Writing with Obsidian

Issue 36: A non-linear way to structure your writing.

There seems to be a new productivity/writing app every week on Product Hunt, and every week, I’m trying all of them. When it comes to software, I’m genuinely curious about all of them to get ideas and experiment. However, the paradox of choice of what software to adopt formally can be exhausting. How do you find software that sticks to what you need without changing apps all the time? That’s when my friend Joe showed me Obsidian, a tool that lets you build a knowledge base on local markdown files.

I fell in love with it immediately. I find it tremendously helpful for non-linear thinkers. As the name suggests, non-linear thinking is not thinking along straight lines or in a sequential manner. In non-linear thinking, we make connections among unrelated concepts or ideas. Writing is linear and structured, and I struggled throughout my years of school with that approach. When fostering neurodiversity, we must understand that people learn and take in information differently than only a linear approach. For me, I comprehend by making visual connections and relations to objects, then I can structure them with more confidence. I wrote about mind mapping last fall, so let’s take a look at how this approach can work for writing.

Obsidian's approach is to create a file system and organizes your writing like a graph, enabling you to see how files are connected and links when certain words are mentioned. This helps me in my multiple modes of writing:

  • Jotting: Taking quick ephemeral notes. I need to quickly capture it and won’t need to recall the information later.

  • Generative writing: Divergent and unstructured thoughts for me to generate writing topics. This is mode is very unstructured and raw.

  • Research: Taking notes from lectures, articles, and interviews; to be used later in my writing.

  • Focused writing: Putting it all together to create structure and clarity.

Using Obsidian

I believe the best software allows the user to have progressive power; allowing immediate value that enables mastery of advanced functions. Start simple to avoid being overwhelmed by all the cool features as you’ll learn them later.

If you only use two features in Obsidian, I recommend internal links and tags. In Obsidian, they are used with this syntax:

  • Internal links: [[Link to other file]]

  • Tags: #theme

As you build up your library of files, these internal links and tags will help connect different ideas together. This is when you can leverage the tag pane and graph view.

With this, you’ve built a multi-directional experience for your files. Obsidian creates a graph based on your internal links and shows where you’ve used the same links or mentions of words in a very searchable way. If all you used were these two features, you’d gain a lot of value out of Obsidian already. But wait, there’s more.

Advanced workflows

There are some advanced features in Obsidian that are very useful if you know what you might use them for, otherwise it can feel overwhelming. I’ll share a few ways I like to use the more advanced features.

Multiple panes of different files

Obsidian allows you to open infinite panes to select different markdown files. When on a larger monitor, I find this very helpful when referring to previous research as I write. Instead of tabbing to other apps, it’s a mere glance away from my writing.

Multiple panes of the same file

Opening multiple instances of the same file is so powerful. When I design in Figma, there are instances (pun intended) when I open the same file and show different zooms. One view might be my entire flow of frames and the other might be isolated on one frame to edit. This gives you a high level view and detailed view. You can do the same with Obsidian. As I write in a certain pane, I can look at the overall progress on the left.

Plugins

The other way to introduce power is the core plugins Obsidian offers. I tend to stick to the official ones as the third-party plugins have various levels of quality.

  • Templates: This allows you to quickly insert snippets in markdown files

  • Daily notes: A great plugin that instantly creates a markdown file to jot daily notes

  • Stars: Allows you to bookmark certain markdown files.

Obsidian helps me structure my writing

So do you really have to write like this? Absolutely not. Everyone’s brain is wired differently. If you ever struggled with feeling forced to write from point A to Z in a linear way, this might be a helpful method as it really helped me feel more confident in my writing.

Writing is not a natural talent for me, and I was discouraged by forced structure in my education. Having a tool like this helps me really organize my bad iterations into something I can feel proud of.

Try it out

If you're keen to try Obsidian, you can download the app for free. I created a demo project to give you a sense of how I structure my files. Simply clone the GitHub project and add the files in a vault in Obsidian.


Notes and Resources