chapter 14. I'd like to be able to link that sentence to the later chapter. More generally, I'd like to be able to add links for all kinds of internal and external references.

In the same book, Brooks refers to other publications in end notes, which are inconvenient to consult while reading. And, of course, upon consulting the note, it is then necessary to find the cited document if I need to refer to it. It would be ideal to have a version of the book that already links these footnotes to the cited documents, but at a minimum I should be able to do it myself.

If I don't mind the links living beside the document, then I can generally link to whatever I want with org-mode, and there are tools to connect notes in org-mode with the original documents (e.g. org-noter).


Sometimes I want to include an extract from a document–or from my own notes–in some note, rather than merely linking. This can be messy–how do you indicate the beginning and end of the quotation? How do you make it durable when transcluding from a living document? For quotations from books, etc., I add the text I wish to quote as an object in my database, which I can then cleanly transclude wherever I want, but quoting from my own notes is not so convenient. The obvious solution is to save every revision of every note, and then specify a range of bytes from a particular revision to transclude–possible, but annoying.

I'd often like to include such transclusions in my notes, visible while looking at the original document. Merely adding support for this in my personal database won't solve the problem. There's an issue in org-roam related to this: org-roam#317.

Store notes so they can be found when needed

Ahrens suggests that notes should be stored not under a topic heading related to the content of the note, but in a way that facilitates stumbling across the note when, in the future, you'd be interested in seeing it again (Ahrens, 2017, 6 para. 12.7).

Stephen Wolfram also recommends storing notes not just in a topical file, but also one related to "the type of project in which I might use it" (Wolfram, 2019).


Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. CreateSpace.
Locke, J. (1706). A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books. J. Greenwood.
Wolfram, S. (2019, February 21). Seeking the Productive Life: Some Details of My Personal Infrastructure. Stephen Wolfram Writings.


Journal Tags Sources
Current note-taking strategy note-taking