One-Size-Fits-All? How to Take Big Notes and How to Take Small Notes
Small notes are better for developing new ideas, while big notes are better for organizing existing knowledge.
Historically, the length of media content has often been the result of technological restrictions. The SMS, for instance, is restricted to 160 characters due to the underlying GSM-7 protocol. Consequently, a change in the technological conditions can affect the length of content. Take the film industry. Before the age of video streaming, the length of a TV show episode was typically restricted to 22 or 42 minutes so that they nicely fit in half-hour or one-hour blocks with ads. With the advent of video-streaming services, this restriction was gone, and directors began to make episodes of more varying lengths. The length of an episode is now no longer determined by time slots of broadcasting networks, but by creative factors like the creation of more unpredictable plots.
In the world of note-taking, we are experiencing a similar development: Previously restricted by the size of a sheet of paper, the rise of note-taking apps enabled us to write much longer notes. Knowledge does not have an inherent size, so why should our notes? However, the fact that we now can write longer notes does not necessarily mean that we should – practitioners of the Zettelkasten method advocate for "Atomic Notes", notes that are short enough that they can fit on a small piece of paper. The eponymous "Zettels" (German for "slip notes") used Niklas Luhmann himself were in fact A6-sized. For the American readers: That's roughly the size of a postcard.
So how long should a note be then? Should we embrace the freedom of digital notes and write lengthy, elaborated notes? Should we maintain the ascesis of atomic notes and keep it short and concise? Does the size of notes even matter? Somewhat surprisingly, the question of note size is rather rarely discussed in the PKM scene (Personal Knowledge Management). Topics like "Tags vs Folders" or the value of backlinking are discussed at length, with some topics like "Filing vs Sorting" even being investigated in scientific research. Discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of note sizes seem to be comparatively rare, with only a few takes coming from the Zettelkasteners.
The Small Notes Mindset
Proponents of small notes argue that restricting yourself to a short note is beneficial as it forces you to be concise; the size constraint is seen as a feature, not as a bug. As Sönke Ahrens, put it:
I highly recommend treating a digital note as if the space were limited. By restricting ourselves to one format, we also restrict ourselves to just one idea per note and force ourselves to be as precise and brief as possible. The restriction to one idea per note is also the precondition to recombine them freely later, Luhmann chose notes in the format A6. A good rule of thumb for working with the program is: Each note should fit onto the screen and there should be no need of scrolling.
Nonetheless, taking atomic notes does not mean that the thoughts are atomic as well. Chains of thoughts are can be represented by chains of notes, a technique Luhmann coined as "Folgezettel" (German for "follow-up note"). Another method for creating structure is the creation of second-order notes: notes that contain information on other notes. Nick Milo popularized the term "Maps of Contents" (MoC) as an analogy to Table of Contents to describe notes that serve as some sort of index. MoCs are mean to be an emergent, and more fluid way of creating sense out of smaller notes as compared to strict outlines. Whatever the method, internal links (i.e., links from one note to another note) are the key component for assemble complex thoughts out atomic ideas. The "maturity" of a knowledge base consisting of small notes should therefore correspond with the density of links in the note network.
Another notion often associated with small notes is the idea of a flat hierarchy, as seen by Zettelkasteners who often prefer a flat tag-based system over a hierarchical folder system. Luhmann, for instance, was extremely opposed to hierarchical organization of thoughts, fearing that a hierarchical system would "bind [him] to a certain order for decades in advance". The purpose of a flat hierarchy of small notes is to encourage us to seek connections on our own instead of taking the order imposed by someone else. Ideally, we become more creative by finding links between previously unrelated topics, an effect also known as serendipity.
All in all, the "small notes mindset" is hallmarked by a more bottom-up approach to note-taking, aimed at knowledge workers who want to develop new ideas.
The Big Notes Mindset
In contrast to small notes, taking big notes should be more familiar to most of us, since it corresponds to the "traditional" way of writing notes. Multiple ideas and insights related to a more general topic are usually gathered in one note. Nonetheless, big notes differ from small notes not only because of their length but also the fact that structure is created internally: While the knowledge contained in a small note is structured externally by employing higher-order notes, big notes are structured internally by including formatting elements in the note itself: Headings, lists, enumerations, and paragraphs all serve the purpose of creating order in a mess that would otherwise be a brain dump. More advanced structuring needs are met by nesting these formatting elements, like for example subheadings, or lists containing lists. Nested lists can be regarded as the hallmark feature of the outline-method. (For the most impressive example of nested enumerations I am aware, take a look at Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a 150-page book consisting of nothing more than of lists within lists within even more lists…)
As one can imagine, big notes consequently tend to introduce a more hierarchical structure than a network of smaller notes. Then again, this is not necessarily a drawback, but can be seen as an advantage. Andrew Abbott, a sociologist who like Luhmann dealt with the question of how to organize knowledge long before the term "PKM" even existed, emphasized how hierarchical order benefited him as a scholar:
As a researcher, you need more control than a network derived relevance list provides, because you aim to create a cohesive and ultimately linear argument. Moreover, once you start analysis, you need instant, painless recall of materials. You need not only organization, but fast organization. It turns out that hierarchy is the easiest organization system for instant recall, even though hierarchy sacrifices some hyperlinks. That’s because a hierarchical classification requires less mental work.
