(2022-05-06) Bjarnason The Different Kinds Of Notes

Baldur Bjarnason: The different kinds of notes. This is the second entry of three where I go over what I learned from the user research I’ve been doing for Colophon Cards... The notebook above, from 1994, is the oldest notebook of mine I’ve found. It’s the first proper notebook I kept. It wasn’t a journal, sketchbook, drafts, or workbook for school. Just notes. And it petered out pretty quickly.

Notetaking seriousness didn’t come for me until college, which makes sense.

Serious writing required serious notetaking, both in terms of scheduling and structure. For years, I had a strict notetaking system.

I’d fallen into one of the oldest process trap of all: I had cargo culted methods whose principles, concepts, and motivations I did not understand

Over time this turned into a slog, _no matter what, write three pages!, and by the time I got to my PhD, it made everything about a bad experience worse.

When I began my PhD in 2001, we were all still recovering from the dot-com crash. It made sense to work on a thesis that was grounded in an evolutionary, small-c conservative, view of media.

Over the years that I worked on my PhD, that view became untenable to me.

But I was locked in a reactionary thesis. Starting from scratch would have almost inevitably led to me having to abandon the PhD. This meant that I had to write a thesis I utterly disagreed with

The regimented daily pages notetaking routine made everything worse.

It took me years to fully recover.

To get there—to recover from my unrelenting thesis death march—I had to get more thoughtful and serious about writing and my notetaking

I dug through the entire Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance

I began to understand, at least for my own purposes, what notetaking was for.

It’s all about boxes and maps.

I recently interviewed about a dozen people on their notetaking habits

Even from a group as small as twelve people you already got more than twelve different kinds of notetaking

When you’re in a domain where increasing the resolution and detail only reveals an escalating amount of previously undiscovered complexity, odds are you are tackling what E.F. Schumacher called a ‘divergent problem’. (divergence)

Divergent problems cannot be killed; they cannot be solved in the sense of establishing a “correct formula”; they can, however, be transcended

it strikes me that most of the notetaking methods the interviewees described are trying to answer at least one of the three following questions:
How do I manage my creativity?
How do I manage my knowledge?
How do I manage my understanding?

the notetaking methods are a way for the writer to continuously ask themselves these questions and adjust their tactics as needed. None of the methods are prescriptive or rigid; they are all constantly being adapted.

I don’t think you can make software that perfectly serves all three of these kinds of notetaking

In the parlance of roleplaying games, these are the three character statistics of your notetaking app, and you only get to assign 15 points between them

I’m leaning towards this:
Creativity: 7
Knowledge: 2 (dump stat!)
Understanding: 6

I’m not going to pretend that I’m basing those priorities on the comparatively little user research I’ve been doing. They instead represent the kind of app I want to use and enjoy

Boxes and Maps

Just writing or getting things done isn’t the purpose, at least not in any of the writing methods I’ve looked at.

Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

David Hewson’s Writing: A User Manual

Story Grid by Shawn Coyne

Brenda Ueland, in her 1938 book If You Want to Write

In her amazing The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about The Box. A literal box

Julia Cameron’s words in The Artist’s Way:

you begin to spot a few common threads running through them, among both the Box and Map creators.

The first one is that the difference between the Box and the Map isn’t as great as you think.

Those who favour the Box maintain an evolving internal map of where they are going with the project.

Those who favour the Map instead flip this around. The map is external and evolving and serves to make it easy for you to maintain the context internally so that you can adapt the project to changing circumstances

But, once you’ve found your process, trust that the overall process is roughly the same:


All the things you fancy


By reframing them in words (or sketches) you integrate them which makes them available to your thinking and decision-making processes


where you are, what lies ahead, and where you want to end up. It’ll start off vague, whatever tactic you use.

It’s important to keep in mind that the map isn’t the end product, just one more tool among many to help you build the end product.

What does this all have to do with a notetaking app?

The first, most obvious conclusion is that there is no one best method.

But the meta-framework doesn’t answer one, very important, question. One that people have been tackling since the dawn of humanity. What happens when you need to collaborate with other people? (collaboration)

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