Note-taking: Random notes, journal entries, outlines, and hyperlinks

I take at least three different kinds of notes, and I need to manage them differently. Here are some rough thoughts on the different kinds of notes I work with and how I manage them. I’d love to hear about your note-management strategies in comments or e-mail!

Random notes

When I worked on my thesis, I filed hundreds of lines from my literature review. I needed to quickly pull together just the notes matching a certain keyword or belonging to a particular section. I also needed to be able to properly cite each note. Lastly, I structured my notes so that I could get a random note, which turned out to be really helpful for breaking me out of writing ruts and for helping me see creative connections.

Writers and public speakers keep similar databases of story ideas and great quotations. They need to be able to search their databases for matching records, and they might not think of these categories ahead of time.

Random information management isn’t just for word geeks and researchers. If you’ve got scraps of paper or a text file with notes from meetings, clips from interesting articles, and thoughts to yourself, you’re already managing random information. You just might not have a good system for capturing and searching the information.

Important things for a random information manager:

  • You should be able to easily capture information.
  • You should be able to easily search for information.

(An ideal random information manager might even suggest relevant entries.
Come to think of it, I should find out if I can get the Remembrance Agent running again. That was really cool.)

I started using Howm for this before. It was a great random information manager for Emacs. I haven’t been using it lately, though, as I hadn’t set it up on my work laptop. I might do so soon.

Journal entries

Journal entries tend to be short, chronological notes. They can be private or public, or a mix of both. They can be also be retrospective or forward-looking. Journal entries are more structured than random information snippets because they’re associated with a specific date and are generally about activities, experiences, or goals.

My blog is an example of a journal. It has public and private entries. The private entries are removed from the blog before publishing.

Important things for a journal manager or a blog:

  • You shouldn’t have to enter date and time yourself.
  • You should be able to flip through your entries or search them for keywords.
  • You should be able to get an overview of your notes for a time period.

I use Planner for this because Planner makes it easy to publish day pages and RSS. I also write some entries directly on a WordPress blog, which also imports my Planner blog entries.


Some notes belong to a bigger structure. For example, if you’re drafting a document, you might work on different sections that will ultimately be merged. Random information management and journals are not enough because you need structure. An outline helps you see how things fit together.

The draft for this book is an example of an outline. I sometimes work top-down by starting with the headings and defining more detail. I also work bottom-up by writing blocks of content and then fitting them into my outline.

Important things for an outline:

  • You should be able to structure your notes into headings and subheadings.
  • You should be able to promote, demote, and rearrange those headings quickly.
  • You should be able to quickly get an overview or drill down into detail.

I use Org for outlined text because Org makes it really easy to manipulate outlines.

Hyperlinked Text

The structure of hyperlinked text can actually be applied to the other three types of notes. Random notes benefit from freely-defined hyperlinks, where you can specify keywords that will automatically be linked without needing to edit each note where the keyword occurs. Journal entries can link to other journal entries or to topic-oriented pages. Outlines and other documents may allow people to jump to related sections through hyperlinks. Hyperlinks allow you to work with more freedom than a strict hierarchy of topics would permit.

An example of a hyperlinked note system would be the way the posts on my blog are often linked with plan pages that focus on specific topics. (These links are only on my hard disk, so don’t worry if you don’t see them!) Topic pages allow me to review my topic-related notes as well as other freeform notes I’ve added.

Important things for hyperlinks:

  • You should be able to link to resources outside the note-taking system.
  • You should be able to link to other notes in the note-taking system.
  • You may want to be able to link to other sections of the same note.

I tend to use Muse with Planner for hyperlinked pages, but I’ve also tried it with Howm.


A note-taking system good at capturing journal entries may not necessarily be good at capturing and searching random information or managing outlines. It helps to have different note-taking systems, each optimized for different tasks, or a tool that adapts to what you need at that time. A search that spans your different note-taking systems is also a great help.

Currently, I don’t have a unified search system. Well, aside from grep… This is one of the things I plan to work on while writing this chapter. =)


Do you keep other types of notes, and/or do you have tips for managing notes? Please share them here so that I can think about how Emacs can be tweaked to support them!

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    16 November 2008 at 7:11am
    [...] Sasha Chua has an blog entry about the topic. She also has lots of articles about ...
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  • I tried using Microsoft OneNote once for note-taking once. It has an excellent feature-set (color-coded notebooks, sub-notebooks, checklists, etc.) and a really cool interface. Then I realized that I needed something I could take notes with wherever I go, being the overly forgetful person that I am, so an application-centric solution just wouldn’t do.

    Right now I’m experimenting with a Phone + Hipster PDA + Google Notebook combo: I use my hPDA whenever I don’t have web access, and my phone when I don’t have hPDA access (e.g. in crowds, or when I can’t find my pen). I upload my notes on Google Notebook whenever I can. Notebook has tags, search, and a great support for outlines…plus it’s Google, so I can’t resist using it. :-P

    I have a “notebook” filled with all sorts of random, tagged notes, which I sometimes dive into to look for blogging ideas. Ideas that need extra attention get a notebook all to themselves. All my work-related notes are shoved into a single notebook, so is all the random reminders I need to make for myself. That’s pretty much how I’m _trying_ to do things as far as note-taking goes.

  • Francis – I use a paper notebook as my inbox, too. =) I use a voice recorder for my non-paper stuff, and I use NaturallySpeaking to transcribe or I replay my notes and type them in myself.

    Google Notebook is admittedly quite fun… =)

  • Claudine

    I like your classification of different kinds of note. I think the first two can also be created with org-mode and org-remember. Org’s sparse tree function is pretty good for searching.

    Yes, I do try to keep everything in .org files :-)

  • Clair

    My notes are currently stuff I literally write down in notebooks, my bookmarks and the wikis and blogs we use at work. Trac wiki is useful in a lot of ways and the mere fact that it’s integrated with the source and the tickets make it easier to refer to stuff. Just putting the ticket number makes it easier for me to note it on a wiki page or something else within the wiki.

  • Claudine: Certainly. =) Clair: Yeah, it’s nice to be able to link notes to what you’re writing about! Thanks for your comments!

  • Yossi A.

    Re-post, hope doesn’t show twice …

    Hi Sacha,

    I like your enthusiasm in capturing all this data (which I do too, for my own interest, but never get to post and explain it as you do – much kudos’s

    My 2 cents:

    1. I use Org-mode for Task track / planning. Have played a bit with Howm and Remember. I still thinks, there’s much to improve on the visualization of org-mode, but all-in-all – it is an excellent tool.

    2. For data collection and note taking, I use for quite some time ccTiddly ( which is the best server side TiddlyWiki ( by Jeremy Ruston) adaptation, using PHP and MySQL, with many additions to help get things done (and linked) quickly and easily, like TagglyTagging, IntelliTagging, and YourSearchPlugin. I found TiddlyWiki and ccTiddly specifically, to be the best note taking tool. Dates are captured, also all version of data can be tracked back, and all very easily navigated and linked. I have a hosted version, as well as a local (on M$-Win, unfortunately). So I use for both work and home use.


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  • This blog post is ancient but I found it on when I was looking for what people bookmarked about howm, org and emacs. I’m currently checking out howm and maybe use it with org mode. So far howm is a bit unwieldy in terms of its menu system cluttering the buffer. But I’d give myself a week or two before passing judgment.

  • Hello, Clair! You might want to check out my new note-taking workflow, just in case you find that useful. org-capture rocks.

  • That was quick. XD Ok. Will give org-capture a spin!