A writer’s biggest worry is running out of time, inspiration, or both before yet another deadline. There’s still research to do, the outline to restructure, and that perfect quote to find somewhere in a swamp of browser tabs. Oh, and then the actual writing of the piece itself. 🤯
Note-taking is a necessary evil throughout this process called writing. For most writers, it’s a chore—not enjoyable, but without notes, composing a coherent piece is difficult at best.
Notes also suffer from this unfavorable view of note-taking. They end up like so many other nameless notes—single-use scribbles, discarded at the end of a project, their chances of becoming building blocks for future creativity lost forever.
Writers and notes have more to gain from each other than either realizes. Instead of living from article to article, never knowing how to make it to the end of the next piece, writers can turn notes into companions. Assets that pay compounding inspiration interest, enabling higher quality writing with less effort. To get there, you’ll need to invest in your note-taking workflow.
Notes are the building blocks writers use to transform an idea into a masterpiece. Some of us get more mileage out of our note-taking than others, and your workflow largely determines that difference.
We polled 46 content marketers through social media and Animalz’s internal Slack about their note-taking workflow. Dumping information in docs was the dominant approach.
To collect dividends from your notes, you first need to understand the hierarchy of note-taking workflows and where you currently sit on its ladder.
This workflow is a rare type to encounter, especially among professional writers like authors, journalists, and content marketers.
You might find the lone columnist or celebrity who pulls this one off, launching undiluted opinions into the ether. Sometimes, a true subject matter expert can put thoughts straight from head to draft, and even that’s an exceptional—and somewhat suspicious—feat.
Other than those special cases, any writing not involving note-taking for research and thinking deals in unsubstantiated opinions, lies, or ramblings. No serious writing happens without notes, so most writers quickly move up to—or naturally start from—the next rung on our hierarchy.
The single-use notes workflow is common among writers. Their notes serve just one temporary purpose: to store a thought or piece of knowledge until the current writing project is done—at which point, the note is also done for.
Notes and tabs scattered across desks and browsers characterize this workflow. Highlights, quotes, and data get dumped into docs just to survive the journey from idea via outline to draft.
If you’re stuck in this workflow, you waste much time retracing sources and looking for information you remember using for a previous project but can’t find anywhere. It might be hiding in those browser tabs, on a note on your desk, or perished long ago under unknown circumstances.
Most writers stay stuck on this rung because single-use notes always seem the only viable route when you live article to article. You grab from Google what you need when you need it, work frantically to get to ✅ Done, exhale one sigh of relief, and then do the same thing all over again for the following piece.
“The Animalz newsletter is 100% required reading for senior content pros.” —Dan Levy, Zendesk
The networked notes workflow is where you want to be, and it’s inescapably digital. Not because paper notes are inherently bad or can’t support workflows—they can—but because digital notes open up possibilities for discovery, linking, and automation that analog approaches can’t match.
The traditional incarnation of this workflow involves a digital note-taking tool like Evernote or OneNote. You link notes to each other, add tags, and sort them in folders or notebooks. This approach means that—with some effort and lots of discipline—you can organize notes, link ideas, and find what you need much faster than when rummaging through single-use notes.
The drawback of this traditional digital workflow is that networking, organizing, and grooming your notes takes time invested consistently in those activities. When you don’t, you get the ability to search the content of your notes, but not much more, and their chance at a long life as creative building blocks still goes unfulfilled.
A recent innovation explosion in note-taking tools led by applications like Notion and Roam Research breaks notes further down into individual blocks.
A block often has the size of a paragraph but can be as small as a single line or word. These blocks can be linked to, remixed, embedded in other notes, algorithmically queried, and even automatically created or altered by other applications.
This difference is comparable to writing on a typewriter versus a word processor. There might be some arcane and emotional advantages for some to write on a typewriter. For most, there’s no comparison or going back.
The simplest example of this difference is taking highlights in what you read and using those in your writing. In every other workflow we’ve identified, this process takes effort and manual organization of some sort.
