literature notes with Obsidian

How to Write Literature Notes with Obsidian

A sneak peak into my Zettelkasten workflow

A lot of folks get confused about literature note. But there’s nothing confusing about it. 

A literature note is not much different from a regular note you might take. 

The main idea of creating a literature note is to help you capture important ideas, and arguments from the source material. Be it a book, research paper, or a video.

A literature note is a convenient way to store relevant information from a source material, that eliminates the need to revisit the original source, repeatedly.

It serves as a bridge between source materials and your own synthesized knowledge, which can be further developed into atomic notes or permanent notes.

One of the most significant benefits of taking literature notes is that it forces you to slow down your reading. 

While this may seem counterintuitive to your reading goals, this helps you gain a deeper understanding of the subject. Additionally, taking literature notes helps to improve your retention and comprehension of the material.

How to write literature notes

While there are no hard and fast rules for writing literature notes, there are some guiding principles to help you create high-quality notes that can be referenced in the future.

  • Maintain a consistent bibliography: Maintain a consistent bibliography in your literature notes. If you’re an academic, you may need to use a specific citation style. Otherwise, simply add source information such as the link to the source, author, and other relevant details.
  • Don’t Copy: By all means, resist the temptation to copy verbatim from the source. Instead, paraphrase the author’s ideas in your own words. This helps you engage with the ideas and internalize them. Only quote the author directly if necessary.
  • Engage with the Material: Engage with the material critically. Don’t just passively transcribe the information; instead, think about how the ideas relate to your own knowledge and understanding. Ask questions, make connections, and note any counterarguments or areas of disagreement. This active engagement will help you better understand and retain the material.
  • Focus on the essential: Avoid unnecessary detail and don’t write every single thing from the source material. As a rule of thumb, I aim to make literature note less than 1/10th of the source material. Focus on capturing the main ideas and key takeaways.
  • Keep it short: Don’t spend too much time writing long, perfect sentences. Aim for brevity and summarize the main ideas. Avoid getting caught up in unnecessary details. Use bullet points and shorter sentences.

How I take Literature Note

I’ll share my literature note workflow to help you better understand the whole process. 

Throughout the example, I’ll be using a book as source material, but the process is similar for other course materials like courses, videos, research papers, and web articles as well.

After more than three years of PKM journey, I’ve come to realize that the best way to read is with intention. If you’re reading purely for entertainment, that’s perfectly fine.

However, since you’re reading this article, I assume you’re reading for more than just fun. When learning new things through reading, it’s essential to have a clear goal in mind.

Why are you reading? Is it to acquire a new skill, learn new concepts, conduct research, solve a problem, or for self-development?

Having a clear question or purpose fundamentally alters how you engage with the material.

When you read with a specific purpose or question in mind, you’ll gain different insights from the same source material each time you read. The insights will be based on your current frame of mind and what you’re trying to learn or understand.

As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Similarly, you can never read the same book twice, as your perspective and understanding will have changed with time.

Also, It’s crucial to choose high-quality sources and reading materials. 

In the past couple of years, I’ve shifted from reading online articles and watching YouTube videos to reading books. They are thoroughly researched and well written, in most cases.

My Literature Note-taking Workflow

A lot of Highlights 

Almost all of my reading is digital. During the initial reading phase, I highlight anything that seems important or noteworthy. 

I don’t waste time deciding whether something is worth highlighting or note. 

If it catches my attention, or if I think this is important, it gets highlighted.

This approach allows me to focus on the content of the book rather than getting bogged down in decision-making.

Re-reading and Processing Highlights

After finishing a chapter or a particular section (for a dense book), I revisit my highlights. 

I re-read them and process them into literature notes. If I’m reading without access to my computer, I defer processing until I regain access. 

Previously, I tried processing highlights as I take them, but that disrupted my reading flow too much. I also tried waiting until finishing the entire book. It would normally take me 10 days to read a 300 pages book. But by then, I’d often forget the context around many highlights, forcing me to re-read surrounding parts. 

I’ve found that the chapter/section-by-section approach suits best for me. 

Writing actual literature note

For each note, I include the book’s bibliographic details (author, title, etc.) at the top. 

As a non-academic, I keep it simple, but academics may need to use specific citation styles. 

Below the bibliographic information, I add a note type indicator to distinguish literature notes from other notes. And below that will be my actual literature note. My thoughts and synthesis of authors ideas. Written briefly in my own words.


The process is straightforward: I read the book, highlighting important passages and sections as I go. 

Next, I re-read the highlights and process them into a literature note in Obsidian. To avoid forgetting the context, I try to process the notes after finishing each chapter.

Here’s a screenshot of a literature note from the book I’m currently reading:

1*FrjQrkt WNG9YAEmgXoTEQ

At the top, I include bibliographic information like the book title and author. 

Below that, I use the #litnote tag to specify this is a literature note. I also add a #todevelop tag to indicate this note still needs further processing.

Once processed, I’ll remove the #todevelop tag.

I prefer writing literature notes in bullet points, which saves me time and helps me keep my notes brief. You’ll notice the sentences are incomplete, but since I’ve already read the book, I understand the context to fill in the gaps.

As I write the literature note, if I think an idea is worth developing into a permanent note, I simply add a link to the literature note itself.

This is time-consuming. Reading, re-reading, and writing is a lot of work. But understand this:

Anyone can sit through a material. But it takes efforts to truly understand and learn from it. 

Digital Zettelkasten

This article is taken from a book I’m writing called Digital Zettelaksten: How to take Smart Notes with Obsidian. Thank you everyone for signing up for the waitlist

If you have any suggestions, do write them in the comments. 

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