- Are you a writer?
- Do you keep notes? (I can’t believe there is writer who doesn’t keep notes.)
- Do you keep your notes on a computer?
- Do you tag your notes?
If you only answered yes to the first three questions, then I’m about to change your writing life for the better.
Tags have been around for years, they’re very simple to use, and yet few people seem to bother. I think this is mainly because many people don’t understand the power of tags.
The following series of posts attempt to explain how to use tags to organise your life. This post will give an overview of tags. The next post will give examples of applications you can use for tagging such as Evernote, Simplenote, Emacs and Tagspaces. Finally, there will be a post describing my personal tag system.
Tagging v Folders
Most people store their notes in folders. This is no surprise. When computers first rose in popularity, the folder was an easy to grasp analogy. Put all your stories in one folder, all your submission letters in another, all your personal letters in another. Folders are easy to use and easy to navigate. You want to find that fantasy story you wrote, go to the folder marked story and look in there for the fantasy folder.
There’s one problem with folders, however: a story can only be stored in one location. Suppose you have written a story that mixes fantasy and horror. Do you store it in the fantasy folder, or the horror folder? Or do you make a new folder marked fantasy horror?
Tagging solves this problem. Rather than thinking in terms of folders, you tag your stories #fantasy, #sf, #horror. If you write a story that mixes fantasy and horror you simply use two tags: #fantasy and #horror. When objects have more than one tag, they can appear in more than one place, a big advantage over folders.
Tagging is not difficult, people hashtag on Twitter all the time. There is, however, an understandable wariness about taking your carefully filed stories out of their folders and putting them in a big tagged pile. What if the tags were to get lost?
Well, tags don’t get lost any more than folders get mixed up. Even so, there’s nothing to stop you using both tags and folders while you get used to things.
A Simplified Tag System
It’s possible to spend more time thinking of tags to apply to a note than it takes to write the note in the first place. One way around this is to adopt a standard system (there are many of these listed on the internet). I use a 1,2,3,4 system as follows:
- What area of my life does the note refer to: Personal, Writing, Work, Tech ?
- What’s the form of the note: idea, letter, reference, blog, interview ?
- What project does the note relate to: novel, how writers write, 99 java problems, emacs, six tips ?
- What’s the note’s GTD status: TODO, NEXT, DONE, WORKING ?
To give an example, the note this blog post is based on is tagged as follows
1tech, 1writing, 2blog, 3onwriting, 3emacs, 4next
In other words, this note relates both to tech and writing, it’s for my blog, it’s to do with my onwriting and emacs projects, and it’s marked next according to GTD.
The following is the tag for a note regarding a panel I’m attending at an upcoming convention
1writing, 2panel, 3sf, 3helsinki, 4todo
You might be able to guess from the tags that the panel is regarding SF and the convention takes place in Helsinki
Note how each tag has a number at the front. Most tagging systems will filter your tags as you enter them, so when I type the number 1, only tags starting with 1 appear. Also, thinking 1,2,3,4 when I’m tagging my notes helps speed up the tagging process.
What’s the benefit of all this? This becomes apparent when you search your notes.
Suppose I want to find all the posts relating to my blog. I could search for
This would bring up all the posts regarding my writing blog, my tech blog and my personal blog.
I could refine this by searching as follows
Now I will only see the posts relating to my writing blog. I could add a 4todo tag to see the posts I still have to write.
If I want to see the posts regarding Emacs that I’ve already published I could search as follows
2blog, 3emacs, 4published
Most tagging systems allow you to save searches. One saved search I often use is the following
In other words, the things I have to do next in my work as a writer.