Outlining for academic work - moving notes around

Hi everyone! Very much a newcomer to both Obsidian and the broader Zettelkasten movement, but finding it all fascinating (I’m a medieval historian, hoping both the software and the underlying techniques and ideas will help me get a better handle on the vast amount of information and research I have accumulated).

One of the things that has most intrigued me - reading Ahren’s book on How to take Smart Notes, Andy M’s work, and how journalists, academics, authors etc. have used index cards more generally - is the idea of being able to move around and sort your atomic notes into an outline (say for a journal article). I particularly liked the argument that this reduces some of the cognitive load - you just have to ask yourself: where does this note/information/idea go in my argument?

In the past, I used to just copy and paste things around in Microsoft Word under Headings which wasn’t particularly efficient.

How are people organising their notes into drafts using Obsidian? Or rather, what is the closest you have found as a digital equivalent to the physical act of having your index cards out on a table and being able to re-arrange them physically? (I’m aware Scrivener has that function - but does anyone do this with Obsidian without having to click through multiple windows/notes or rename files?)

Keen to hear any ideas/ how other people’s workflows get around this problem of sorting notes before writing a draft


This is what Nick Milo uses MOCs for.

The MOC isn’t an index of content on a topic. It’s you moving your index cards around to put together thoughts.

Thanks, they do look helpful - though with MOCs you are linking them rather than moving them around right? There isn’t a digital version of ‘physically shuffling your index cards’ or a drag and drop capacity in Obsidian? You can’t, for example, put one in front of the other in a numbered hierarchy (say for writing an article) - it will just be linked to a hub point

I use Scrivener for books; the index cards are excellent for noodling an outline. Since Obsidian, I now create my books’ research in Obsidian folders, rather than in Scrivener.

Often I’ll write 1,000 words of a draft in Obsidian, then copy and paste into Scrivener.

My shorter writing projects start in an Obsidian folder. (I have an Obsidian folder for each client. For each new project for that client, I create a sub-folder.)

I create project notes in the project’s folder; it’s easy enough to view several files at once and move notes around in a file.

Then, when it’s time to write a draft, I draft in Ulysses.

It’s a simple workflow. Obsidian => Ulysses, and from Ulysses to PDF/ HTML/ DOCX, etc.


Thanks - that is interesting. Do you miss the index card aspect of Scivener - the more I read about Zettelkasten and Luhmann’s method (not that one has to use Obsidian to emulate that), the more I am struck than this seems like a missing function of the app - the ability to see notes and shift their order around (though I suppose one can use graph view for that, but not easily). I might be best using a combo of Scrivener and Obsidian from what I read thus far

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Think of the MOC as a linear list of note cards.

You move items up and down in the MOC note to move their juxtaposition around.

If you have lots of groupings and want to order the groupings, you can use an outline of items.

Nick MIlo has a good video on it. I don’t think this is it, but it’s on topic:

This Q&A talks about how MOCs emerge from other notes, but there should be a part in there about re-ordering notes inside the MOC that is analogous to moving note cards around:

I LOVE NOTECARDS and reordering in a MOC took some head twisting, but now it makes sense to me. Hope that helps…


I’m not sure what you mean with “index cards”. If you mean your actual notes (thoughts/zettels) and not a list of them, you could make a note where you embed all the notes you want to use in a specific chapter. Then you can easily rearrange their order. You can even set a hotkey for changing lines up and down. Then they are not simply linked, but you see the content in preview.

So your note for Chapter A could look like this:

![[Note 1]]
![[Note 2]]
![[Note 3]]
![[Note 4]]
![[Note 5]]

Then you could open another note or another programm and use it as a template to write the actual chapter.


That’s great, thanks! Shall take a look!

I did mean thoughts/zettels - sorry for the ambiguity. Yes, gradually realised today that is what I will probably end up doing. I had hoped for some sort of function/view where you could look at the content of the zettels as you sorted them into an outline (akin to having them spread out on a table). But that - as you point out - can be accomplished with the method you describe above, especially with the content in preview function I keep forgetting about. Thanks for your reply - really helped clarify my rather confused thinking today.

Like @phlind, I also like to embed a series of notes to extend an idea. Obsidian is a superb tool for that task. But I haven’t been successful at connecting the larger numbers of notes to write a paper or a book. Since I like the index card + outlining approach to put together these larger ideas, I use Gingko for that.


@ryan1992reading You may want to see Andy’s guidance here: Create speculative outlines while you write

Here is an example outline he has in his note system: §Note-writing systems

One trick I picked up from Nick in one of his videos was binding Cmd+1 to move the current line up and Cmd+2 to move it down. This lets you fairly easily reorder your outline without needing to use the mouse.

Additionally, while in edit mode you can hold Cmd while you move the mouse over the title and it will show the contents of the note in a popup window. I think there is a setting or core plugin to turn on to enable that.


Thanks - yeah, this will have to my way forward I think (though still feel some nostalgia for that idea of being able to see them top down). Here though is where I suspect the importance of making them as ‘atomic’ as possible comes in - makes it less likely you would need to delve into and re-read each Zettel in the first place.

One thing to remember is that Obsidian is not best for everything.

I move a bunch of notes into Scrivener when I write and move them around there. (In compose mode, not note card mode.)

Obsidian is really good at storing ideas and linking them together, so you can see how they relate to eachother and even find unexpected relationships (that can reveal new things to write about or angles to make your current writing more interesting.)



Here though is where I suspect the importance of making them as ‘atomic’ as possible comes in - makes it less likely you would need to delve into and re-read each Zettel in the first place.

Yes, see Andy’s advice here: Prefer positive note titles to promote systematic theory

Essentially, by having them worded correctly each zettel/note becomes a proposition/claim and you can chain them in various ways (i.e. through different outlines) to support multiple arguments. The contents of the note then become the material supporting that particular claim, which you can dive into by clicking the link if you want.


One thing to remember is that Obsidian is not best for everything.

Agree 100%. The power of Obsidian is that it’s good enough at a lot of things to be versatile, but not perfect at any single one of them – except perhaps for Markdown-based interlinked note writing. :slight_smile: But it is extensible via plugins. In this way it is a note writing platform rather than just an application, similar to how emacs is a text writing and code writing platform.


Very much agree with all that. I do like Andy’s approach, though I have some doubts as to how far it scales. I’m working on a project that deals with biographical information at the moment, for example - it will be thousands of notes - and while positive note titles can do some of the cognitive heavy lifting, an app like Scrivener will be great I think to work through and add some hierarchy to the information (clear from that, btw, that I am using Obsidian for information as much as for ideas)

This is the functionality I’m missing too. Have a canvas, drag and drop notes there (or rather links to the notes), move them around, group together, add headings to the groups and finally export this as an outline (copy paste in the word would be OK too). Or at least have something like one, continuous, live view of all the notes in a selected folder, concatenated, all separate notes being editable in place (like you can have in Scrivener, parts separated with horizontal lines). Im not a keyboard guy. I like all the clickable, visual interfaces. You could look here for the idea. To some extent it seems similar.


OK. I put my documents/ notes/ writing in one file. Headings preserve structure. The core outline plugin allows the headers to be moved around.

I also convert to OPML allowing import into Workflowy and mindmappers. Workflowy gives outline and kanban views, with easy rearrangement by mouse or keyboard. Mindmappers ditto according to the program, but I use them less often. Export back via OPML takes less than a minute.

Ultimately I found the Gingko app far more useful on this front that Obsidian (partly because the process of creating ‘atomic notes’ was far quicker)

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