Semantic Notes

Like any good productivity system, Tyler Reinhard’s Semantic Notes are both obvious and awesome.

Update: Years later, the original article no longer exists. Here, if nothing else, are the symbols as originally described:

- (hyphen) for unordered lists
* (asterisk) for checklists
? (question mark) for help files
_ (underscore) for unprocessed scratch notes
@ (at symbol) for tweets on deck
¶ (pilcrow) for paragraphs and snippet strings
¢ (cent sign) for code
§ (section mark) for final work, or text not to be edited
# (octothorp) for subjects to remember, inversely graduated for importance
ø (slashed o) for outlines

Does Tyler Reinhard still use these? Does he remember that brief moment when a bunch of nerds got real excited about annotating plaintext note titles?

Well, who even knows. What I can tell you, if you're still into the plaintext notes thing, is that the fundamental idea--use plaintext notes, and prefix the filename of the note with a symbol indicating what kind of note it is---remains promising.

But the specifics of Reinhard's implementation have become rather less so. Using such adornments (or at least these specific adornments) introduces friction, enough that I've long since given up on them. If you're writing snippets and drafts on iOS, as much of the intended audience for this thing probably is, how do you type a pilcrow? (You can't.) If you're running with GTD, do you really want to spend part of your review on reading your dozen-plus unprocessed notes, and painstakingly updating that symbol? (Not that second part, anyway.) Can any one person determine that a particular note is so important that it deserves one octothorp as opposed to two? (Madness!) Do you actually care that much about your tweets? (lol)

The point is, "semantic" notes are much fussier than you'd expect from the premise. And fussy things tend to serve the purpose of fussiness---that's part of their charm. (C.f. the defunct app Birdhouse, Wes Anderson, etc.) But the primary purpose of a notetaking system is not to fulfill a base level of fussiness; it's to exist as the slimmest possible layer between your brain and where the contents of your brain are stored.