A Few Thoughts About Effectively Taking Notes with Plain Text

Scott Nesbitt | 15 December 2021

Digital was supposed to have killed analog. But hasn’t stopped more and more people from taking notes using pen and paper. Even though sales of paper notebooks still seem to be brisk, I’m sure that more than a couple of folks out there take notes digitally.

I know I do.

Digital note taking has a lot going for it. It’s:

And while digital note taking is a lot like doing the deed the analog way, there are a few pieces of advice that I like the share with people who are moving their note taking to the digital realm.

Pick Your Tool

And stick with it. Learn that tool’s ins and outs, and how to use it efficiently on your desktop and on your mobile device.

What tool you use is up to you. My choice is Standard Notes. But I know that Standard Notes isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or whatever hot beverage they prefer). Some of the other digital note taking tools I recommend are:

Why even use a service or an app? You can take notes using only a text editor and a set of plain text files.

Keep Your Notes Short

Or, as short as you can. One reason for that is many, many people use tablets or smartphones to take notes. But most of them can’t type as quickly on a tablet or on a phone keyboard as they can on a full-sized physical one. So, you should try to keep your notes concise.

As well, you’ll often use your notes as prompts. They’ll help remind you of details, of something that someone said, or of something you read. Then, you can fill in the blanks.

Write in point form or sentence fragments. A lot of the time, you don’t need to capture everything when taking notes — just the main idea or certain important bits of information.

That said, you have a bit more leeway when if comes to collecting quotes or passages. Instead of typing them out, you can easily copy and paste them into your tool. That saves a lot of time.

However, if you do that remember this important point:

Attribution, Attribution

Always make a record of:

That takes a little extra effort, but it can save you the pain of later having to track down that information later. And recording that information can ensure you don’t get stung by accusations of plagiarism or even libel.

Keep Your Notes in Plain Text

Avoid, where possible, using markup to format your notes. At least when you’re taking those notes. If you’re trying to get things down quickly, using a markup language (even a lightweight one) just slows you down.

Later, if you need to add formatting, then I suggest doing that with Markdown.

Make Sure You Can Get to Your Notes

By that I mean no matter where you are, and no matter what kind of computer or device you’re using.

With the note taking tools that I mentioned earlier, doing that is easy. All you need to do is log into the websites of those tools and you’re set. You don’t need any desktop software. If you’re using a tablet or a smartphone, there are mobile apps available for those tools.

Text files and word processor documents are a slightly different story. But you’re not without hope. You can use other file sharing and syncing tools.

In the end, though, the quality of your notes depends on you. On your focus. On the depth of your research. While a good digital note taking tool can make taking notes more convenient, that tool won’t do the job for you.