How to Start Taking Notes in a Text Editor Like Obsidian
The beginner’s guide to linking notes, creating structure, and building a knowledge base
The problem with the note-taking space is that there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground; either you’re an expert, having studied note-taking and built up a body of knowledge for years, or you’re an average Joe.
If you’re an average Joe like me, you’re simply looking for a place to keep notes and collect ideas.
You may be excited to use a new tool like Obsidian, the up-and-coming text editor that wants to be your “second brain” and is giving Roam Research a run for its money. You like the idea of “linking” related thoughts and ideas.
But how do you do that? Where do you start? How do you go from a blank slate to building that beautiful web of interconnected thought?
A lot of the content that’s out there is too advanced for beginners. Learning about the latest plugin won’t do us any good if we don’t even know how to organize our notes or create structure in a way that makes sense and facilitates connection.
Since I started taking notes in Obsidian, I’ve had many readers reach out asking for more accessible tutorials and resources. I get it, because I struggled, too. I made “mistakes” when I started because I didn’t understand the concept of linking notes.
So I’m writing this for my fellow note-takers who need basic principles to get up and running. Let’s dive in.
Obsidian 101: What is it? Why should I care?
If you’re already familiar with Obsidian, you can skip to Step 1!
Obsidian is a free text editor and note-taking app like Roam Research, The Archive, or Evernote. I believe a strong note-taking app allows for the following:
- Keep everything in one place
- Longevity of notes
- Easily “search” for files
- Connect ideas and build a knowledge base
Obsidian uses plain text markdown files (.md). When you take notes, Markdown allows you to format your text using symbols to create headings, subheadings, bolded and italicized text, etc.
Markdown files are similar to text files (.txt), and these file types have longevity in the sense that they’re not proprietary to any specific software (like Word or Pages). Therefore, we’ll have a way to open these files for many years to come. Not to mention, your files are saved locally.
What’s most exciting about programs like Obsidian and Roam Research is the ability to connect notes and ideas with internal hyperlinks. As you link your notes, you create a web of interconnected thoughts (a “knowledge graph”). This is where the magic happens.
Step 1: Take notes first, create structure later
When I started taking notes in Obsidian, I wanted to organize and categorize my notes from the get-go. I thought I needed to create content “buckets” from day one because I was eager to link notes and build my knowledge graph.
Spoiler alert: The top-down approach didn’t work for me. Creating categories and folders for my notes (before I’d written any!) didn’t work for me.
The advice I found was counterintuitive: Take notes without predetermined categories, without an organizational structure, and learn to recognize patterns of thought. Allow the structure to fit your notes, and not the other way ‘round.
If you create categories first, you’ll inevitably create categories you don’t need or use. We inhibit our creativity by forcing ourselves to take notes that fit inside these predetermined boxes.
“So if you model your knowledge management system to fit the way your brain works, you better not start with inventing a hierarchy of categories, top-down. Instead, you’re better off starting to collect notes and see what happens.”
~ Christian Tietze, Why Categories for Your Note Archive are a Bad Idea
I did not anticipate that I’d use Obsidian more for my freelance writing than for learning (taking notes on articles or books, for example). Note-taking is personal. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to use Obsidian, though there are some helpful principles for organizing your notes (and we’ll get to that!).
Feeling stuck when it comes to making notes?
A great place to start is Obsidian’s “daily note.” When you enable the plugin, simply click the button in the lefthand sidebar to create a new note that is automatically titled by date.
I use the “daily note” to jot down ephemeral thoughts and ideas, like my to-do lists, or the draft of an email. If I have an idea but don’t have the time to create a more permanent note, I’ll often jot it down in my daily note and create an internal [[link]] so I can flesh it out later.
Sometimes I’ll come across an interesting article or video — so I’ll jot down the title or the URL in my daily note and create a [[link]]. Now I can open up that note separately and document my thoughts about the article or the video.
Obsidian’s “Daily Note” is the Swiss Army Knife of Data Capture
A tool to boost your productivity and capture quick thoughts throughout the day
Step 2: Connect ideas using [[links]] and #tags
Even if you forego structure at the start, you can still begin building your “knowledge graph” by connecting related thoughts and ideas.
In Obsidian, you do that by using links and tags. Create a link to a new or existing note using [[double brackets]] around a word or phrase.
It’s the internal linking that sets programs like Obsidian apart. Linking is incredibly powerful because you can link just one note to multiple others. Whereas when it comes to folders, you can only pick one.
Think connection over collection.
Connecting related notes with links is similar to the way our brains work; we allow ourselves to follow the train of thought from one note to the next. Even better, your notes have “backlinks,” which will point you to the origin of the link.
Let me give you an example. I’ve recently started watching Shonda Rhimes’ MasterClass on writing for television. First, I’d create a new note in Obsidian to take notes on the course:
Maybe something I learn sparks an idea for an article. I quickly jot down the tentative title and make it a link. By clicking into the new note, I can flesh out my ideas for the potential article. This new note retains a backlink to the original source — my notes on Rhimes’ MasterClass.
I may have other links in that original note, too. I may decide that Rhimes’ name should be a link [[Shonda Rhimes]], in case I take more notes in relation to her in the future. I may link [[MasterClass]] to connect any other MasterClass course notes. Now I’m beginning to grow my web.
I facilitate these connections by listing the same info, or metadata, at the top of every note. This includes:
- Sources (URLs to outside sources, like an article, video, etc.)
- Topics (topical links to related notes inside Obsidian)
- Tags (hashtags to designate the “type” of note)
Now, I’m able to templatize this process. By installing the “Templates” plugin, you can create templates for your notes.
With a simple keyboard shortcut, I can load my preexisting template for new notes. For example, I have a template for my daily note, and a separate template for the simple metadata I include in all other notes.
3. Create “maps of content” for your notes
I didn’t coin this term; the “Index and Map of Content Framework” was developed and shared within the Obsidian forums. Many people use this framework and you’ll likely find it mentioned in many tutorials.
You’ve reached this step only after you’ve built up a small library of notes. (Scroll up, see the part about taking notes without predetermined categories and learning to recognize patterns of thought.) If you’re using links to connect related notes, you’re ready for this next step…
Structure happens organically, but you can begin to put that in place with “maps of content.” A “map of content,” or MOC, is like the table of contents for a group of similar notes.
What themes or topics come up most often in your notes?
For example, as a writer and freelancer, I often take notes about my craft (writing). I have an MOC for this topic to link out to my most helpful notes in relation to “writing.”
The idea is that an MOC is a work-in-progress, something you continue to update as you add notes. It’s about creating a path for finding and referencing information later. When you want to drill down into a particular topic, whether it’s “productivity,” “writing,” or “freelance” (to name a few of my own), your maps of content will show you the way.
When you have several MOCs, you can create one “master” table of contents for your entire knowledge base or vault of notes. We call this the “Index.” Your Index should link to your overarching MOCs and serve as an entry point for navigating your notes.
You decide what’s most important to list in your Index.
My Index has subheadings for “Areas of Interest” and “Areas of Responsibility.” This is how I differentiate between work-related notes and my creative, personal notes. Under each of these headings, I have links to the individual notes which serve as “maps of content” for each of the umbrella subjects.
In the same way your MOCs are works-in-progress, so too is your Index. It’s a living, breathing document for you to update as your notes and priorities change.
Continue to grow your knowledge base
The more you connect thoughts and ideas by “linking” your notes, the more your knowledge base grows.
Note-taking is highly personal. It’s meant to meet your needs. We may all use Obsidian differently, as we have different purposes for our notes, but I’ve found that the approach I’ve outlined in this article is simple, accessible, and widely used.