GNU ELPA - denote


Simple notes with an efficient file-naming scheme
denote-0.5.1.tar, 2022-Aug-10, 510 KiB
Denote Development <~protesilaos/>
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To install this package, run in Emacs:

M-x package-install RET denote RET

Full description

This manual, written by Protesilaos Stavrou, describes the customization options for the Emacs package called denote (or denote.el), and provides every other piece of information pertinent to it.

The documentation furnished herein corresponds to stable version 0.5.0, released on 2022-08-10. Any reference to a newer feature which does not yet form part of the latest tagged commit, is explicitly marked as such.

Current development target is 0.6.0-dev.

If you are viewing the version of this file, please note that the GNU ELPA machinery automatically generates an Info manual out of it.

Table of Contents


Copyright (C) 2022 Free Software Foundation, Inc.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with the Front-Cover Texts being “A GNU Manual,” and with the Back-Cover Texts as in (a) below. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License.”

(a) The FSF’s Back-Cover Text is: “You have the freedom to copy and modify this GNU manual.”

2 Overview

Denote aims to be a simple-to-use, focused-in-scope, and effective note-taking tool for Emacs. It is based on the following core design principles:

File names must follow a consistent and descriptive naming convention (The file-naming scheme). The file name alone should offer a clear indication of what the contents are, without reference to any other metadatum. This convention is not specific to note-taking, as it is pertinent to any form of file that is part of the user’s long-term storage (Renaming files).
Be a good Emacs citizen, by integrating with other packages or built-in functionality instead of re-inventing functions such as for filtering or greping. The author of Denote (Protesilaos, aka “Prot”) writes ordinary notes in plain text (.txt), switching on demand to an Org file only when its expanded set of functionality is required for the task at hand (Points of entry).
Notes are plain text and should remain portable. The way Denote writes file names, the front matter it includes in the note’s header, and the links it establishes must all be adequately usable with standard Unix tools. No need for a database or some specialised software. As Denote develops and this manual is fully fleshed out, there will be concrete examples on how to do the Denote-equivalent on the command-line.
Do not assume the user’s preference for a note-taking methodology. Denote is conceptually similar to the Zettelkasten Method, which you can learn more about in this detailed introduction: Notes are atomic (one file per note) and have a unique identifier. However, Denote does not enforce a particular methodology for knowledge management, such as a restricted vocabulary or mutually exclusive sets of keywords. Denote also does not check if the user writes thematically atomic notes. It is up to the user to apply the requisite rigor and/or creativity in pursuit of their preferred workflow (Writing metanotes).
Denote’s code base consists of small and reusable functions. They all have documentation strings. The idea is to make it easier for users of varying levels of expertise to understand what is going on and make surgical interventions where necessary (e.g. to tweak some formatting). In this manual, we provide concrete examples on such user-level configurations (Keep a journal or diary).

Now the important part… “Denote” is the familiar word, though it also is a play on the “note” concept. Plus, we can come up with acronyms, recursive or otherwise, of increasingly dubious utility like:

  • Don’t Ever Note Only The Epiphenomenal
  • Denote Everything Neatly; Omit The Excesses

But we’ll let you get back to work. Don’t Eschew or Neglect your Obligations, Tasks, and Engagements.

3 Points of entry

There are five ways to write a note with Denote: invoke the denote, denote-type, denote-date, denote-subdirectory, denote-template commands, or leverage the org-capture-templates by setting up a template which calls the function denote-org-capture. We explain all of those in the subsequent sections.

3.1 Standard note creation

The denote command will prompt for a title. Once that is supplied, it will ask for keywords. The resulting note will have a file name as already explained: The file naming scheme

The file type of the new note is determined by the user option denote-file-type (Front matter).

The keywords’ prompt supports minibuffer completion. Available candidates are those defined in the user option denote-known-keywords. More candidates can be inferred from the names of existing notes, by setting denote-infer-keywords to non-nil (which is the case by default).

Multiple keywords can be inserted by separating them with a comma (or whatever the value of the crm-separator is—which should be a comma). When the user option denote-sort-keywords is non-nil (the default), keywords are sorted alphabetically (technically, the sorting is done with string-lessp).

The interactive behaviour of the denote command is influenced by the user option denote-prompts (The denote-prompts option).

