Digital Smart Notes Part 3: Creating Literature Notes in Roam Research

They struggle because they believe, as they are made to believe, that writing starts with a blank page. -Sönke Ahrens, "How to Take Smart Notes"

Digital Smart Notes Part 3: Creating Literature Notes in Roam Research

They struggle because they believe, as they are made to believe, that writing starts with a blank page. -Sönke Ahrens, "How to Take Smart Notes"

This article is part 3 of my series discussing how I capture, process, and use digital "smart notes" based on the methodology outlined in Sönke Ahrens' "How to Take Smart Notes."

As a refresher, here are the high-level tasks described in "How to Take Smart Notes."

  • Make fleeting notes.
  • Make literature notes.
  • Make permanent notes.

In Part 1, I described how to collect highlights and fleeting notes from many different sources using Readwise. In Part 2, I explained how to set up Readwise to export the highlights and notes you have captured into Roam Research. Now that the highlights and fleeting notes are in Roam Research, we can process them into literature notes.

Please note that this article assumes that you have some familiarity with Roam Research. If you're just getting started, I would recommend checking out the following resources that have helped me.

Literature Notes

...the literature notes will be stored within the reference system together with the bibliographic details, separate from the slip-box, but still close to the context of the original text, they are already written with an eye towards the lines of thoughts within the slip-box. -Sönke Ahrens, "How to Take Smart Notes"

When this system was analog, a physical slip-box contained your notes. In digital format, the slip-box exists as a concept. The next article in this series will go into more detail about the slip-box and permanent notes.

While literature notes are written with an eye towards "lines of thought," or permanent notes, their scope remains related to the media piece from which they are derived. My literature notes are almost always a declarative statement that sums up, in my own words, the idea that the author was trying to portray. Multiple literature notes on the same topic or concept will then be used as sources to create a permanent note.

Creating a Literature Note in Roam Research

If you followed the instructions in part 2 of this series, you would have a new page in Roam Research for each media piece you captured with Readwise. You create literature notes by going through your highlights and notes that Readwise imported and starting a new page for each note under the "Literature Notes" section of the media page. By the time you finish a media piece, you will have accumulated one or more literature notes related to the media. We will use the "How to Take Smart Notes" page for this example.

Roam Research: "How to Take Smart Notes" Page
Roam Research: "How to Take Smart Notes" Page

The following is the process that I use for creating each literature note.

  • Focus on and open the "Literature Notes" section of the Readwise media page in the right sidebar of Roam Research by shift-clicking the bullet next to "Literature Notes."
  • Focus on the block of the highlights group you are working on by clicking the bullet next to the text that reads "Highlights first synced by #Readwise ..."
  • Now work your way down the highlights, creating literature note pages indented under the "Literature Notes" section that you have opened in the right sidebar. You can do this by typing "double brackets" and filling in the literature note's title in between the brackets.
  • Shift-click the newly created "literature note page reference" to open it in the right sidebar. You can fill in all of the literature note details to give it some structure that will enhance search and discovery when you need to refer to it later. For example, when you need to create a permanent note.

The Components of the Literature Note

Block References for Source Highlights in a Literature Note
Block References for Source Highlights in a Literature Note

I use a modified literature note structure derived from Zakk Fleischman's article "Implementing Zettelkasten in Roam." The components of the literature note are all attributes. They will be followed with two colons except for "Notes:" at the end. Their descriptions are as follows:

  • The note itself- Page Name
  • Tags- These are the tags I have assigned to the literature note to make it more searchable in Roam. At a minimum, I use "#[[Literature Notes]]" and "#Reference" This indicates that the page is a literature note that belongs in my system as a "Reference."
  • Source- This is a page reference that is derived from the media piece page.
  • Quote- These are the specific highlights or fleeting notes that sparked the idea for the literature note. I use block references here by alt-dragging them under the "Quote" section or right-clicking on the block bullet and selecting "copy block reference." One particular advantage to using block references here is that you will be able to tell which highlights have already been referenced by looking at the number located to the right of the highlight block.
  • Projects- I reference any related projects that might apply to this note.
  • Notes- This section has a brief expansion of the original literature note title statement.

Roam Templates

Roam Research has a templating capability, so you will not have to type out all of these sections every time you want to fill out a new literature note. The process for this is as follows:

  • Create a new page called "roam/templates"
  • The initial block on that page will be the title for your template. In this case, we will call it "Literature Note."
  • Indent a block under the "Literature Note" block and copy the structure for your literature note template under the "Literature Note" block.
Roam Research Literature Note Template
Roam Research Literature Note Template

Now when you type two semi-colons (;;) you can choose from a list of templates to use for auto-completion. Select the appropriate template, and then the text will be auto-completed for you.

Invoking the Roam Research Template
Invoking the Roam Research Template

Writing Begins with the First Note Taken

They struggle because they believe, as they are made to believe, that writing starts with a blank page. -Sönke Ahrens, "How to Take Smart Notes"

"Writing begins with the first note taken" is one of my literature notes. I thought it essential to capture as a reminder of why I'm doing all of this note-taking. My objective is to learn. I believe one of the best ways to learn is by writing. The notes are an integral part of that process.

By doing the requisite work, we can get closer to crystalizing and packaging our thoughts. The next article in this series will detail how to crystalize literature notes into permanent notes further. Then, we can begin to unlock the superpowers that taking smart notes provides for us.

Harley Stagner

I'm an IT professional working in technical marketing. I truly believe that our thoughts are the most unique asset that we can offer to the world. This will be a curated collection of mine.

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