A strictly hierarchical structure enables you to find a specific piece of information as fast as possible, while a more networked and flat structure requires too much mental overload, so the argument. If you search for a particular piece of information, you start by searching for the overarching topic and then navigate to the respective subsection of that note. The "maturity" of a knowledge base of big notes hence corresponds to the size and degree of structure of the average note.
The fact that in such a system, order is not emergent but created early on, makes this approach to note-taking more suited for collecting established knowledge. After all, why re-invent the wheel and create order out of our ideas, when numerous people much smarter than us have already worked hard to develop elaborated ordering system? As every great thinker stands on the shoulder of giants, every big note stands on the shoulders of innumerable smaller notes taken by great minds before us. That is why, so my assumption, people taking technical notes are more likely to write lengthier notes than knowledge workers focused on creative work.
At its core, the "big note mindset" is characterized by a top-down approach to note-taking with the goal of organizing pre-existing knowledge.
Does Size Really Matter?
When discussing the benefits and drawbacks of different note sizes, one also needs to entertain the possibility that note size maybe does not even play such a big role. Say, we want to take notes on different kinds of fruits, and we have collected information on apples, oranges, and bananas. We could create three notes, one for each kind of fruit, and then create a more general note titled "Fruits" acting as a map of content with links to each of the three notes. Or, we could create one note titled "Fruits", create three subheadings for each kind of fruit, and put all the information we gathered into this one note. Does it really make a difference?
The practice of "one thought, one note" can in principle be translated into "one thought, one bullet point", which is probably what many people using outliners like Roam) do – the atomicity of thoughts does not have to result in an atomicity of note size. The advantages of hierarchy are also not restricted to big notes, since maps of contents can easily be arranged in a more hierarchical manner if you want to do so. And interlinked thinking does not necessarily require small notes, as exemplified by the Wikipedia where enormously long articles co-exist with a dense network of links. Systems like Johnny Decimal are hierarchical, and yet they also work well for people with smaller notes.
The tools we have at our disposal in modern note-taking apps close the gap between big and small notes even further: One might say that smaller notes allow us to search for them directly, but any recent note-taking app will also allow you to search for headings (or has plugins for that). You could argue that one big note allows us to read everything in one go without having to switch notes, but then again, modern note-taking apps include features like embedded notes, so you can easily aggregate several smaller notes into one document. And if you want to be able to link specific ideas instead of large overarching concepts, the ability to link to headers and blocks allows you to do so even if you write long notes.
So is the size of notes really of any importance then? I would to say yes, whether our notes are big or small still matters, though probably not as much as one might expect at first. However, in my view it is less the practices of note-taking, but rather the tools that make a difference: Handling big notes requires a different set of tools as compared to managing small notes.
Tools for Taking Small Notes
With links being the glue of any small-notes knowledge base, features that support the creation and discovery of links are most valuable here. Backlinks or autocompletion for links are only the tip of the iceberg. Recent plugins like Influx or Strange New Worlds enhance how much of a related note you can see in a your current note, and autosuggestion for new links can even help with the creation of new links you might not have thought of. When the information "these two notes are related" is too vague, plugins like Breadcrumbs can help by differentiating between types of links, like for example parent notes or child notes.
Since a sufficiently large knowledge base of small notes can be quite daunting to explore, features like the Graph View, and other plugins that help to analyze the knowledge base as a network of notes are of much greater value to people with smaller notes than to people with larger notes. I suspect that people who do not find value in the graph view tend to be people with few, large notes, where a "big picture" perspective on your note-network is indeed less useful. Database-type features – built-in for apps like Notion, and available in Obsidian via plugins like Dataview or Database Folder – also become more valuable the more small notes you have because of this greater need to aggregate your notes.
However, small notes are not only about links. One key characteristic of small note knowledge systems is that you tend to create new notes far more often than with big note systems where new insights are rather integrated into existing notes. Accordingly, features that support the creation of new notes are more worthwhile for small note systems. Advanced templating and the ability to quickly create new notes simply rises in value when you create ten notes per day, as compared to when you only create one note per week. The same is true for plugins that automatically file away a note or plugins that automatically index your notes. Moreover, a larger number of notes means that the overall knowledge base, on average, should also have a higher amount of metadata as well: To a degree, a higher share of metadata is even required, since searching for note titles without considering metadata can be tricky as the search results are far more crowded than with big note systems. This gives plugins for handling metadata and the aforementioned database-type plugins also a higher affinity for small note systems.