The denote command can also be called from Lisp. Read its doc string for the technicalities.

In the interest of discoverability, denote is also available under the alias denote-create-note.

3.1.1 The denote-prompts option

The user option denote-prompts determines how the denote command will behave interactively (Standard note creation).

The value is a list of symbols, which includes any of the following:

  • title: Prompt for the title of the new note.
  • keywords: Prompts with completion for the keywords of the new note. Available candidates are those specified in the user option denote-known-keywords. If the user option denote-infer-keywords is non-nil, keywords in existing note file names are included in the list of candidates. The keywords prompt uses completing-read-multiple, meaning that it can accept multiple keywords separated by a comma (or whatever the value of crm-sepator is).
  • file-type: Prompts with completion for the file type of the new note. Available candidates are those specified in the user option denote-file-type. Without this prompt, denote uses the value of denote-file-type.
  • subdirectory: Prompts with completion for a subdirectory in which to create the note. Available candidates are the value of the user option denote-directory and all of its subdirectories. Any subdirectory must already exist: Denote will not create it.
  • date: Prompts for the date of the new note. It will expect an input like 2022-06-16 or a date plus time: 2022-06-16 14:30. Without the date prompt, the denote command uses the current-time.
  • template: Prompts for a KEY among the denote-templates. The value of that KEY is used to populate the new note with content, which is added after the front matter (The denote-templates option).

The prompts occur in the given order.

If the value of this user option is nil, no prompts are used. The resulting file name will consist of an identifier (i.e. the date and time) and a supported file type extension (per denote-file-type).

Recall that Denote’s standard file-naming scheme is defined as follows (The file-naming scheme):


If either or both of the title and keywords prompts are not included in the value of this variable, file names will be any of those permutations:


When in doubt, always include the title and keywords prompts.

Finally, this user option only affects the interactive use of the denote command (advanced users can call it from Lisp). For ad-hoc interactive actions that do not change the default behaviour of the denote command, users can invoke these convenience commands: denote-type, denote-subdirectory, denote-date. They are described in the subsequent section (Convenience commands for note creation).

3.1.2 The denote-templates option

The user option denote-templates is an alist of content templates for new notes. A template is arbitrary text that Denote will add to a newly created note right below the front matter.

Templates are expressed as a (KEY . STRING) association.

  • The KEY is the name which identifies the template. It is an arbitrary symbol, such as report, memo, statement.
  • The STRING is ordinary text that Denote will insert as-is. It can contain newline characters to add spacing. Below we show some concrete examples.

The user can choose a template either by invoking the command denote-template or by changing the user option denote-prompts to always prompt for a template when calling the denote command.

The denote-prompts option.

Convenience commands for note creation.

Templates can be written directly as one large string. For example (the \n character is read as a newline):

(setq denote-templates
      '((report . "* Some heading\n\n* Another heading")
	(memo . "* Some heading

* Another heading


Long strings may be easier to type but interpret indentation literally. Also, they do not scale well. A better way is to use some Elisp code to construct the string. This would typically be the concat function, which joins multiple strings into one. The following is the same as the previous example:

(setq denote-templates
      `((report . "* Some heading\n\n* Another heading")
	(memo . ,(concat "* Some heading"
			 "* Another heading"

Notice that to evaluate a function inside of an alist we use the backtick to quote the alist (NOT the straight quote) and then prepend a comma to the expression that should be evaluated. The concat form here is not sensitive to indentation, so it is easier to adjust for legibility.

DEV NOTE: We do not provide more examples at this point, though feel welcome to ask for help if the information provided herein is not sufficient. We shall expand the manual accordingly.

3.1.3 Convenience commands for note creation

Sometimes the user needs to create a note that has different requirements from those of denote (Standard note creation). While this can be achieved globally by changing the denote-prompts user option, there are cases where an ad-hoc method is the appropriate one (The denote-prompts option).

To this end, Denote provides the following convenience interactive commands for note creation:

Create note by specifying file type

The denote-type command creates a note while prompting for a file type.

This is the equivalent to calling denote when denote-prompts is set to '(file-type title keywords). In practical terms, this lets you produce, say, a note in Markdown even though you normally write in Org (Standard note creation).

The denote-create-note-using-type is an alias of denote-type.

