Monday, April 7, 2008

Capturing and Keeping Notes versus Developing Ideas

There are many good applications that help you to capture, keep, and organize notes so that you can recall them in various ways at a later date. Most come with good search functions, and many also allow you to sort or order the notes in some rudimentary ways. Some use trees or a hierarchical structure for organization. Others use categories or tags to cluster notes in a more flexible way as networks of related topics. Still others, like EverNote, allow also a strictly temporal order.

Ideally, an application would allow for all the different ways of looking at the notes one has collected. Starting out from what might be called the "shoebox metaphor," that is, the idea that you have one large container into which you drop all your stuff so that you have it all in one place and thus have created the necessary condition for being able to find your "stuff" again, capabilities are introduced that allow you to impose order on that stuff that makes it still easier to find this stuff. Such capabilities also make it easier for you to get clearer on what you have collected, to see patterns and structures that you might have (would have) overlooked, if you had not put in the effort to order your stuff by putting it into a hierarchy or categorizing it in a variety of ways.

If we call this ordering of prima facie unrelated notes or ideas "external structuring" (in analogy with "external outliners"), we can distinguish this activity from what might be called the "internal structuring" of the particular notes that we have taken. Most note-taking applications are very good at external structuring, but they are not very good at internal structuring. They don't help you in getting clearer about the ideas contained in or represented by any one of the particular notes one has taken.

Indeed, some of the applications that make capturing and keeping information from various sources very easy get into the way of internal structuring of notes, as they make it easy simply to cop what one has found on the Web, in an electronic document, etc. But this can (or should) be only the first step. The information needs to be analyzed or decomposed into more basic ideas, which can then be used in various other contexts or connections. Ideally, I have argued before, there would be one idea in one note, and no more. This needs judgment, of course, which may or may not be supported by the note-taking software. And none of the tagging and organizing of notes that are themselves fuzzy or contain ideas that are unrelated or loosely related won't overcome this shortcoming.

One needs to think about the note or the idea itself. While getting clearer on what the idea is that the note contains or is about, will help also with classification. But this is not all, thinking about the idea will also make you realize whether there are other notes that are directly related to the note that you are considering or whether it leads to other possibilities you have not thought about before. In both cases, a direct link to such ideas might be called for.

This is what makes applications that allow of easy linking of different notes or ideas so interesting. Indeed, the principle here seems to be: the easier the better. And that is why an application that allows of wiki-type links, like ConntectedText, has in my view a crucial advantage over applications that have more clumsy ways of linking existing notes or creating a new note on the basis of a mere link.

Now, it might be objected to what I have just said that this is just another way of talking about external structuring, as I am just talking about linking notes. Perhaps, but I don't think so. Ideas have connections and getting clear on what connections they have, or creating a new connection, is also getting clearer about what that idea is itself. It develops the idea. The starting point is different. It starts with the idea and its internal structure, not with the "stuff" and what it might mean.

To be sure, the two activities of internal and external structuring are complementary. They are certainly not independent of one another. But they are just as certainly different from another. And both need to be supported, or so I would argue. Nor are direct links the only way to develop ideas. The ability to outline particular notes and "do" other things to them or with them is also essential. Note-taking, or "note-making," as some people like to call, is to engage actively with the world -- and yourself.

ConnectedText 3.01 is out. I will write a review of it and its advantages in the next few days. This review will also develop further some aspects of the idea presented in this entry.

1 comment:

NoteScribe said...

Hi, I liked your article. You make a lot of good points about how a note-taking program should be developed, and I believe that our program, NoteScribe
might be able to help you. You can get a free 30 day trial on the website, and I think you'll find it meets your needs as far as crossing ideas using categories, keywords, sources, and linking them all together. Give it a try and let us know what you think!

Thanks for your time!