Different types of notes and use cases

In taking notes and making annotations recently, I’ve started a list of some of the broad semantic types I’ve come across. 


New ideas spurred by reading, potentially for future expansion and refinement.


Questions relating to the the text. What’s missing? What should have been asked or addressed? What biases exist that should be addressed?


Paraphrases and [[progressive summaries]] of articles or portions of articles. Restatements of ideas which may be reused in other contexts.


Basic, usually new, facts highlighted for future use and/or [[spaced repetition]]


Old school sententiae, aphorisms, and quotes for use in the future


Direct communication with others

Phatic notes and Reactions

Reactions, exhortations (Ha!, funny, ROFL, LOL, etc.), reacji, !, ?, ⭐, basic signs of life while reading


Are there any big holes I’m missing based on your experiences?

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

22 thoughts on “Different types of notes and use cases”

    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      I often add cross-referencing as form of very powerful meta data to notes, but don’t think I’ve ever had a stand-alone note for just that. Definitely needs to be added to the list though as I expect it’s a relatively common practice.

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    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      Good call Doug.

      Tags and links are certainly integral pieces though I tend to think of them as meta data attached to a note, or in the commonplace book tradition, notes are kept under these topic headings as a storage method.

      Marginalia with taxonomic words like “metaphor” or “simile” could be the entirety of an annotation, so they feel similar to the reactions category, but could potentially be their own category which we might name “Examples” for lack of a better shorthand? In practice they could be used for collecting evidence for potential patterns as well.

      These can also have the feel of highlights or marks which imply a “bookmark” functionality as a note to the user to revisit a place as well. While these are often practiced and should be categorized, they have a desperate laziness to them. If they’re truly important, why not write something more substantive contemporaneously and firmly place them into one of the other higher level categories? I find that when I practice such laziness myself, I rarely ever revisit them to do the required work after-the-fact.

      This also brings up the idea that some highlights, particularly done in the sense of “I like this turn of phrase” or “there’s something unique about this sentence and the language here” don’t rise to the level of a quotation with respect to how one may use it later, but that these fit into a sort of “Examples” category as well. I’ll also often add a circle with a dot in the margin (and I’ve seen others highlight or underline) words which they don’t know and these could be considered examples (of words one wants to learn) as well.

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  1. @chrisaldrich I think this was originally Nick – I can’t find the post – it might be in his ‘LYT’ world — but found this on another blog:

    And to indicate each note’s maturation stage, I use hashtags:

    📤: Seedbox | items that I am / will be working actively on

    🌱: Seedling | items grown from literature notes that still need incubation

    🪴: Sapling | items in need of planting among other trees

    🌲: Evergreen | fundamental unit of knowledge work, stable for dense linking to & from

  2. @JohnPhilpin Thanks for digging these up. I’d seen Nick Ang’s articles when he first published them. Most of this list is rife in the digital gardens space with a gardening metaphor that goes back to Mark Bernstein’s Hypertext Gardens (1998) and to Mike Caulfield’s The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral piece. Maggie Appleton used a version of it fairly early on as did Andy Matuschak. See also links at https://indieweb.org/commonplace_book. Most of these levels are evolutionary after the initial work of starting the note has begun. Anecdotally, I’ve also noticed that many people using that system look at “evergreen” more from the journalistic perspective (an evergreen article) and consider those notes to be longer articles rather than reusable notes in multiple contexts.

    But being completely honest the general collecting and tending metaphor goes back to antiquity (and possibly earlier). In writing about classic rhetoric Seneca the Younger wrote in Epistulae morales

    “We should follow, men say, the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in; these bees, as our Vergil says, ‘pack close the flowering honey | And swell their cells with nectar sweet.’ ”

    He’s essentially saying, ‘read the best, take their thoughts and ideas, consume them, make them your own.’ As a result of this quote and others similar to it, it’s not uncommon to see bees or the equivlaent Latin word apes written or drawn into the margins of Renaisance humanist texts as a sort of “bookmark” annotation by readers of the time. 🐝

    Another gradation of note names similar to this is that of Sönke Ahrens with descriptors like fleeting notes, reading notes, literature notes, etc.

    The thing I’m looking at in my particular list is the form of the intial note at the level of an annotation made at first reading. These descriptions may be more indicative of what the note may or may not become later on. I’ve also ranked them a bit from (for me at least) the more important and valuable to the least. Differentiating them at this lower level can be more important as a means of where to focus one’s time and energy.

    I also tend to take the approach of doing more upfront work than less. Using the gardening metaphor list, I usually intend to get my notes to the seedling/sapling level at the first pass while reading. Usually once they’re in my system for a week or so, they should all be at sapling level and then it’s a question of linking and crosslinking them and then actually using them in new contexts thereafter.

  3. @JohnPhilpin I have tried a similar approach in the past, but in the end decided that it didn’t matter and only complicated my workflow. What criteria does a note need to pass to go to the next level?
    Instead, I now simply consider all my notes a work in progress. I have one simple rule: whenever I open a note, I have to improve it. This way, my most used notes are also the most developed notes.

  4. @JohnPhilpin Thanks. Most of what I’ve seen in the Twittersphere and some of the note taking and tools for though space is incredibly thin, so I’ve been trying to dig into the background and history for some more considered approaches by studying people who’ve spent years using similar systems rather than people who’ve (re-)discovered them in the last year or two and are reinventing the wheel. Better to look at Mortimer J. Adler’s writing and examples. Manfred Keuhn is a more recent writer with both experience and some appreciation for the history of the space.

    For others on mb, it might be worth reading (and listening) to @AndySylvester.

    @jeroensangers idea is similar to some of my process as well. @JohnPhilpin I use the random note occasionally to review over old tidbits, but I’d recommend against using random note for progressive improvement. You’ll probably find that you’re more productive and have more fun by reading and impoving the notes on the areas you care about and enjoy the most. Not coincidentally those are also the places you’re more likely to re-visit and re-poen as well.

  5. Hey Chris! In the recent instantiation of Roam Book Club, we tried three primitives for syntopical reading: Questions, Terms, and Propositions. These were my interpretation of how they are discussed in How To Read A Book.

    Looks like you have Questions already. Propositions could potentially be captured by Paraphrases, but Propositions are explicitly declarative (i.e. claims of the author or your own ones). Then Terms are words or phrases of import to the text that you define clearly. These need not be the exact words from the text(s), but rather a handle that you and those working with you use to refer to a particular concept.

    I found that this worked well as a “bare minimum” for collecting notes around the books we were reading. I do note that the books were less fact heavy so we didn’t have a dedicated fact primitive or proper noun one. Reactions were captured with emoji on blocks. Quotes were used to support the other primitives.

  6. Chris Aldrich says:

    It should be recognized that these basic note types are very different than the digital garden framing of (seedbox), (seedling), (sapling), (evergreen), etc. which are another measure of the growth and expansion of not just one particular idea but potentially multiple ideas over time. These are a project management sort of tool for focusing on the growth of ideas. Within some tools, one might also use graph views and interconnectedness as means of charting this same sort of growth.

    Sönke Ahrens’ framing of fleeting note, literature note, and permanent note are a value assignation to the types of each of these notes with respect to generating new ideas and writing.

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