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When and how to publish notes: Publishing thinking effectively and efficiently
Over the past few days, I’ve been doing my best to instigate a conversation about publishing notes in the Obsidian Discord server.
A few useful takeaways have come up. The thinking below is derived from and inspired by the conversation,1 with direct links to others’ comments wherever possible.2
This is actually a conversation about publishing thinking. A note is one type of “knowledge material” that represents someone’s thinking. Other types could be blog posts, social media posts, articles (e.g., those published in journals, magazines, and newspapers), sketches, talks, YouTube videos, and so on.
Conventionally, however, notes were rarely published. Now, modern day tools and platforms have made it easier to share notes on the web. This has led to the rise of “digital gardens” and personal wikis. But is this form of publishing valuable? And if it is, what are the best ways to do it?
# Wait, What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Notes?
Naturally, “notes” may mean different things to different people.
Generally, a note is a piece of text capturing a fact, idea, or observation. People make many different kinds of notes. Examples could be:
- Your grocery list.
- A reminder to walk the dog before supper this evening.
- A collection of important “metadata” for something. For instance, a vehicle’s registration numbers, maintenance schedule, and so on; reference information for an academic article; or things you want to remember about a contact of yours, such as their kids’ names.
- A recipe.
- A summary of an article you read.
- A brief description of a short story you hope to write.
- Your understanding of a key concept in your field.
- Ideas related to a topic you plan on writing in a journal article.
- Your plans for a presentation you have to give next week.
- Instructions on how to do a particular task, with thoughts on best practices.
It would probably be inappropriate to publish the first three in that list for all to see. However, examples (4) through (10) could be valuable to a reader. So when should those kinds of notes be published?
One key differentiator may be raw vs. refined notes:
- Raw notes: unprocessed, crude, messy thinking; e.g., “transient” notes.
- Refined notes: thinking that is polished and organized.
A key differentiator is derived vs. novel notes:
- Derivative notes are personal or contextualized summaries or rewrites of another source. E.g., study notes from a student’s computer science degree.
- Novel notes contain original observations or ideations.
These two axes create an interesting framework:
# What’s the Difference Between a Published Note and a Blog Post or Published Article?
For some, there may be no difference.
I argue, though, that posts and articles are written for an audience. Most well-written posts and articles have an arc to them: there’re introductions and conclusions. Assumptions are made about a target audience, their level of knowledge about the topics being discussed, and the tone they’d like to read. Posts and essays are usually goal-oriented, attempting to persuade or inform based on the target audience and the writer’s objectives.
A note typically doesn’t have anything extrinsic or extraneous. It contains just the facts and ideas necessary to understand (and use) whatever the note is about. It’s up to the reader to supplement a note with their own knowledge of the topics and to relate it to other ideas. (In modern linked-thinking tools, of course, the note’s author can help do some of that linking.)
# A Key Tension: is it Worth the Effort?
For many, notes are created as a thinking material. They externalize thoughts, giving us matter to work with as ideas and arguments are processed and rendered. The actual text files capturing these notes are often raw notes: they are written for the writer, not anyone else. Publishing these is low-effort, but it is also usually low-reward. It typically isn’t worth it for a reader to try to parse or navigate someone else’s raw thinking.
# Why Publish Notes?
- For a readership
- For a membership
- Some authors may have membership-based communities, possibly paid ones (e.g., paid Substack-style newsletters). Members may see the ability to read the author’s notes as a way of getting additional value out of their membership.
To “clear space”
- Depending on your workflow, publishing can be a way of shifting phases: a step to take in order to move on to the next thing
Just in case they’re useful to somebody
- These kinds of notes are “low-effort blog posts”
- To “open source” your thinking/to “work with the garage door open”
To supplement other writing
- E.g., writing up fundamental, contextual concepts that you discuss in other writing, so that you have something to refer readers to
# What Does “Good” Note Publishing Look Like?
- Raw notes are
rarely valuable to another reader, unless (1) they’re particularly applicable to the reader (e.g., the reader and the writer are in the exact same niche) or (2) they’re artfully crafted.
- However, even if you work in different fields, it can be useful to see the raw material of someone else’s thinking (especially if the way they’re published also gives perspective on how the writer works)
Andy’s Notes are a good example of what “good” note publishing could look like.
- Andy’s ideas about evergreen note writing also apply to this conversation, though note that in his original conceptualization, evergreen notes are more verb than noun. E.g., he doesn’t really advocate for “completing” a note, although some folks have converted this ar-boreal metaphor into a framework for digital gardens, tending “seeds” until they grow into “evergreens.”
# Publishing Notes Effectively
What are some principles and practices that support effectively publishing notes?
- Create a story
# Publishing Notes Efficiently
As described above publishing notes probably isn’t worth the effort for many people (and many notes). Part of this question of effort is efficiency: how easy is it to “refine” something raw? What are some principles and practices that would support efficiently writing “good” notes?