Create note using a date

Normally, Denote reads the current date and time to construct the unique identifier of a newly created note (Standard note creation). Sometimes, however, the user needs to set an explicit date+time value.

This is where the denote-date command comes in. It creates a note while prompting for a date. The date can be in YEAR-MONTH-DAY notation like 2022-06-30 or that plus the time: 2022-06-16 14:30.

This is the equivalent to calling denote when denote-prompts is set to '(date title keywords).

The denote-create-note-using-date is an alias of denote-date.

Create note in a specific directory

The denote-subdirectory command creates a note while prompting for a subdirectory. Available candidates include the value of the variable denote-directory and any subdirectory thereof (Denote does not create subdirectories).

This is equivalent to calling denote when denote-prompts is set to '(subdirectory title keywords).

The denote-create-note-in-subdirectory is a more descriptive alias of denote-subdirectory.

Create note and add a template

The denote-template command creates a new note and inserts the specified template below the front matter (The denote-templates option). Available candidates for templates are specified in the user option denote-templates.

This is equivalent to calling denote when denote-prompts is set to '(template title keywords).

The denote-create-note-with-template is an alias of the command denote-template, meant to help with discoverability.

3.2 Create note using Org capture

For integration with org-capture, the user must first add the relevant template. Such as:

(with-eval-after-load 'org-capture
  (add-to-list 'org-capture-templates
	       '("n" "New note (with Denote)" plain
		 (file denote-last-path)
		 :no-save t
		 :immediate-finish nil
		 :kill-buffer t
		 :jump-to-captured t)))

[ In the future, we might develop Denote in ways which do not require such manual intervention. More user feedback is required to identify the relevant workflows. ]

Once the template is added, it is accessed from the specified key. If, for instance, org-capture is bound to C-c c, then the note creation is initiated with C-c c n, per the above snippet. After that, the process is the same as with invoking denote directly, namely: a prompt for a title followed by a prompt for keywords (Standard note creation).

Users may prefer to leverage org-capture in order to extend file creation with the specifiers described in the org-capture-templates documentation (such as to capture the active region and/or create a hyperlink pointing to the given context).

IMPORTANT. Due to the particular file-naming scheme of Denote, which is derived dynamically, such specifiers or other arbitrary text cannot be written directly in the template. Instead, they have to be assigned to the user option denote-org-capture-specifiers, which is interpreted by the function denote-org-capture. Example with our default value:

(setq denote-org-capture-specifiers "%l\n%i\n%?")

Note that denote-org-capture ignores the denote-file-type: it always sets the Org file extension for the created note to ensure that the capture process works as intended, especially for the desired output of the denote-org-capture-specifiers.

3.3 Maintain separate directories for notes

The user option denote-directory accepts a value that represents the path to a directory, such as ~/Documents/notes. Normally, the user will have one place where they store all their notes, in which case this arrangement shall suffice.

There is, however, the possibility to maintain separate directories of notes. By “separate”, we mean that they do not communicate with each other: no linking between them, no common keywords, nothing. Think of the scenario where one set of notes is for private use and another is for an employer. We call these separate directories “silos”.

To create silos, the user must specify a local variable at the root of the desired directory. This is done by creating a .dir-locals.el file, with the following contents:

;;; Directory Local Variables.  For more information evaluate:
;;;     (info "(emacs) Directory Variables")

((nil . ((denote-directory . default-directory))))

When inside the directory that contains this .dir-locals.el file, all Denote commands/functions for note creation, linking, the inference of available keywords, et cetera will use the silo as their point of reference. They will not read the global value of denote-directory. The global value of denote-directory is read everywhere else except the silos.

In concrete terms, this is a representation of the directory structures (notice the .dir-locals.el file is needed only for the silos):

;; This is the global value of 'denote-directory' (no need for a .dir-locals.el)
|-- 20210303T120534--this-is-a-test__journal_philosophy.txt

;; A silo with notes for the employer
|-- .dir-locals.el
|-- 20210303T120534--this-is-a-test__conference.txt

;; Another silo with notes for my volunteering
|-- .dir-locals.el
|-- 20210303T120534--this-is-a-test__activism.txt

4 Renaming files

Denote provides commands to rename files and update their front matter where relevant. For Denote to work, only the file name needs to be in order, by following our naming conventions (The file-naming scheme). The linking mechanism, in particular, needs just the identifier in the file name (Linking notes).

