How I Take Notes With Vim, Markdown, and Pandoc

May 15, 2018 - 6 min read

I’ve gone through quite a few revisions of my note-taking process and now that I’m in my final year of school, I think I’ve finally found a system that I’m going to stick with. In this post, I will describe this system and explain why I like it so much.

tl;dr: I write notes in Markdown with Vim and Vimwiki on my computer and with Markor on my phone, keep them in sync with Syncthing, and view them as web pages and PDFs that I generate with pandoc.

You might be wondering what things I’m taking notes on that are important enough to warrant a whole post on how I take them. Right now, the main thing is lectures for classes, but I also take notes on:

  • books that I read
  • movies that I watch
  • important conversations
  • interesting things that I learn about people
  • projects that I am work on
  • recipes
  • ideas for future blog posts

My Note-Taking History

For some context, in addition to taking notes with the method I describe in this post, I have tried taking notes with pen and paper, with Google Docs, with Evernote, and with Simplenote.

Of these methods, I stuck with pen and paper the longest. I still like taking handwritten notes, but for most use cases I value the ability to search through and format my notes on my computer over the extra expressiveness of handwritten notes.

Evernote and Simplenote are great tools and I would recommend them for most people, but I personally prefer to keep my notes in simple files on my filesystem that I can organize, modify, and parse however I want to.

How I Settled On This System

One problem that I’ve had with digital note-taking tools and apps is that they’re not Vim. This might sound like a joke, but once you start using Vim regularly, you can begin to feel handicapped without it.

(For those who don’t know what Vim is, it’s a text editor that encourages a completely mouse-free workflow. It has an extensive and elegant system of composable keybindings that enable users to perform complex editing tasks with minimal hand movement.)

Vim is not a WYSIWYG editor, but I like using nice formatting features, like headings, lists, tables, and pretty math, so I needed to pick a markup language. At first I thought I might use LaTeX because I was familiar with it and it has nice default styles, but ended up going with Markdown after discovering pandoc, and learning that I could write documents in simple Markdown and then use it to convert them to LaTeX-formatted PDFs, HTML pages, and a bunch of other formats.

Organization

I keep most of my notes in ~/Documents/notes, under subdirectories for different topics or types of notes. For example, the notes for my computer security class are in ~/Documents/notes/school/cs136. Within individual notes, I link to others with standard Markdown link syntax, and can quickly navigate to them by placing my cursor over the link I want to navigate to and pressing Enter, thanks to the Vimwiki plugin.

Viewing

When I need to read my notes, whether it’s just for a quick reference or to study for a big exam, I have a few different methods set up.

In Vim

Vimwiki makes it really easy to navigate through a bunch of Markdown notes. I have an index.md that looks something like this:

---
title: My Knowledge Base
subtitle: >
  This is a collection of things that I know,
  things that I learn,
  and things that I want to remember.
---

## School

- [Computer Science](school/computer-science)
- [Math](school/math)
- [Physics](school/physics)

## Technologies

Tips and tricks on different applications and technologies that
I've found myself needing to look up more than once.

#### Languages

- [Go](technologies/go)
- [Python](technologies/python)

#### Tools

- [Postgres](technologies/postgres)
- [MySQL](technologies/mysql)
- [SSH](technologies/open-ssh)
- [Git](technologies/git)

#### Other

- [Linux Audio](technologies/linux-audio)
- [Progressive Web Apps](technologies/pwas)
- [Machine Learning](technologies/machine-learning)

## Misc

- [Favorite Film Moments](film-moments)
- [Recipes](recipes/index)
- [Project Ideas](projects/ideas)
- [Blog Post Ideas](blog-post-ideas)
- [Music to Listen To](music-to-listen-to)
- [Book Notes](books/index)
- [People](people/index)
- [Quotes I Like](quotes)

This file links to all my different categories of notes and is a nice “home base” for them. It also makes for a nice homepage when I convert the notes to a static website.

On The Web

For quick things, the most common way I look at notes is actually with a web browser. I have a Makefile that converts all of my Markdown notes to HTML using pandoc and deploys them to my server where they’re served behind HTTP auth. The Makefile looks something like this:

MD_FILES=$(shell find . -name \*.md)
HTML_FILES=$(MD_FILES:.md=.html)
BUILD_HTML_FILES=$(HTML_FILES:%=build/%)

all: $(BUILD_HTML_FILES)

build/assets/%: assets/%
        @mkdir -p $$(dirname $@)
        cp $? $@
        
build/%.html: %.md template.html
	@mkdir -p $$(dirname $@)
	pandoc -o $@ --template=template.html $<

deploy:
        rsync --recursive --human-readable --delete --info=progress2 \
               build/* my_server

Right now I’m running this manually after I make changes to my notes that I want to deploy but I might automate it in the future.

On My Phone

I use Syncthing to keep my notes directory in sync between my machines and my phone. I also use the Markor app to manage and edit the notes on my phone. This app is nice because it makes it easy to navigate my notes directory and the built in editor formats Markdown files nicely.

In Print

When I have a big exam coming up, it sometimes helps to make a PDF of all my notes to study off of. For this, I’ve created Makefiles for specific classes that produce a nice looking PDF of all my notes for the class. For example, this is my Makefile for a software engineering class I’m taking right now:

MD_FILES=about.md 130-final-notes.md general-advice.md requirements.md \
         software-processes.md modeling.md architectural-design.md \
         design-of-components.md software-quality.md \
         configuration-management.md testing.md week-2-discussion.md \
         week-3-discussion.md week-4-discussion.md
PDF_FILES=$(MD_FILES:.md=.pdf)
BUILD_PDF_FILES=$(PDF_FILES:%=build/%)
EXTRA_PDFS=sample-midterm-solutions.pdf

130.pdf: $(BUILD_PDF_FILES)
        gs -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -dCompatibilityLevel=1.4 -dPDFSETTINGS=/default \
                -dNOPAUSE -dQUIET -dBATCH -dDetectDuplicateImages
                -dCompressFonts=true -r150 -sOutputFile=$@ $^ $(EXTRA_PDFS)

build/%.pdf: %.md
        @mkdir -p $$(dirname $@)
        pandoc -V geometry:margin=1in -o $@ $?

This converts each file to a PDF and then uses Ghostscript to combine them all into one. It also lets me include any other PDFs I have, like the sample midterm in my example. This has been super handy for open-note tests.

Caveats

I like this system a lot but it’s not perfect.

One issue with it is that I have a lot of fun tweaking and “optimizing” my Vim configuration and note taking process. I put “optimizing” in quotes because this often ends up taking more of my time than the “optimizations” actually save, and I’ll commonly miss chunks of lectures because I got distracted trying to fix the syntax highlighting for misspelled words in my Vim colorscheme or trying to decide on a better font size for the headers in my generated PDFs.

Another area with room for improvement is in my use of the Vimwiki plugin. It’s a powerful plugin with a bunch of cool features, but the only one I’m really using right now is the ability to navigate to linked documents. I think that my process could be improved by either using a more minimal plugin that includes only that feature or by starting to take advantage of more of Vimwiki’s features.

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