Zettelkasten users: You're sitting in the shade in your garden, reading a good PDF... and taking notes exactly how?

Recently, I found some time again to sit outside with an iPad and read longer texts (papers, ebooks etc). Since a few months, I started to adopt the Zettelkasten note taking method.

Until now, I did not find a great setup to do this with just an iPad. How do you do it?

My goals would be to have the document open in DEVONthink To Go (in order to use the highlighting tools) while having an always-open note area where I can append my notes every fifteen minutes or so, whenever I learn something new from the text. These notes will, at least at the end of the process, need to become the DEVONthink annotation of the original document, or at least link back to it. Any automation using templates, as well as being able to use speech input, would be a bonus.

Many thanks in advance for all hints!

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With pen and paper. I prefer paper notes that just look like Zettels by Luhman. I strongly believe using a pen and abstracting what I read into my own thoughts improves my notes. I do include citations, but most of the text is my thoughts of what I read.

Afterwards I have to type the notes from the paper into my DT. This feels double work to many others, but I feel it is necessary. Sometimes at this point I just don’t put my original note into DT at all (and just delete it by destroying the paper note). This also means my reading sometimes needs to wait on my writing, for if I have too many paper notes waiting to be put into my laptop, I just dread them and don’t do anything. At this point, my reading then must switch to reading with no notes (which means mostly novels).

My only digital reading is in the browser. Articles from there get clipped into a subfolder of my “source notes” folder, because mostly I just tag them and do no abstract. If I do an abstract of a web article, I put it in front of the markdown clipping of that article and such a summarized web article goes into my “source notes” folder.

The rest of my reading is on paper: academic papers I read on paper and put the notes in the margins, later using these notes to summarize the paper. Some of this stuff also lands in their own “content notes/zettels”. And when I read books, I always read them on paper and carry around with me some paper notes.

Here a photo of such a paper note and the paper Zettels I use and in the background you also see my paper notebook, which I carry around for putting down notes everywhere:


IPads and DTTG support having two windows open: the source document and your “always-open note”
Use Multitasking on your iPad - Apple Support

For taking notes, I prefer my second window to be the Notability app with an Apple Pencil
The document is shared to Devonthink when completed

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Yes, but can your handwriting be a little more legible if we adopt your approach?? :flushed:
Couldn’t resist :wink:

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As I mentioned, I prefer the Notability app for note taking on the iPad
It automatically transcribes my handwriting

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DTLow mentioned in another answer the iPad feature that lets you have 2 apps open at the same time. I’ve experimented with using this facility with DTTG, to have a 2nd window open where I can write notes in DTTG itself. Here’s how I’ve done it so far:

  1. Open a PDF document in DTTG normally.
  2. From the bottom of the iPad, swipe up with one finger for a distance of about 2-3 cm. This will show the iOS dock.
  3. Find the DTTG icon in the dock, press the icon and without letting go, drag it over the DTTG window that’s currently open on your screen.

When I do that, I get a narrow, floating second DTTG window where I can do normal DTTG things, like navigate within a database and use the “+” button to create a new document. And thus I can write notes while annotating a PDF at the same time. Screenshot:

Bonus tip: if you use the “From template” option (see above) when creating a new document, you can opt to use a PDF file as the thing it creates. And this PDF file can be annotated like any other, including using the Apple Pencil to write “handwritten” notes. (I confess the experience is suboptimal, though, because the narrow floating window makes doing it this way difficult, but it’s an option if you want to write a diagram or math or whatever.)


Sometimes I read while I walk to work or back home, and thus, I also take notes while walking.

That sounds much more pleasant than typing or noodling about on an iPad :slight_smile:

Thanks to all of you for the input! I have now started to experiment with two DTTG windows side-by-side (I wasn’t aware that was possible) as well as external editors. This will most likely take some time, since the decision seems to depend very much on one’s personal style of reading and working.

Perhaps there’s even a way to use iOS’s new automation tools to create a shortcut that appends voice notes to a common text file, I’m toying around with that just now.

