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A Zettelkasten with Vim and Bash

February 7, 2021
tagged: docs vim bash

A few years ago I decided to take coding from an on-and-off hobby to a professional endeavor and I've been keeping notes on the various things I learn since that time. This started off with notes on Python, I think in a libreoffice doc, in the form of dated entries. That soon became difficult to find information in, and so I moved to a markdown file, structured by topics (and subtopics, and then subtopics of subtopics, etc.). Meanwhile, I also started similar files on other things - git, contributing to open source, flask, javascript, css, etc. I was also bookmarking blog posts, talks, and other useful items, along with sometimes extensive notes on them. If I took an online course, I would also create a file for taking notes on the content. Sometimes I would piece it back into the topic files, but generally it was kind of a pain and so I didn't. Between the different files and the bookmarks, it was sometimes difficult to find something I swore I had taken notes on. And if I couldn't find it, back to Google or Stack Overflow.

More recently, I switched from using VSCode to Vim as my editor of choice, in part because of frequently needing to ssh into remote systems and write or modify some code on them. I quickly fell in love with its editing style and haven't looked back. I generally prefer to use as much vanilla Vim as possible and have about ten plugins installed, but I still tweak things now and again and I'm interested in how others have their Vim set up and how they use it. It was while following that interest that I stumbled across the concept of the "Zettelkasten" (German for "slip-box") in a blog post about note-taking in Vim.

I've now being using the zettelkasten (zk from here on out) system for a few months and can say that it's made what was previously a mess of notes much more useful, discoverable, and enjoyable to maintain. I started by taking better, more "atomic" notes, and then as I touch upon different subjects, I pull in other parts of my previous spaghetti-code-like notes and link to them or from them as necessary. Overall, I feel like the zk has made it much easier to both explore subjects and remind myself how I did something. I also use it for some non-coding things, and having it all in one place makes my professional and intellectual life more structured and organized. But I'm not here to write another blog post evangelizing the zk system or what to name different types of notes or how to connect them. I think there's probably been enough of that done, and if there were one resource I'd recommend, it would be Sönke Ahrens's How to Take Smart Notes.

What I am here to write about is my particular zk structure and the minimal tooling for adding to, managing, and exploring my zk. As the title of this post suggests, it basically comes down to Vim and Bash, through a handful of functions, commands, and shortcuts.


Everything is contained within plaintext files, in the following layout:


The doc/ folder is a holdover from my old system of long, topic documents. There's still about ten files in it, but I'm slowly working my way through them and breaking them up into smaller pieces. The refs/ contains references. These just have the author, title, date, and, if the reference is available online, a link to it. The filename is in the format author-yyyy.md. The actual content of the reference is stored in Zotero (in case the page ever goes down) or Calibre (if an ebook). The notes/ folder contains all the actual notes.

The index.md file is the main entry point of the zk. In addition to containing links to other notes, the index also includes a list of tags I've used, some notes on how to navigate about, and brief descriptions of the shortcuts and functions I've created.

I have a shortcut in my .bashrc file to the zk directory so that I can cd into it quickly from anywhere, with just cd $zk:

export zk

As you can see, I have the zk in my Dropbox folder, so it's always synced and backed up. I also back it up to an external hard drive, under a timestamped directory, every three months.

Saving and Linking Notes

I'm often already in Vim when I want to create a new note, so I use :enew to start a new, unnamed buffer. If I'm not already in Vim, it's a quick Ctrl+Alt+t to open a terminal and then type vim into the prompt. After typing up the note, I use the :Zk command I created to save the file in the notes/ folder, with a timestamp for the filename. (And no title because I may actually tweak the title - the first line of the file - over time.) Here's the function and command for that, which I have in my .vimrc:

function! SaveWithTS()
    if !expand('%:t')
        let l:filename = escape( strftime("%Y-%m-%d-%H%M"), ' ' )
        execute "write " . "~/Dropbox/zk/notes/" . l:filename . ".md"
        echo "File already saved and named."

command! Zk call SaveWithTS()

Note that if the file has already been saved, running the command will just return a comment stating that.

I'm new to Vimscript so if that's not very good code, please let me know.

