This article first published on vimways.org (link). I highly recommend checking out Vimways for a great set of articles on Vim!

Intro

Part of Vim's power is how it can integrate with its environment. It can interact with external programs, external scripts can interact with Vim, and Vim is of course scriptable. Here, I'm going to detail an example of weaving Vim with other applications and the environment to implement a notetaking methodology that I personally use.

My notetaking has changed a lot over the years, from little to no notetaking (I don't recommend!), to experimenting with off-the-shelf tools (Simplenote, Standardnotes, Vimwiki), to experimenting with various knowledge management methodologies, to rolling my own framework for Zettelkasten in Vim. I haven't yet achieved the ideal setup, but it's feeling close, and it's reached a point where I can comfortably use it for my needs.

Sidenote: Create + Consume in Vim

Yes, you did see non-Vim tools in my list of previously used tools for notes… It should be noted that I was using Vim as my main editor long before I switched to using Vim to take notes. The reason why is that for a time I knew I wanted to create and edit notes using Vim, but I wanted to be able to read those notes in other ways, such as rich text from rendered markdown (Simplenote), or a wiki that was navigable in a browser (Vimwiki). The times I used Vim to edit was frustrating, because I needed to fit with a workflow that required rebuilding a wiki after editing, or opening one file at a time for something like Simplenote.

Finally, I realized that I didn't actually need to read rich text or navigate hyperlinks with a mouse in a browser. I could create and consume in Vim! Granted, it's not as pretty for viewing sometimes, but now creating, editing, searching, and reading notes are all the same thing. Efficiency.

Zettelkasten

One more thing to discuss before we dive in - what is Zettelkasten?. Zettelkasten (German for "card index") is a method for personal knowledge management in which one uses many small atomic notes, linked to other such notes. The idea is that it forms a huge interconnected network of notes one can traverse and interact with. I came across this methodology a little while back and love the idea. I haven't yet spent the time to really learn how to use it effectively, but I've started to use some of the ideas, including linking between notes and facilitating easy creation of notes.

If you're interested to know more about Zettelkasten as a system, see zettelkasten.de and/or web search for it. There are many good resources. What I described above is only a simplification.

Let's get started!

Ok, so now we have a methodology and Vim without any specific notes/wiki plugins. What do we do now? Let's work out the workflows involved. So we want:

  • Easy creation of new notes. It should be frictionless to create and start editing a new note at any time. More friction equals less motivation to write up a note.
  • Powerful options for search. Zettelkasten eschews hierarchy and taxonomy in favour of flexible search and…
  • Linking between notes. We need to be able to create a network of small notes, where we can search to find an entry point, and then traverse notes to discover related ideas.

Creating notes

Obviously I'll be editing a new note in Vim. There are two main places from where I want to be able to create a note: the shell and Vim itself. It must be as frictionless as possible to create new notes; any friction will dissuade me from taking a note at once, and thoughts are fleeting.

So, from inside Vim, I have a command and function to create a timestamped file in my notes directory:

" .vim/plugin/local.vim
command! -nargs=* Zet call local#zettel#edit(<f-args>)
" .vim/autoload/local/zettel.vim
func! local#zettel#edit(...)

  " build the file name
  let l:sep = ''
  if len(a:000) > 0
    let l:sep = '-'
  endif
  let l:fname = expand('~/wiki/') . strftime("%F-%H%M") . l:sep . join(a:000, '-') . '.md'

  " edit the new file
  exec "e " . l:fname

  " enter the title and timestamp (using ultisnips) in the new file
  if len(a:000) > 0
    exec "normal ggO\<c-r>=strftime('%Y-%m-%d %H:%M')\<cr> " . join(a:000) . "\<cr>\<esc>G"
  else
    exec "normal ggO\<c-r>=strftime('%Y-%m-%d %H:%M')\<cr>\<cr>\<esc>G"
  endif
endfunc

Now we can create a new titled, timestamped note directly in Vim: :Zet a new note to edit (for example) ~/wiki/2019-12-21-0945-a-new-note.md.

It's possible to instruct Vim to execute a command on launch, so we can write a shell function with the same api as the :Zet command:

zet() {
  nvim "+Zet $*"
}

So, $ zet a new note will produce the same result as the example above from in Vim.

It would be just as easy to develop entry points to creating notes from elsewhere in the environment, but since I spend a lot of time either in Vim or have multiple shell sessions open, most of the time a neat new note is only a few keystrokes away.

Linking notes

Now we have some notes, we need to link them together.

Here, I stray from vanilla Vim, and lean on a couple of popular plugins: Ultisnips to shortcut inserting custom syntax and Deoplete to auto-complete paths to other notes.

