Notion Template for Drafts & Notes

I started using Notion this year and my Very Short Review is that it's incredible and everyone should be using it. My only complaint is that I want to use Notion so much that it has tended to be cluttered faster than I'd hoped when I first started using it this summer.

The point of this post isn't to get you to use Notion (although you can try it for free and you use this link for $10 in credit towards a paid account), it's to document an incredibly simple and effective writing template I discovered recently that's really changed how I write.

The template is based off work by Edward Tufte and the tufte LaTeX package and in particular the tufte-handout document class in LaTeX (and Rmarkdown!). I've used the Tufte-styled handouts for a few years and I think they're fantastic. In particular, the side-margin for notes, references, graphs, and other marginalia is something I actually adopted for hand-written notes much longer ago. I adopted the Cornell method between undergrad and grad school, and anecdotally it seems to have made a big difference.

The original purpose of Tufte's design, as far as I can tell, isn't the same as the purpose of the margin in teh Cornell method. However, the basic principle of dividing your writing space into two unequal columns -- one for primary content and the other for a secondary stream -- is the same.

The Template

When I write in Notion, the template I use is based on a synthesis of these ideas. First, I create a new blank page and set the page to fullscreen width. While Notion does have built-in notes and blog post templates, these don't match how I typically think about writing notes.

Next, I add two headers: Draft and Notes. The titles of these may change depending on the purpose, but usually it's these.

Then I use the drag-and-drop functionality in Notion to create two columns from these headers and I adjust the width of the columns to reflect the Tufte/Cornell margins. From what I can tell, Notion currently divides the vertical space in a page into 16 equal parts, and I use a ratio of 13/3 on the page. The video below shows how this works in practice.

Pandoc

Once the draft is written and ready to be sent out or converted into another document, Notion has a built-in Markdown export for any page that will easily convert the document into human-readable Markdown. This is where the template really shines, because the "Notes" column is converted to a separate section at the bottom of the page.

Since one of the main uses of the "Notes" column is things like references and footnotes, the links from these get listed at the bottom of the Markdown page in single spot, which is really nice. Even better is using the MMD syntax for footnotes to make sure that when the document is used for other things those notes (now endnotes rather than marginalia) are associated with the correct sentence or paragraph.

Finally, I use John MacFarlane's pandoc software to convert the exported Markdown document into a *.doc, *.html, or even a *.pdf with the tufte-handout class! The footnote syntax makes sure that the notes get connected to the right part of the document, and it lets me export from Notion into any format I want.

An example chapter from my dissertation that uses this template.

Because Notion has a template-building feature with the "Button" blocks, I don't have to go through this process every time. I have a template button that creates a new page with these dimensions and then I just drag the page wherever I want it to live in Notion.

If you have your own Notion account you can see an example of the template page here.