Mini Essays and Note Taking Software

Promising tools for learning and writing

May 3, 2024

I recently came across a YouTube video that talked about the value writing “mini essays” has and I decided that mini-essays solve a problem that I have. Over the years I’ve been writing this blog it has become the place I go to record and expound on the things that I learn and the interesting thoughts that I have. But not all of my learnings or thoughts are worth writing an entire article about, there have been several times where I have begun to write something only to realize that I didn’t have all that much to say. Mini essays let me put those small ideas down somewhere that they can grow into a larger one without being forgotten.

In fact the guy in the video pushes them as “the ultimate learning tool.” Writing something is akin to teaching something and figuring out how to teach something is the best way to learn it. In order to sound smart the video guy brought up whatever dead semi-famous smart guy came up with the idea that teaching was the best way to learn but I didn’t need an appeal to authority to be convinced of that idea, it is how I’ve always learned and my most valuable motivation for keeping this blog going.

But again, I can’t write a two thousand word article about everything. For example, the other day I was watching Tucker Carlson interview Mike Rowe and Rowe brought up an interesting talking point that touches on a topic I’ve been wanting to revisit for a while. I considered writing a full article about it but that one quote didn’t have enough for me to milk and I didn’t have anything else I could really tie into it. So I gave up on that article and I hoped I wouldn’t forget about that quote when I’d need it but I knew I probably would because I’ve forgotten plenty of similar things in the past. My blog alone is only an effective learning tool for big things, small bits of knowledge can’t really be captured here.

The small things are what mini essays are for, luckily I hadn’t forgotten about my Mike Rowe quote before I learned about them so I wrote a mini essay about it. Here is the first paragraph:

I was watching a video where Tucker Carlson was interviewing Mike Rowe where Mike Rowe talked brought up something Marco Rubio said in one of the 2016 presidential debates. Rubio said something along the lines of, “What we need in this country is fewer philosophers and more welders.” To many people this would fall in line with the stuff Mike Rowe advocates for, but Rowe corrects those people saying, “What our country needs are more welders who can talk intellegently about Nietzsche . . . and we need more philosophers who can run an even bead.”

I went on and wrote a couple more paragraphs with my thoughts and now that quote and my thoughts on it are out of my head, I don’t have to stress about trying to keep them there anymore.

The YouTube guy explained that mini essays are a great personal note taking and reference tool. Writing about something forces you to try to understand it and once you have a collection of mini essays on a similar topic it doesn’t take too much effort to put them all together into a longer essay, article, or even book chapter. With some minor adjustment I could easily paste the example I have above into another piece of writing and you’d have no idea I did that. That thing took me like ten minutes to write and with just a few more of those I could quite quickly put together a quality article that would have taken me over three hours in the past.

It would really be beneficial for writing long book reviews like one I just published on Abigail Shrier’s Bad Theryapy. That thing probably took me a solid eight to twelve hours to write because there was a lot of stuff I wanted to cover but I hadn’t taken any notes as I read the book so I had to spend time digging through it to find the stuff I needed. And at the end I still didn’t cover everything that I really wanted to because I didn’t have it all laid out in front of me beforehand. If I had twenty mini essays my eight to twelve hours of writing could easily have been cut down to two or three. (Of course ignoring the time spent writing the mini essays)

But once we have a collection of mini essays where do we store them? Going back to my Mike Rowe quote example it is great that I’ve written about it but if I fill a directory with a hundred more files that quote is just going to get lost again and the effort put into writing about it would have been wasted. The YouTube guy tells us to use some note keeping software to organize everything, he uses a piece of software called Obsidian and I plan on giving it a try (there is an open-source alternative, but the mobile app for that alternative doesn’t look too great and a good mobile app is a priority for my current lifestyle and use case).

At its core, Obsidian is just a fancy way to store and organize text files and it allows them to be easily linked together. It is basically an IDE optimized for taking notes instead of writing software, it even has extensions. Nothing is locked away in some weird server and nothing is stored in a proprietary file format that a normal text editor couldn’t open. It is a powerful tool that I’ll have to figure out how to use properly.

In the past I wouldn’t have been so open to a piece of software like Obsidian, but I haven’t had an appropriate use case for it until now. I had some time to see how other people liked it and I came across one guy who advocated against using something as powerful as Obsidian because it was too complex, he argued that people should use whatever default notes app was on their phone instead. His claim intrigued me because I don’t believe in learning new software if I don’t have to but as I watched his video I realized to-do list and simple reminders were the extent of what he used his notes app for. Definitely not something that warrants complex software but also not what I needed.

This guy learned a lesson that a lot of software developers sometimes struggle to remember: Don’t use a piece of software unless you have an actual reason to. A lot of wannabe entrepreneurs have a similar lesson to learn: Don’t create a product unless you know people will actually buy it.

Anyways I’m starting to get off track. Mini essays are great, I’m going to start writing more of them and I think you should start writing them too. Organizing them will be a challenge but it isn’t a challenge that existing software can’t solve. This is a great use case for something like Obsidian but I have yet to even install it on my computer so I’m not the best spokesperson for it but I can see a future where I do almost all my writing in Obsidian like some weird people do everything in Emacs.

Keep hold of the things that you learn and the ideas you have. Write about them and share when the time is right.