What are “notes,” anyway?

I have been a journalist of one kind or another more than 35 years, and have done note-taking all of that time. Note-taking is the foundation of my work. It’s how I pay the mortgage on the house, how I put food on the table, and keep the car going.

I started out using this kind of notebook:

More recently, I’ve moved to 100% typed notes, because as a tech journalist I do my research sitting down.

I do interviews, or I listen to or watch presentations, often recorded. Often nowadays, other people are doing the interviews, and I’m taking notes on that, often from recordings. I read a lot of PDFs and Office documents, and web pages, and highlight the relevant bits.

I write down most of what people say, combine the best parts of that with the highlighted bits of those documents, mix it all up together, and an article comes out the other end.

That, to me, is note-taking.

But it seems that other people talking about note-taking are talking about a different thing entirely.

What the heck is “note-taking,” nowadays, anyway?


If I were to try to summarize the modern position, it would probably be something like “any text generated as a result of a thought, written so one can remember.”

It’s very, very broad.

Your definition seems to be much more conventional - things written down for the purpose of summarizing an interaction, lecture, etc.

1 Like

I suppose the Potter Stewart answer is the best: “I know it when I see it”.

It would be impossible to define a “note”. @MitchWagner’s defintiion depends on their situation. I don’t think there is a “modern position” vs. maybe an “old-school” position. It’s all purely situational and personal.


For my purposes, I’ve concluded that the kind of notes you take @MitchWagner are more like original sources than notes. You’re actually memorializing a conversation.

Alternatively, if they aren’t verbatim and just summarize, they may be more like the “literature notes” you’ll hear people talk about in the context of Zettelkasten and similar note-taking methods: a distillation of information gleaned from a primary source, and from which which you can then draw original thoughts or key points. Or some combination of the two kinds of notes.

I take all sorts of notes, including the near-transcriptions you’re talking about; ephemeral notes that I probably won’t need again after a brief period; thoughts; ideas for projects or solving specific problems; products or recipes I want to remember; reference (eg, my furnace filter size); and on and on.

In other words, anything that I need to remember. Or, like @quorm and the justice said, I’ll know them when I see them.


Some information I jot down to jar or supplement my memory.

“I know it when I see it…” Justice Potter Stewart!


You might be interested in reading some of Clark’s and Chalmers’ work on the Extended Mind.

Essentially, notes (and laptops and iPhones and watches and books and paper and pens, …) are pieces of our mind that we have externalized. When we want, we can incorporate these pieces of our mind as we think about things. (“Think about” including remembering, etc.)

This was clearly evident in Nicholas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten where he carried on conversations with his notes. Without his notes augmenting his brain, he wouldn’t have been as prolific as he was.

The same goes for many people today. Without a way to externalize pieces of our mind, we would be quite limited in our abilities.


This is a great summary of how I do my notes. Taking something else, mentally processing it, storing a copy of that mental process into Obsidian.


This is aligned with my interpretation, informed by information systems and design.

Since it’s exactly on topic, I actually gave a talk on this recently:

Edit: TL;DW?

Notes are instantiations of the things we’re thinking about. By representing what we’re thinking about outside of our heads, we can make it easier to work with our thoughts (and the facts, ideas, metadata, etc. that they contain).

This is especially neat because it implies that there are different dimensions of note quality—how “good” or “bad” a note is, depending on what it’s for. The same is true for note systems. If you can figure out those dimensions, you may be able to design better approaches to note-making for your purposes (such as in the construction of your Integrated Thinking Environments).


While what you do is one type of note taking it;s certainly not the part I consider most important for my system. I use notes to help me find and remember things and to help me make new connections with existing data. I’m very much in th using my notes and electronic systems as an extended part of my brain.

Part of it is the vast breadth of the things I am interested in, just today I was looking at the most recent research on the genetics of color in sheep, re-reading references that talk about mutations in a specific gene, looking up info on sumptuary laws for monks in 14th century Britain, had several new ideas for esssays I want to write, for drawings I want to make and for yarns I want to spin for clothing I want to make that I wanted to remember. I’m exporing a couple of new programming languages/frameworks, so I was reading web sites and flagging areas for further study. I need to make a web app so I was looking at how toimplement my database systems on a web server. I had to write a new procedure that explains how to handle shipping for sales off our new on-line store. I had a problem with lostfiles in DT again and had to go to a backup of a DEVONThink database to recover the data and referenced my notes on how to do that.

I use notes to explore possibilities, to help remember things to allow me to look at and compare several alternatives easily.


