When notes begin talking to each other

I’ve invested a lot of time in recent weeks splitting my existing notes for the book I’m working on into smaller and smaller standalone notes: atomic notes is the buzz-phrase. The basic idea is that each of your notes should only cover a single topic. If you then start to link these notes, the theory goes, you’ll end up making interesting connections you might not otherwise have made. I’m using the Obsidian app to do this, and am already besotted.

Although I’m way too far into my book to go back and atomise all my existing notes, I’m making the effort for certain topics I haven’t covered yet, but which are hot contenders for future chapters. I’m doing the same for topics I’ve already written about, but might want to return to. As I pointed out recently, my preferred writing style is to try to touch on more than one topic per chapter, and to have recurring topics develop into themes running throughout the book. Atomising and linking my notes will make this easier.

On Wednesday last week, quite without warning, my linked notes began talking to each other. As I linked two existing notes that both happened to mention a topic I’m considering for a future chapter, I came across a passing observation I’d jotted down regarding a nice analogy made by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s analogy was just a throwaway comment, as was my observation about it. Which no doubt explains why I’d forgotten both, even though I’d only made my note about them a few months ago. But now, while I was in linking-stuff-together mode, with atomic notes buzzing about in my brain, I suddenly realised my earlier observation also needed to be linked to another note—a note about an entirely different topic which I’m also considering for a future chapter.

Out of nowhere, I suddenly found myself with an interesting new idea. Why not steal from the best? Why not take Darwin’s throwaway analogy, merge it with my own earlier observation about his analogy, and write about two topics that would otherwise never belong in the same chapter? In other words, I found myself the proud possessor of an interesting new take for a chapter. A take that has the added benefit of allowing me to kill two topical birds with one stone.

In other words, if you’ll pardon a misleading phrase generally disliked by evolutionary biologists, by digging deep into my notes, I had unearthed a missing link.

See also: Book review: ‘How to Take Smart Notes’ by Sönke Ahrens

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He is currently working on a book about looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes.Website · Newsletter · Mastodon · Facebook

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