When and how to publish notes: Publishing thinking effectively and efficiently

Last updated Jan 19, 2023 | Originally published Jan 18, 2023

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:

  1. Your grocery list.
  2. A reminder to walk the dog before supper this evening.
  3. 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.
  4. A recipe.
  5. A summary of an article you read.
  6. A brief description of a short story you hope to write.
  7. Your understanding of a key concept in your field.
  8. Ideas related to a topic you plan on writing in a journal article.
  9. Your plans for a presentation you have to give next week.
  10. 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:

A key differentiator is derived vs. novel notes:

These two axes create an interesting framework:

A quick sketch of a possible framework of published notes

# 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?

# What Does “Good” Note Publishing Look Like?

# Publishing Notes Effectively

What are some principles and practices that support effectively publishing notes?

# 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?

# Related

  1. This is a dynamic and experimental approach to capturing and synthesizing the conversation: it is “unfinished” and may never be, though I may not follow it forever. ↩︎

  2. I’ll add to or remove those links by request, of course. @ me or email me! ↩︎