Another consequence of having a high number of smaller notes is that you tend to switch between notes more often, as your knowledge is in a sense more "spread out" than with a system of big notes. Ergo features for quickly switching between notes are another area with greater utility for the creators of small notes. This includes not only plugins that literally have "Quick Switcher" in their name, but also plugins for quickly jumping to other notes. Yet another approach is to peek into a note rather than actually switching to it. Features like note preview popovers come to mind in that regard. Imagine how useful it would be to get a small preview of a note when the linked note is 2000 words long as compared to a preview of a note that only consists of two paragraphs.
Tools for Taking Big Notes
What about big notes then? Compared to small notes, you tend to spend more time in one single note. This means that instead of tools to navigate between notes, you are in greater need of tools to navigate inside a note. The prime example of a tool that helps with this note outlines, which make little sense when your note has one or two paragraphs, but are invaluable when you are dealing with dozens of headings and subheadings. Quick-Switcher-type plugins, are useful here, too – not primarily for their ability to switch between notes, but for their (often lesser-known) capabilities for navigating to headings, or other locations inside the current note.
An alternative to such "intra-note-navigation" would be to selectively display certain extracts of a big note. This is essentially the purpose of folding and related functionalities, which are therefore also more valuable for big notes. After all, folding a heading in a note that only has two headings does not really make much sense. Database-type plugins, too, can be useful in this regard, if not for the ability to aggregate notes, but for their ability to selectively query for specific note contents like tasks. Closely related, there is also the possibility of increasing the scannability of a note. Colorful tags, icons for internal links or icons for external links don't just look pretty but create visual anchor points for finding relevant information in a larger note. The minimap-feature of code editors goes in a similar direction, and I suspect that we are going to see minimaps-functionalities appearing in note-taking apps sooner or later as well.
As explained before, big note systems tend to create structure via note-formatting rather than note-linking. This means that any tools that help with the creation of structure within a note become more relevant for vaults consisting of large notes. On the one hand, there are tools that automatically create a Table of Contents. On the other hand, there are tools for quicker re-arranging list items or automatically fixing heading levels. However, while links to other notes are less important, they still carry some value for big note systems. The ability to link to specific headings or even blocks can make it far more comfortable to navigate a vault consisting of large notes. Notably, such links can be also used to link from a location in a note to a different location inside the very same note, too.
And lastly, in contrast to small note systems where the primary method of adding knowledge is to create a new note, the addition of information to a big note system mostly happens through appending text to an existing note. Big note systems benefit more from utilities that efficiently append, prepend, or move text, rather than tools that enhance templating. Hence, plugins like Text Transporter work well with big notes, since they give you the ability to append text to specific note locations without even having to navigate to the another note.
While there is the completely justified criticism that you should focus on your notes instead of trying out every shiny, new toy that arrives at the horizon, one should not falls into the trap of disregard the question of tool choice completely. Tools are not neutral, since they do require us to operate with certain practices. And Note-taking practices are not tool-agnostic, since they tend to work better with some tools than with others. The question is maybe not whether we should take big or small notes, but rather whether we are using the right tools for the kind of notes we produce.
Considering the type of note that a tool is (often only implicitly) tailored to can help us find the tools we actually need. Or perhaps we can go the other way around and adapt our note-taking style to the type of tools we are most proficient with? In the end, if you do want to transition from one note-taking system to another, there are some tools that might help out with that, as well.
Chris Grieser is a Research Associate in Sociology at the Technical University of Berlin (Germany). In his PhD-Project, he investigates the governance of software ecosystems. Also known as
pseudometa, he created several smaller plugins and a theme for Obsidian.
Credit for this title goes to @TfTHacker. ↩︎
This does not mean that there are no size restrictions anymore in the digital age. Wikipedia's guidelines, for instance, mention that articles should not be longer than 32 Kb (~32000 characters), since any bigger file sizes are problematic for users on mobile devices or with a slow internet connection. ↩︎
Ahrens, S. (2017). How to take smart notes. CreateSpace, p. 129-130. ↩︎
Luhmann, N. (1981). Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen. Communicating with Slip-Boxes, English Translation by Manfred Kühn. ↩︎
Abbott, A. (2014). Digital paper: A manual for research and writing with library and internet materials. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, p. 150. ↩︎
By the way, did you know that in Obsidian, you even link to a subheading of a heading?
[[note-title#heading#subheading]]actually works to disambiguate a subheading that occurs multiple times within a note. (Credits to @pmbauer for pointing out this hidden feature.) ↩︎
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).