While I like paper as a medium, my goal is to go completely paperless for this part of my work. But it seems iOS still has a while to go until that really feels effortless…

Anyway, many thanks for all hints!

…writing on paper? :innocent:

I just bought new pens and a new spiral notebook last week :heart: :slight_smile:

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my question was for @gregor actually…

Yeah, I take most notes on paper. I use these slip notes pictured above (measuring about 10x15cm) and a A4 notebook by italian company Arbos bound in recycled leather. My favorite pens are the Mitsubishi uni-ball eye fine roller pen (in fantastic different colors) and the BIC cristal 1.6mm roller pen (which writes easily, but offers lots of shading etc. when used for drawing/sketching.

Thanks @gregor !
I like writing on paper! my question was only about taking notes on paper when biking or walking… :innocent:

Yeah, on paper also while walking. Of course I stop walking, fiddle around with the slip notes (which are my bookmark when not reading) and a pen I carry around in one of my pockets, write what I feel I have to write and put all stuff back where it belongs. Takes maybe two minutes at most (but maybe more, depending on how long my thinking was that I have to put down). Taking digital notes is no fun at all while walking.

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I don’t understand the “walking” and taking notes - I have to stop, sitting is better :slightly_smiling_face:
I use an iPad with an Apple Pencil, carried in a shoulder bag

Dictating also works (Hey Siri, Create a note …)
Also pictures using the camera
I also use the iPad for sketching (Procreate app)

Taking digital notes is no fun at all while walking.

Is that a reference to typed notes?
I can do handwriting/sketching on my iPad

It’s a free country.

I find my paper notes in correct sentences and my digital notes with lots of typos. I also prefer that taking notes in my notebook leads to notebooks I can later still look through and get a feel for the time I used them in. Also, I find that writing notes by pen makes me formulate a better readable German or English then when I write on keyboards, especially on very small keyboards. Many times, I write important texts (even some mails) on paper and then put them into digital afterwards, for writing with a pen makes me a better writer, I feel.

One thing that would be possible is to scan my handwritten notes and have them transcribed. But I wasn’t too delighted with the results, and I feel like typing them again makes me improve the sentences etc.

But as I said: it’s a free country. Do whatever you feel helps you taking notes or don’t take notes at all or whatnot.

I’m just (as in the last couple of weeks) getting in to the Zettelkasten way of thinking, but in general for taking notes when in garden, I take them directly in DDTG, either by typing (BT keyboard) or by annotating PDF’s with my Pen. I actually think the “annotate on your PDF’s within DT” is a hidden gem that isn’t marketed enough, it works great. Both will sync nicely up to Dropbox in my case and will be available on my iMac when I open it there too and can “sort it all out”.

If I’m literally out walking and need to take notes I use Drafts. Great app. Works on both iOS/macOS too. More importantly, it has actions for saving notes straight in to Devonthink.

It could be noted that my DT setup for Zettelkasten/P.A.R.A (kind of a hybrid “Second Brain”) is all based on .md files, and as such I actually use another solution for managing where it will finally be filed. Therefore, my DT (and thus also my DTTG) setup is all based around indexing folders. I get the automatic back-linking etc via my other solution, again, for when I get back to my Mac/Linux machines. The reason I have a “wider” setup for this is because I need to be able to access all the content cross-platform on pretty much all platforms. If I only were using macOS/iOS a solution with DT/Drafts would probably be enough.


but in general for taking notes when in garden, I take them directly in DDTG, either by typing (BT keyboard) or by annotating PDF’s with my Pen. I actually think the “annotate on your PDF’s within DT” is a hidden gem that isn’t marketed enough, it works great.

Thanks for the kind words! We’re happy to hear you’re having a positive experience annotating in DEVONthink To Go :slight_smile:

Hehe, aye, tbh DT/DTTG is one of my fave combos on any platform. I haven’t even started on telling you how I have moved all my Tabletop RPG character sheets and gaming material in to DT/DTTG and pretty much have stopped carrying pen/paper for our gaming sessions, all thanks to the excellent PDF annotation capabilities of DTTG. Also for my Mandarin language classes it has been a great thing. I use it “everywhere” for lots of things.