Nerdy in the extreme

Work-wise, I became severely bogged down in the latest chapter of my book earlier this month. I knew what I wanted to write about, and I’d done my research, but the various ideas and snippets of information I’d gathered simply refused to gel.

I draft everything I write in a format called Markdown. Markdown files are basically plain text files in which you can use a few simple conventions to indicate desired formatting. If, for example, you want some text in bold, you surround it by double asterisks **like this**. I really like Markdown because it doesn’t lock you into any particular proprietary app or file format. There are many different apps for editing plain text files, and I use an assortment of different ones depending on which particular project I’m working on, and whether I’m writing on my desktop Mac, my iPad, or my iPhone. Once you have a document written in Markdown, it’s a piece of cake to convert it into HTML for a blog post, or PDF or Microsoft Word or some other text format. This very article was drafted in Markdown and cut and pasted as HTML into my website content management system.

Over the years, I’ve amassed a large number of Markdown files containing, among other things, Journal entries, research notes, web clippings, article ideas, idle thoughts, strategic brainstorms, articles, newsletters, and drafts of my books. A couple of weeks ago, I used the excuse of having become bogged down to finally have a sort through all my old (and current) Markdown files and put them into some sort of order. To be honest, I was itching to try a new, free application I’ve been hearing good things about that was designed for this very purpose. It’s called Obsidian; it’s available on both Mac and Windows, with mobile versions available soon; and, half an hour after I’d loaded all my files into it, and made a few crude searches and replacements, I was a total convert.

I could bore you rigid with a full account of what I’ve been up to using Obsidian over the last couple of weeks, but there’s no way I could convey how excited I am by this remarkable piece of software. It seems purpose-built for the way I prefer to work. Suffice to say, if you’re a writer, and you make a lot of notes, I heartily recommend you check it out. There are plenty of YouTube videos to give you a feel for it.

I’m already finding plenty of links I didn’t realise existed between various ideas I’ve had, and various topics that interest me. Again, I’ll spare you the details. But I will show you a representation of my current Obsidian Markdown files, and how they all link together. The cluster near the bottom of the image represents the book I’m currently working on:

No, not Ultron versus Jarvis, but the organised chaos of my Markdown files (with labels turned off to keep things simple).

On Obsidian, this sort of image is completely interactive. I can click on the nodes (dots) representing each document to see what’s inside them, and to see which other documents they’re linked to. I can also filter and rearrange them on the screen to get a far better feel for how my own research and ideas fit together.

If you think the foregoing was nerdy in the extreme, just thank your lucky stars I didn’t start banging on about the Zettelkasten note-taking method, which Obsidian is designed to support. I’ve been looking into that too. It’s also incredibly powerful. If you’d like to know more, check out this book.

I could happily spend many more weeks and months tweaking my Obsidian Markdown files. In fact, I’m sure I shall: that’s the whole point of having them. But I do now at least have the skeleton of a very powerful notes management system in place. So, my real priority is to get back to my stalled chapter.

But with Obsidian and Zettelkasten to assist me, I’m now confident I’ll soon be back on the right track.

By Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Website · Facebook · Twitter · Newsletter · Book

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On the Moor

Richard Carter’s fascinating exploration of his local grouse-moor in West Yorkshire digs deep into natural history, human history, prehistory, and the history of science. His writing is grounded, insightful, and frequently hilarious, and he shows how falling in love with your own local patch can be a gateway to the whole world.
Neil Ansell, author and journalist

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