As I was reading @MitchWagner’s post, this is almost precisely the definition I was thinking of in my mind. I also think your formulation of the modern definition certainly encompasses the “things written down for the purpose of summarizing…” I use this broader definition because in my mind, “note taking” frequently ends up in some kind of memorandum, the purpose is just as you described: to remember something, be it an event, a fleeting thought, a conversation/interview, or the like.

1 Like

I love this post, because it brings up an interesting point about different types of notes. I think I do both of these, depending on the situation. I guess I would phrase it as there being two types of notes: the type that record thoughts/thought processes, and the type that are the thoughts/thought processes. You can either save a copy of your thoughts in a note, or use the note to do the thinking.


Yes that is a more elegant way of descrining it. Some notes are records of what i wasn thinking, a breadcrumb trail of my thinking if you will. Others are generating new things and new connections.

1 Like

And just to be clear, by using the phrases “modern” and “conventional”, I’m not saying that both senses haven’t been in use since…well…probably almost the dawn of time.

I’m more talking about what comes to mind when you hear “notes”, as in “hand me my notes”, or “I forgot my notes”. I think that at least several decades ago, if you said “notes” people would probably think “lecture notes” or “interview notes” or something like that rather than “a collection of stuff I wrote down during the course of the day”.

As an example…

In school (late 80s / early 90s), we were taught “how to take notes” a number of times - but the method we were given relied almost exclusively on the instructor organizing their material in such a way that our note-taking was both easy and possible. And for a couple of years, they did this school-wide thing where we actually had to hand in our notes to be graded on how well we did. There was a “standard” for how the notes needed to be taken, and we were graded on compliance. None of that had anything to do with whether or not we comprehended the material, of course, as we were most certainly not free to take notes in any other form.

And it wasn’t just the late 80s / early 90s. 8-10 years ago, an “Evernote ambassador” was lamenting how inefficient it was for everybody to be taking their own notes rather than just assigning one person to do all the note-taking for a meeting, and distribute those notes afterward.

That idea seems to have some serious staying power.

That sort of mentality gets etched into the public consciousness via the school system and experts / authority figures, and - in a way - begins to define what terms like “notes” mean to most people. The (potentially “return of”?) the idea that notes should be whatever you need to remember things, rather than an idealized summary of what’s necessary to replicate all the main ideas in a form that can be understood / reviewed by the average person, is a different thing entirely. And I think it’s only relatively recently that it’s beginning to get serious traction again. :slight_smile:

1 Like

The (potentially “return of”?) the idea that notes should be whatever you need to remember things, rather than an idealized summary of what’s necessary to replicate all the main ideas in a form that can be understood / reviewed by the average person, is a different thing entirely.

I see your point, but there are also people who remember things by writing up explanations that could be read by the average person. That makes distinguishing between the two schools of notetaking complicated!

Isaac Asimov said he had a nearly photographic memory, and of course was a prolific nonfiction writer. I have always assumed he did not need to take notes, and simply remembered what he read, so if he wanted to write a book about Roman history, he just read a few Roman history books and then wrote down what they all said.

Definitely. My issue with the regimented approach is that it was exclusive, rather than inclusive. There’s a huge difference between “here, this is a way to do it” and “here, this is the only way to do it.”

And as with many things, the more people are told that there’s a “correct” way, the less they’re inclined to pursue other ways.

I would say both ways are correct, for different people and/or in different circumstances. :slight_smile:


I see there is only one “school of note taking” — find what works for you. Do that.

For me “notes” are anything I decide to store in an app that claims to store “notes”. This ranges from Apple Notes — mostly text but mostly not written by me — to KeepIt — mostly captured information with some self-written — to OneNote — a full on self-written (by many) “wiki” approach for documentation — and there are probably others I’m not thinking of. And my apps and needs change over time.

So many times I read about people’s workflows and think “I wish my life was that ordered” or indeed “I wish my brain was that ordered.” I had an argument with my brother about email workflow until I realised he has “jobs” that have a “start” and an “end” which is a completely foreign concept to me.

So back to my opening premise… you do you.

1 Like

@ryanjamurphy and Nick Milo discuss a definition on a recent Linking Your Thinking video. Paraphrased (and possibly misquoted): A note is a container of thought—an information system—that represents something about the world and when you interact with it it allows you to act and change the world.

“Container of thought” and “information system” are highfalutin language for my taste. But, still, I like that definition. It is very broad–it could mean that note is a particle of research that will lead to curing cancer. Or it’s just a note to yourself to buy cat-litter. Both are notes.

Writing an article or book, or producing a podcast or video, definitely count as changing the world.