Using Obsidian to Track Writing Projects

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Introduction

This post describes my writing process for sort-form articles which are typically between 1,500 to 3,000 words (currently these are Medium posts, but may expand to include other online platforms in the future).

I have taken up writing online approximately 12 months ago and until now have been using Microsoft Word as my primary writing tool; using word files in various folders to manage my writing workflow, capture ideas, and manage notes and research.

I have been unhappy with this MS Word and file folder solution and have recently begun using Obsidian as both my writing and knowledge management tool.

This is part 1 of a planned three part series. Part 2 will cover using Obsidian to cover academic papers and industry journal articles of 4,000–7,000 words. Part 3 will cover book length writing in the order of 40,000 to 70,000 words.

Core Features

The following are the core features of Obsidian that I find most useful for writing,

Linking

Obsidian supports automatic bidirectional linking of notes. This is through wiki-linking, where a link can be inserted into text by surrounding it with double brackets, as in, [[A linked document]].

This will be rendered as follows (when the document has not been created),

To create a new note, simply clicking on the link will create it.

Obsidian allows for research notes and other writing to be linked to a new piece of work, and for research notes to be available in the same tool as the new piece of writing that is being developed.

Bidirectional linking includes both forward links (described above) and backlinks. Backlinks are other notes that link to the note currently being displayed. Obsidian automatically tracks backlinks and displays these as a table at the bottom of a note (this can also be shown in a separate pane in the editor) as shown below,

Search

Obsidian includes a powerful search function that can search,

  • Within the current note
  • Across all notes
  • Filter using tags

Searches can be ‘starred’ which saves the search definition for quick access in the future.

Templates

The Obsidian template feature allows for a set of markdown files to be inserted into any specified note file.

Obsidian template files support a limited number of substitution directives which include, {{title}}, while will be expanded to the name of the file, {{date}}, which is expanded to the current date, etc.

Below is a portion of my ‘Writing’ template, which also includes some standard tags in the document header section. (Not shown in the image below, the template also includes a default document structure and common footer for all Medium posts).

Plugins

Obsidian has an open architecture which supports the development of third-party plugins. As of the time of writing, the Obsidian community has developed 562 [plugins](https://obsidian.md/plugins).

Below are the key plugins that I am using to supporting writing activities.

Dataview

Each note in an Obsidian vault contains metadata which is system defined and users are able to add additional metadata either as tags (located anywhere in the note) or in the header as YAML.

The Dataview plugin enables queries to be run against the Obsidian vault, which can include system and user defined metadata.

In my writing workflow, I use the Dataview plugin to create a writing dashboard which tracks the current status of my short form writing.

Below is an example of the query used with the Dataview plugin. The query displays a list of all notes in the ‘Writing’ folder that are tagged as #writing/outline.

Below is an example of the default writing note metadata which is populated from the writing template,

Better Word Count

Obsidian has a built-in word count feature that calculates the words in an entire note. The Better Word Count plugin also does this, but will display the number of words in a selected text selection. I find this useful as I will incorporate additional material in a writing note that is not intended for publication.

Incremental Writing

Incremental writing in the process of working on multiple pieces of writing simultaneously and developing them incrementally. Using this process avoids the problem of siting in front of an empty screen and attempting to write (you always have at least snippets of material that you have been working with previously).

The Incremental Writing plugin for Obsidian enables multiple queues to be maintained to facilitate this approach to writing. Hot keys can be assigned to actions, and it is possible to quickly open the next piece in the queue, this can be edited and expanded on, if there is no inspiration or motivation than a single hot key combination moves on to the next item in the queue.

I find this process helpful as it allows for easily moving multiple writing projects forward simultaneously.

In addition to writing, I also use the Incremental Writing plugin to develop my research notes and projects.

The plugin supports,

  • Creating multiple queues for different purposes (i.e. writing, study, research projects etc.)
  • Adding and deleting items from a queue
  • Navigating through the queue
  • Two scheduling algorithms

For completing links, ‘add links within note to queue’ can be used to create a simple queue to assist with getting a note and all it’s associated linked content complete.

Pandoc

Pandoc is an open-source tool to convert document mark-up formats. There is a Pandoc plugin available for Obsidian.

I am currently writing exclusively for Medium. Medium has very basic no file importing capability and copying and pasting into the editor is limited (Pasting a Microsoft Word Document into the editor doesn’t insert level two headings, for example).

The most effective method that I have found to export to Medium is to,

  • Open the `.md` file in a text editor (VS Code in my case) and copy and paste the article into the Medium editor
  • Manually format; Section heading, Lists, Links
  • Manually insert images

While I have not been able to use Pandoc to export directly to Medium, I am expecting to be able to export Obsidian documents directly in a format compatible with other publishing platforms

Workflow

My short-form writing pieces flow through 4 states; Ideas, Outlines, Drafts and Published.

The status of the document is indicated by the #writing-status tag, which can be either; idea | outline | draft | published appended.

Idea

At the idea stage, the piece can consist of nothing more than a proposed title, but often I will quickly jot down some notes and references.

To register a new idea I will,

  • Create a new note in Obsidian (Ctrl + O, Enter Note Title)
  • Insert my ‘Writing’ template (Ctrl + T)
  • Complete description and references section of the template (optional)
  • Move the note into my ‘Writing’ folder (Ctrl + M)
  • Add the note to the incremental writing queue

When the above is complete, the new piece will be listed in my writing dashboard as an idea and will be scheduled in the incremental writing queue.

Outline

A document migrates to the outline state when at least all the section headings have been developed.

Draft

A document migrates to the draft state when it is substantially complete. All sections must be populated.

Published

This state is when the document is published or scheduled for publication.

Conclusion

I am finding Obsidian to be a valuable writing tool that has greatly improved my writing productivity.

Positives

  • Convenient to have a knowledge base combined with a writing tool
  • Great for tracking writing ideas and concurrently working on multiple writing ideas (Have disliked using multiple MS Word files and folders and files for this purpose)
  • Speed of navigation and search
  • Removal of the distraction of formatting

Negatives

  • Publishing to Medium is painful as Medium doesn’t allow for pasting Obsidian markdown (which means that it needs to be manually formatted in the Medium editor)
  • Mainstream spelling and grammar checking tools are not supported (and the inbuilt tools are not very powerful)

Future

I am currently working on the following ideas which will appear in future posts,

  • Integration of EndNote references into Obsidian
  • Using Obsidian for long-form writing (4,000–7,000 word range)
  • Formatting Obsidian export for academic and industry journals
  • Email Notes to Obsidian

Read Further

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed this article.

My other writing related to Obsidian includes,

To explore further,

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Patrick Berry

Patrick Berry

Industrial Process Control, Operational Technology, Industry 4.0, Cybersecurity, Digital TX, AI, ML, Data Analytics https://www.linkedin.com/in/patrickcberry/