Before we go into the code, let's see what the end result looks like:

Now the code! I use a syntax similar to Vimwiki to denote internal links, which are simply paths to other note files in the notes directory, with the extension removed for readability.

" .vim/UltiSnips/markdown.snippets
snippet h "hyperlink"
[[$1]]$0
endsnippet

With this snippet, and the Deoplete configuration that comes next, The keysequence h<snippet-trigger> enters the syntax and opens a fuzzy autocomplete for other notes. Two key strokes is my definition of low friction. :)

And this is the (abridged) Deoplete source plugin to list all files in my notes directory.

# .vim/rplugin/python3/deoplete/sources/wiki_files.py
class Source(Base):
    def __init__(self, vim):
        self.name = 'wiki_files'
        self.mark = '[WL]' # WikiLink
        self.min_pattern_length = 0
        self.rank = 450
        # only activate for files in my notes directory
        self.filetypes = ['privwiki']

    def get_complete_position(self, context):
        # trigger completion if we're currently in the [[link]] syntax
        pos = context['input'].rfind('[[')
        return pos if pos < 0 else pos + 2

    def gather_candidates(self, context):
        contents = []
        path = '/home/swalladge/wiki/'
        # now gather all note files, and return paths relative to the current
        # note's directory.
        cur_file_dir = dirname(self.vim.buffers[context['bufnr']].name)
        for fname in glob.iglob(path + '**/*', recursive=True):
            fname = relpath(fname, cur_file_dir)
            if fname.endswith('.md'):
                fname = fname[:-3]
            contents.append(fname)
        return contents

Note that we can still use Vim's built in gf (goto file) mapping to follow the link - see :h 'suffixesadd'. The more we can do in Vim builtins, the better - it's familiar, portable, maintained.

Now the third and final point: searching. This is one of my favourite points as there are so many possibilities!

Search is core to being able to effectively consume notes (as opposed to creating notes, as the previous points have been mainly about). For me, there are 3 entry points to search and 3 types of search. The following points aren't core to Zettelkasten, but is core for me to be able to pinpoint a certain note quickly. YMMV.

By "entry points", I mean where I want to start a search from. These are:

  1. the desktop (ie. anywhere)
  2. the shell
  3. Vim itself

Types of search:

  1. fuzzy find by title
  2. grep file contents
  3. search-engine-style search

Note that wherever these searches begin, and whatever methods are used, they always end up in Vim and a way to navigate between search results in Vim.

Ok, so fuzzy find by title is done from the window manager with

# ~/.config/i3/config
bindsym Mod4+w exec --no-startup-id open-wiki-page

And the corresponding script that launches a graphical fuzzy finder which is used to select a wiki file to open in a new terminal window:

~/bin/open-wiki-page
cd "$HOME/wiki"

if [ -n "$WAYLAND_DISPLAY" ]; then
  file=$(rg --files --follow | bemenu --fn 'Hack 11' -p "wiki:" -i -l 20)
else
  file=$(rg --files --follow | rofi -dmenu -no-custom  -i -p "wiki")
fi

[[ -n "$file" ]] || exit

exec termite -e "nvim \"$file\""

Fuzzy find from inside Vim is done using fzf and a mapping:

" ~/.vim/after/plugin/local.vim
map <silent> <leader>ww :FZF ~/wiki<cr>

Grepping contents of wiki files is done using Vim's builtin :grep command (I've set grepprg to rg for speed).

A proper search engine-esque search with stemming, ranking by relevance, etc. is done using the excellent Tantivy search engine, plumbed together with searchr, a cli program I wrote for this purpose.

# ~/.config/searchr/config.toml
[indexes.wiki]
language = "English"
index_path = "/home/swalladge/.searchr/wiki"
files = [
  "/home/swalladge/wiki/**/*.md",
]
require_literal_leading_dot = true
" ~/.vim/plugin/local.vim
command! -nargs=* Searchr call local#searchr#search(<f-args>)
" ~/.vim/autoload/local/searchr.vim
function! local#searchr#search(index, ...)
  let l:query = join(a:000, ' ')
  if a:index == "all"
    let l:which_index = '-a'
  else
    let l:which_index = '-i ' . a:index
  endif
  let l:cmd = 'searchr ' . l:which_index . " search -l 15 " . l:query . ""
  let l:files = split(system(l:cmd), "\n")
  let l:qffiles = []
  for f in l:files
    call add(l:qffiles, {'filename': f})
  endfor
  call setqflist(l:qffiles)
  copen
  cc
endfunction

Conclusion

Vim is a powerful tool, but some of it's power comes not because it takes over the environment, but because it can blend seamlessly with it's environment and bend to fit your workflow.