In the networked note blocks workflow, any highlights you make automatically and instantly enter your system. They’re neatly organized in a source note from which you can then reference its blocks anywhere else, always traceable to the source without duplicating content.
The problem with building a note-taking workflow isn’t just that you don’t know about its value—now you do—but that you don’t have time. Most of us act like the people that author Aaron Dignan describes in Brave New Work:
“A few people are struggling mightily to pull a cart full of stones up a hill. The cart is outfitted with surprisingly square wheels. Another man who has happened upon them offers an innovation: round wheels. ‘No thanks!’ they say. ‘We are too busy.’”
The first step you take to evolve your workflow should help free up time—time you can then re-invest into further improving your note-taking system.
Store articles you need to read for your writing in a read-it-later app like Pocket or Instapaper, not in your browser’s tabs. This practice sets you up for the networked note-block workflow and is an immediate time-saver in several ways:
- Single source of highlights. You’ll spend less time searching through tabs and get some basic capabilities to categorize and filter what you’ve saved.
- Time as a filter. An article that looks relevant during your Google grabbing rush might seem less so a few hours or days later when you encounter it in your read-it-later app. An article not read is time saved.
- Mobile reader. You can now—more easily—read and highlight articles on your phone or tablet, say while lying on your couch. 🛋 This frees up precious time at your computer for more demanding deep work like outlining or drafting.
There are two leading approaches to taking notes for research, thinking, and writing. One is Zettelkasten, and the other is Progressive Summarization.
Both approaches scorn mere highlighting. If all you do is mark up a sentence, how will you find it and, even if you do—perhaps days, weeks, or months later—know why you highlighted it? Instead, always add a comment on why a passage seems helpful or stood out from all the others. Also, add tags or other markers that help you find your highlight when you need it.
Zettelkasten and Progressive Summarization also mostly agree about what makes a good note. A good note is one that:
- Can be easily found through a descriptive title and tagging or indexing.
- Has your summary and thoughts on the source that sparked the note, usually at the top.
- Makes it easy to scan essential information, mostly through bolding, highlighting, and referencing memorable quotes toward the top of the note.
- Links to the source and related notes and shows where else you use or reference the note in your system.
An example note from someone using the Zettelkasten method.
A display of the Progressive Summarization treatment from Tiago Forte’s Building A Second Brain course.
Zettelkasten and Progressive Summarization diverge on when and how much time to spend on your notes.
You want to invest enough time in your notes to make them useful—and findable—but not more than you have available.
Zettelkasten suggests you turn your raw highlights and notes into more refined ones that, in your own words, explain and group topics, ideas, or arguments. You then take one or more of those refined notes and craft them into a final note of publishing quality, which forms a building block you can practically insert verbatim into a writing project.
There’s no arguing with this approach in theory. If you treat all your notes this way, you’ll indeed have a unicorn note-taking system that pays incredible writing dividends.
The one problem most of us will face with Zettelkasten is reality. We simply don’t have the time to indulge in such royal treatment of all our notes.
Progressive summarization is more practical. It’s a just-in-time note-taking approach. Here’s what its creator, Tiago Forte says about his practice:
A given note may not be summarized until months or years after it’s been captured. Many notes may never be summarized. This is not just acceptable, it is absolutely fundamental to focusing your attention primarily on your most valuable notes.
With Progressive Summarization, you ensure you can find a note when you need it and only then invest time refining it into a creative building block.
You prioritize such refinement like a pyramid, where most notes get the lower-level treatment. Only the more valuable ones pass all the pyramid’s layers, make it to the top, and end up fully polished and published.
With Progressive Summarization, “each layer of a progressive note is a summary of the layer below it.” Image source: Progressive Summarization: A Practical Technique for Designing Discoverable Notes.
Notes are like investments: some give a return, many do not. It’s hard to tell upfront which is which. Unless you’re flush with time, you want to minimize as much as possible the risk of wasted effort on notes that tank.
