What workflows do people use to go from research literature to outputs - creating atomic notes

Hi everyone!

I’m a medieval historian (postdoc) who has been using Obsidian for a few months and posted a few times on here.

I’m more or less happy with my workflow (taking highlights from articles/books on my Kindle; exporting these to Obsidian; putting them into atomic notes with subject tags and occasionally adding those notes to various outline/structure/permanent/evergreen notes), but I’m keen to hear what other people are up to (I was very interested to read a few posts by another academic on here who used a tags-based approach, without atomic zettels).

One of the main points of friction I’ve found is simply the process (indeed, the ‘hassle’) of manually creating a new note for new idea/concept/point of evidence or information I come across in my highlights (even though that very atomicising is the most useful aspect I’ve found about the Zettelkasten methodology). Often I can tell I’m tempted to lump various ideas/points in a highlight together simply because I don’t feel I’ve got enough time or energy to separate them out properly. I’m just drafting an article at the moment and quickly realised that, while my atomic zettels are useful, they should have been combined into outline/structure/crucible notes at a far earlier stage - a classic case of the collecting, rather than thinking, mentality.

I’m hoping to start using either Note Refractor or Quickadd to make my workflow more efficient. In the meantime, I’d be keen to hear if there are any other academics out there (particularly in the humanities) who are using Obsidian and/or Zettelkasten methods to assist them in managing them in managing their research, literature reviews, and writing up outputs - I’d be very grateful to hear what your workflow like (I’ve learnt a lot from this community already).

Interesting approach and question. I realized my own thinking is not something I can make efficient, so I collect (by publication) and when time comes to write I search and assemble an outline and notes for that particular writing project. As I understand your point about friction, this was so great for me. Further, each of my writing projects so different in terms of audience that the work to rhetorically present material made ‘atomic’ notes more of a fool’s errand than an effective support. Yes, maybe my thinking will be more efficient, but I’m not waiting. Also, I need to publish now.

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I too am a medieval historian, but because much of my material comes from printed/manuscript sources, rather than electronic, I still use an updated version of my old hand-written index cards, one card for one idea, including separate cards for my own tentative conclusions. Each card makes clear what is quote, or paraphrase, or my comment. However, ‘one idea’ may be how to join together separate data, or even separate ideas. It is always a matter of judgment, rather than any rule, to decide what constitutes a single idea. My suggestion is to ‘lump together’ whatever you want to lump. You can perhaps separate them later, if need be. Note-taking is a necessary chore that I don’t want to make any more difficult or complicated than I have to. The interesting part is connecting the separate notes, and that’s where the enjoyment lies.

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Nice to hear from a fellow medievalist - that sounds great (and nice to hear from academics still using physical notecards too - they have many advantages)

I have to admit that I no longer use physical cards, even though I still think of my electronic equivalents as being cards in the same way. The advantage of an app is that I can add links, key words and images – and I can search! I also don’t have to provide physical storage any more. In many ways, I think of my key words as the equivalent of Keith Thomas’s physical files of articles, notes and references. (You provided a link elsewhere on the forum to his article in the LRB.) Both collect together data and ideas on a particular topic. And Thomas is not too worried about breaking down the contents of his files into individual ideas, but just keeps everything on a topic together. By searching on a key word I can fetch out from my notes a ‘file’ of ideas on a particular topic. From these I can choose those ‘cards’ I want to use. My app can show each ‘card’ as a floating window, which I can then arrange in some sort of order, to be saved as a list of links on a new ‘card’. At this stage, what I find important is that each note shows clearly the difference between direct quotes and my paraphrases, that it includes any footnotes used (so I can follow up on them if necessary), and then provides detailed page references. After that are my comments and links to other notes. The length of the note is not so important, although if it’s too long I may have difficulty finding the point I need.

Whilst I’m always looking for alternative apps (Obsidian seems as if it may become a distinct possibility), at present I still use ConnectedText (http://connectedtext.com/) for all my notes, even though it has not been in development for six years.

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In that case our workflows are very similar. I am just writing an article at the moment using Obsidian and the ability to outline by moving my cards around, but also compare and contrast information on the same topic using the tags… well both ae an absolute God send