After the new note is saved, it needs to be linked to some other note. The following Vim shortcut helps with that. It will get the file's relative path, add double brackets around it, yank the first line of the file (its title), and then put that altogether into the unnamed register.

noremap <Leader>l :let @y = "[[" . expand("%") . "]] " <bar> :1,1y z <bar> let @" = @y . @z<CR>

So, for me, typing \l in normal mode will do this, as I'm using the default leader. Then it's just a matter of using p to put it where I want, and it will look like this, for instance:

[[notes/2021-01-20-0351.md]] Wagtail

To make these links further stand out, I created the file ~/.vim/after/syntax/markdown.vim and added the following:

syntax match markdownRef "\v\[\[[-a-z0-9\.\/\:]+\]\]"
highlight link markdownRef Type

In the colorscheme I use (solarized8), the brackets and the path between them appear in a mustard yellow color, setting it off nicely from the rest of the text.

To follow this link in Vim, just use the standard gf shortcut when the cursor is on it. The relative path works, because I always start my zk from the zk/ directory. Someday I may want to move the zk out of my Dropbox folder, and if I were to use full paths, all the links would then be broken.

Exploring the Zk

In addition to the index, where high-level notes can be easily followed through to all of the connected notes, I also have a couple of other ways to access notes. These are aided by the use of tags, though tags aren't strictly necessary. I make sure that every note (except reference notes) have at least one tag with them. I put tags on the second line of each file, just below the title, and preface them with an "@" symbol. So, for instance, I have a @django tag and a @bash tag and about 20 others so far (and even an @orphan tag for notes that haven't been connected to anything else yet). I'm trying to limit the amount of tags and keep them relatively broad, so it doesn't become too much of a mess and so I don't have to spend too much time thinking about how to tag something.

The tags are highlighted, in a dark lime green color, via the following in the markdown.vim file mentioned above:

syntax match markdownTag "\v\@[a-z0-9]+"
highlight link markdownTag Statement

I've also created two bash commands that will allow easy searching of the zk from a terminal, whether that be by a tag name or any other text. They are both in my ~/bin folder, and rely on the $zk variable in my .bashrc. Here is the first, named zkgrep:

cd $zk || exit
grep -B 1 -A 2 -in --color=always "$1" notes/* doc/* | less -RM +Gg

Calling this command followed by a pattern I'm looking for (e.g. zkgrep @bash) will use grep to search through all files in the notes/ and doc/ folders for that (case-insensitive) pattern and pipe it to less to display them. It will colorize the searched-for pattern (--color=always on the grep side and -R on the less side) in the output, include one line above the line where the pattern was found (-B 1) and two lines below it (-A 2), and precede each line returned with the filename and line number (-n). The -M +Gg options provide a more verbose prompt in less: current lines displayed (-M), plus total lines and % of total (+Gg), in order to provide an idea of how long the results are. The reason for getting the prior line and the two lines after the line that the search pattern appears on is for context. This is particularly true when I search for tags: because tags are on the second line of the file and the first line of the file is the title of the note, this returns the title, tags, and the next two lines.

I made a shortcut (gz for "go zkgrep") in Vim to this command, though it's slightly more limited as it can only search for the one word under the cursor. It works well for tags:

noremap gz :!zkgrep <cWORD><CR>

The second is very similar to the first, except rather than include four lines from each file, it outputs full files. Its name is zkgrepfull:

cd $zk || exit
grep -iz --color=always "$1" notes/* doc/* | less -RM +Gg

Finally, the following command - zkrand - will open a random note from my zk as well as the index file. I use it every other day or so, just to take a peek at some note that I may not have otherwise seen recently. The idea is that doing so can help refresh my memory of ideas I've previously had or solutions or libraries I've used in coding, because maybe I've forgotten about them. Or, perhaps there has been a more recent note I wrote that is related to this random one and I didn't realize that at first, and I can make links between the two.

cd $zk || exit
vim "$(ls notes/* | shuf -n 1)" index.md

That's everything I have, at least so far. I don't expect that I'll make any major changes to this setup, though maybe there will be some refinement. I hope this helps someone with their own zk. If you have any questions or comments, hit me up on twitter Mastodon.

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