Some Plain Text Note Taking Tactics

To be honest, I can't think of anyone who doesn't take notes regularly. That could be for classes or courses they're taking, during meetings, while doing research or interviews, or just collecting information to add to a digital garden.

While many people like to go the analog route when taking notes, others cut out the middle person and type directly into text editor or note taking tool as they're working or listening. Using plain text for taking notes in those situations is quick. It's efficient. It just makes sense.

In the next few hundred words, I'd like to share some tactics that can make the process of taking notes with plain text a bit easier, a bit more efficient, and which can help give your notes a bit more structure.

Choose Your Weapon

I'm not going to tell you what the best tool for taking plain text notes is. Why? I don't what's best for your needs.

Instead, use the tool or application that you're most comfortable with. That could be a text editor. It could be a favourite note taking tool or the other. Or it could be a wiki or a fancy new tool like Obsidian.

Don't dwell upon or obsess about what you're using. Don't fall into the tool fetishism trap. Make your choice. Use it. If it's not working out, swap your tools out at a later date.

Naming Files

Think about the function or purpose of the file. Then, use that function or purpose in the name of a file.

What do I mean by function or purpose? Let’s say you’re taking notes for a course you're taking. You might decide to have a separate file for each class or lecture. In that case, you can name your files something like this:

[course-name]-[subject]-[date].txt

For example, Cambodian-History101-Angkorian-Era-2021-06-01.txt.

If you're taking notes as part of a large project, include the project’s name (or acronym) in the file name. When, for example, I was taking notes for my book HTML for Writers, I used file names like this:

HTML_Book-ch1.txt

Regardless of how you name your files, make sure they're easy to identify if you're searching for or scanning for them.

Structuring Your Files

You shouldn't worry too much about the structure of your notes at this point. Becoming preoccupied with structure will slow down your note taking flow.

At the very least, add headings to the file where and when needed. Usually, that's to denote a logical separation of ideas. Don't get too fancy at this point — just have the heading in title case or all capitals on its own line in the file.

Using a Header for Context

You can also prepare a text file ahead of time by adding some metadata to the top of that file. The metadata helps identify the context of your notes. Here's an example:

INTERVIEW SUBJECT: Someone Interesting
TOPIC: Background for article on XYZ
DATE: 17 December, 2021

You can learn more about that in a previous article

Use Point Form

Don't try to take everything down, especially if you're in a lecture or a meeting. If you do, you'll miss more than record. Instead, focus on taking down key points and keywords. Use those points and keywords to jog you memory later, or to give you a base from which to do further research.

The best way to do that is to write in point form. Use sentence fragments rather than full sentences. Again, when you go back to your notes later, you can flesh out those sentence fragments. Not just expanding them into full sentences, but also adding more information and context.

When I take notes, I often use point form literally — every idea or line is a bullet point, denoted by an asterisk or a dash.

Should You Markup Your?

By that, I mean adding formatting with a lightweight markup language like Markdown. I don't think you should, at least not while taking notes. Doing that can can break up your note taking flow.

Instead, add any markup after you finish taking your notes. That can give you time think about what (if anything) needs to be marked up.

Organizing Your Files

Taking notes is all well and good, but your notes are useless if you can't find them. Organization is the key to effectively using your notes.

First off, think about whether you going to keep your notes in one large file or multiple small ones. I discussed the pros and cons of both approaches in an article from 2019.

Next, think about how you're going to store your notes. I prefer to create folders based on projects or topics — whether in a note taking tool or on my computer. The folders not only contain my notes, but also give them context. I look at how to do this effectively in another article in this space.

Final Thoughts

Using plain text to take notes can be a quick and efficient way of doing the deed. The tactic I've outlined in this article can enhance the process of taking notes and can help make those notes easier to find and use.