Progressive Summarization ensures you can at least find every note you take—otherwise, why capture it at all? At the same time, you’ll reduce sunk costs from notes you’ll never need.
The only thing worse than taking no notes is making many you never look at again. To avoid this from happening, you need to store notes in such a way that they’re findable—effortlessly—when your future self needs them.
Start small by storing and organizing the information you repeatedly reference. Suitable candidates are target customer and reader profiles, product descriptions, research data, and quotes you want to (re)use.
Three common approaches to storing such information are:
- Single notes: one note with a specific thought or piece of information and a reference to the source (if applicable).
- Source-based: one doc or note with a collection of thoughts or highlights from a source.
- Topic-based: one doc or note with a collection of thoughts or highlights on a topic.
Ideally, you use all three. You store source materials and ideas in individual notes and then create topical pages that build on and reference those initial notes. Finally, you make one or more notes that embed, link, and remix all these other notes to become published works.
Realistically, you can only combine all three approaches with a networked note blocks tool. Otherwise, it takes superhuman effort to maintain such an interlinked system and prevent collapse.
Regardless of which approach you (can) use, tag your notes—or in the worst case, documents—to highlight broader topics. And if you end up lost and looking for something, pay attention to where you expected to find the item and make changes to your system accordingly and immediately.
The higher you are on the note-taking hierarchy, the more notes you can capture, create, find, and use. When you have a less evolved workflow, you need to be more selective about what you store. Otherwise, you’ll overload yourself with information that becomes useless because of its unmanageable volume.
Say you’re dumping essential information you often need in docs. Then your workflow can support roughly a dozen documents, perhaps a few dozen if you maintain an excellent folder and file naming structure.
When networked note blocks power your workflow, storage and discovery are effortless and often automated. You can constantly suck up and store more information, even if it has only the remotest possibility of becoming valuable in the future.
Basic automation involves syncing highlights and notes into your note-taking tool from different sources. A service called Readwise lets you do this. It sits as a routing system between your note-taking app and sources like Instapaper, Pocket, Kindle, Twitter, and even physical books. Highlights from those sources get synced automatically to destinations like Evernote, Notion, and Roam Research.
Creating templates is another form of automation. You create pre-populated notes with one click, say a pre-formatted source note for highlights, an interview preparation checklist, or an entire framework for going from outline to draft.
All digital note-taking apps let you create such templates in some form. But tools from the note-block generation often allow building in intelligence. Automatically assigning tags depending on a note’s source, for example, or using advanced if / then statements to determine which options appear in a checklist.
The most advanced form of note-taking automation involves letting loose queries and algorithms on your notes. Such wizardry can surface information automatically or connect your notes to other apps, which can then alter or use them for their own purposes.
Notion’s API, for example, lets you pull in input from a form to a note, say from a research survey. And as the image below shows, with certain tools—like Roam Research—you can add a query at the top of a note that surfaces other notes (or blocks) that meet specific conditions. All your unprocessed reading highlights, for example, on the topic you’re currently writing about.
With an evolved note-taking workflow, every writing project drinks from and nurtures your pool of notes—an ever-growing source of inspiring building blocks for all your future writing.
Your collection increases in value year on year with every note you add and evolve. It’s an asset you can tap for every project, client, or employer you’ll work for in the future.
So start investing in your note-taking workflow today. Before long, your networked system forms a moat against writing blocks and deadlines. Your workflow puts you high above everyone else still stuck on the single-use rung. And your notes? They live happily ever after, just like you, the both of you harmoniously fulfilling your true creative potential.
“The Animalz newsletter is 100% required reading for senior content pros.” —Dan Levy, Zendesk
Tim is a Content Marketing Manager at Animalz and the creator of Saent Lifeline, an advanced Pomodoro timer for macOS. https://www.animalz.co/blog/from-docs-to-blocks/