Are you taking notes?

Are you taking notes?
Photo by Jan Kahánek / Unsplash

I've been using digital note-taking tools for a while now. For a really long while. OneNote, Evernote, Workflowy and Obsidian, to name a few. They help me keep track of different conversations, ideas, and information that I'd otherwise never remember, or at least never find again.

For the last couple of years I've been using a tool called Dendron - it fitted my needs pretty well, and in particular is very good at creating flexible-enough structure. Unfortunately, the development team have just announced it's not going to be actively developed any more.

So, I need to look around and see if it makes sense to migrate to another tool. It's not urgent, but it seems like a good chance to check what's changed since the last time I looked. If you feel like you're struggling to keep track of things, want a bit more insight into how the stuff you're doing relates to the other stuff you're doing, or just want to get into the habit of writing more regularly, then a new note taking tool could be the way to do it.

Keeping it simple

Whenever you mention digital note-taking, there's usually someone there to tell you that you don't need anything, and you should just use pen and paper. I'm all for using the simplest viable solution, but for me, keeping all my notes on paper just doesn't work. Here's my main issues:

  • Finding the information I need in stacks of old notebooks gets worse and worse over time. Finding something in a couple of notebooks is a bearable chore. Finding that same thing when you have 15? Impossible.
  • You need to know ahead of time how you're going to organise things. Indexes are all very well, but what if the context changes?
  • You can't revise and develop notes, or add to an existing note as it develops, without either leaving a ton of blank pages or creating a choose-your-own-adventure of note fragments.
  • It's impossible - Zettlekasten excepted - to maintain relationships between notes, and to link them up.
  • Carting around a load of notebooks, and a big filing cabinet of paper cards, just simply doesn't work unless you always work in the same physical place.

Perhaps these aren't so much of a problem if you're a naturally organised person with a simple, straightforward job and life. But I'm neither of those things. I need something that's going to give me the structure I need, and cope with complexity.

That's not to say I don't sometimes take notes on paper. They can be really useful for sketching out ideas, and for less formal in-person conversations where a computer would get in the way. But most of the time, paper notes just don't cut it.

What I need from my notes

One advantage of having played with quite so many of these tools is getting clearer on the things I need, and the things I'd like, from note-taking tools. In general, the more flexible the better, as anything which needs to be used in one specific way is likely to clash with my workflow, my brainflow, or both.


If an app doesn't have these, there's no point in going any further. In no particular order, they're all requirements.

  • Works across multiple different devices - Any note-taking app needs to work on the stuff I use, and keep in sync.
  • Has dark mode - Life is too short to regularly use an app that's so bright you need to squint.
  • Has collaboration features - Sharing notes, and working with others, is vital.
  • Has decent security and privacy - I need to be able to control what gets shared, and when.
  • Lets you import and export notes - There's got to be a way in, and a way out, for everything you write. Simple is good, so this probably means it uses plain-text files to store things. Plus, I need to get everything that's in Dendron into it!
  • Supports Markdown - Too much formatting gets in the way, but Markdown is enough for basic notes.
  • Lets you link notes - Connecting, and visualising notes is vital if you think in links like I do.
  • Supports templates - Having some structure for certain documents is vital for doing things in a consistent way, where that's needed.
  • Has tags - These are a useful way of organising across different categories, and I use them a fair bit.


These things aren't vital, but they'd definitely be a plus.

  • Works nicely on mobile devices.
  • Has support for diagrams and visual organisation.
  • Supports tasks and todo management.
  • Lets you selectively publish notes on the web.
  • Is Open Source and extensible. Bonus points if it's extensible in Python, because then I have a fighting chance of putting stuff together myself.
  • Is being actively developed.
  • Plays nicely with my reference management app, Zotero.
  • Has hierachical tags. I like to organise stuff in multiple, overlapping hierarchies, and this is the best way to manage that flavour of chaos.

Some options


This is the one I'm using at the moment. It manages all of the basics really well, and has great publishing features. It's Open Source, though unfortunately is not being actively developed at the moment. Plus, there's never been a great solution for Dendron on mobile., and it needs a bit of technical knowledge to get going. If you're comfortable with VS Code and Git, you'll be fine. If not, then you'll need to be!


It might not be Open Source, but OneNote is a good option if you're not too much of a techie. And you've already got Office, you've likely paid for a copy already. It's great for visual note-taking and sketching. Unfortunately, it's hard to get data in and out of, and it doesn't support Markdown. So it's out of the running for me.


This is an app that's been around a while, and has a lot of exciting features that Dendron doesn't, including the ability to map out notes visually on a whiteboard. That's a big one for me personally. It also has a big ecosystem of plugins around it, and an active user community.

However, it's not so good on collaboration and publishing. There's a few plugins for publishing on the web and exporting data, but very little for true collaboration on a single Logseq knowledge store.


Joplin feels like an Open Source version of Evernote, or perhaps OneNote. It's got a nice clear interface, and is really easy to get data in and out of. It also has a paid, hosted option with lots of collaboration and web-editing features.

It's not so good on linked knowledge. Everything is organised into notebooks, without easy ways to connect them up and keep track of them. Because that's so important to me, it's probably enough to rule Jopin out, but if you're more of a linear, organised thinker, it might work for you.


This app is inspired by the Zettelkasten method I mentioned earlier. It's really focused on research and on the relationships between notes. Otherwise, it's a very pure and straightforward app.

It might be a little too pure for my needs, as it doesn't have so much to handle things like tasks. It also doesn't have much in the way of collaboration and sharing features that I can see.


In some ways this app is the most like Dendron, in that it's a plugin for VS Code, rather than its own standalone app. It aims to be a local, Open Source version of the SaaS notes tool Roam Research. It's got a robust set of the core features you need for a personal wiki, and is based on standard files that can interact well with plugins.

What it lacks, though, is much in the way of collaboration features, or pretty much anything else that you can't do outside of the app itself. I think that's partly by design, but it's kind of a limitation unless you really like rolling your own everything.

Where now?

There isn't a single, clear answer to the note-taking problem right now. For my own, personal notes, it looks like Logseq is the best bet. Joplin and Zettlr might also work, with a bit more tinkering and giving up some features I'd like.

Logseq isn't perfect; it's a lot weaker on the publishing side than many others, and as I have a couple of Dendron vaults on the web for various things, I might need to keep those for the time being. But it's worth trying out.

If you're another Dendron user looking around wondering where to go next, then don't panic. The joy of using Open Source software is that it won't go away, you can still use it, and the team are still working on bug fixes right now. I really hope they can find more funding and support, too.

If you're starting from scratch, then there are lots of options. If you choose one of the more open ones, then Logseq and Joplin seem like clear front-runners. If you prefer data-driven, networked, complex stuff, then Logseq is likely better. If you'd like something more straightforward with great sharing features, the Joplin could be better.

What I'm going to do next - and what I suggest you do too - is download one and try it out. Import your existing notes, see how things move over. If it doesn't work then I'll try others over time. For me, that first one is going to be Logseq. Let me know which note app you're using, and how, in the comments!