We write front matter in notes for the user’s convenience and for other tools to make use of that information (e.g. Org’s export mechanism). The renaming mechanism takes care to keep this data in sync with the file name, when the user performs a change.

Renaming is useful for managing existing files created with Denote, but also for converting older text files to Denote notes.

Lastly, Denote’s file-naming scheme is not specific to notes or text files: it is useful for all sorts of items, such as multimedia and PDFs that form part of the user’s longer-term storage. While Denote does not manage such files (e.g. doesn’t create links to them), it already has all the mechanisms to facilitate the task of renaming them.

4.1 Rename a single file

The denote-rename-file command renames a file and updates existing front matter if appropriate.

If in Dired, the FILE to be renamed is the one at point, else the command prompts with minibuffer completion for a target file.

If FILE has a Denote-compliant identifier, the command retains it while updating the TITLE and KEYWORDS fields of the file name. Otherwise it creates an identifier based on the file’s attribute of last modification time. If such attribute cannot be found, the identifier falls back to the current date and time.

The default TITLE is retrieved from a line starting with a title field in the file’s contents, depending on the given file type (Front matter). Else, the file name is used as a default value at the minibuffer prompt.

As a final step after the FILE, TITLE, and KEYWORDS prompts, ask for confirmation, showing the difference between old and new file names. For example:

Rename sample.txt to 20220612T052900--my-sample-title__testing.txt? (y or n)

The file type extension (e.g. .txt) is read from the underlying file and is preserved through the renaming process. Files that have no extension are simply left without one.

Renaming only occurs relative to the current directory. Files are not moved between directories.

If the FILE has Denote-style front matter for the TITLE and KEYWORDS, this command asks to rewrite their values in order to reflect the new input (this step always requires confirmation and the underlying buffer is not saved, so consider invoking diff-buffer-with-file to double-check the effect). The rewrite of the FILE and KEYWORDS in the front matter should not affect the rest of the block.

If the file doesn’t have front matter but is among the supported file types (per denote-file-type), the denote-rename-file command adds front matter at the top of it and leaves the buffer unsaved for further inspection.

This command is intended to (i) rename existing Denote notes while updating their title and keywords in the front matter, (ii) convert existing supported file types to Denote notes, and (ii) rename non-note files (e.g. PDF) that can benefit from Denote’s file-naming scheme. The latter is a convenience we provide, since we already have all the requisite mechanisms in place (though Denote does not—and will not—manage such files).

4.2 Rename multiple files at once

The denote-dired-rename-marked-files command renames marked files in Dired to conform with our file-naming scheme. The operation does the following:

  • the file’s existing file name is retained and becomes the TITLE field, per Denote’s file-naming scheme;
  • the TITLE is sluggified and downcased, per our conventions;
  • an identifier is prepended to the TITLE;
  • the file’s extension is retained;
  • a prompt is asked once for the KEYWORDS field and the input is applied to all file names;
  • if the file is recognized as a Denote note, this command adds or rewrites front matter to include the new keywords. A confirmation to carry out this step is performed once at the outset. Note that the affected buffers are not saved. The user can thus check them to confirm that the new front matter does not cause any problems (e.g. with the command diff-buffer-with-file). Multiple buffers can be saved with save-some-buffers (read its doc string). The addition of front matter takes place only if the given file has the appropriate file type extension (per the user option denote-file-type).

4.3 Rename a single file based on its front matter

In the previous section, we covered the more general mechanism of the command denote-rename-file (Rename a single file). There is also a way to have the same outcome by making Denote read the data in the current file’s front matter and use it to construct/update the file name. The command for this is denote-rename-file-using-front-matter. It is only relevant for files that (i) are among the supported file types, per denote-file-type, and (ii) have the requisite front matter in place.

Suppose you have an .org file with this front matter (Front matter):

#+title:      My sample note file
#+date:       [2022-08-05 Fri 13:10]
#+filetags:   :testing:
#+identifier: 20220805T131044

Its file name reflects this information:

You want to change its title and keywords manually, so you modify it thus:

#+title:      My modified sample note file
#+date:       [2022-08-05 Fri 13:10]
#+filetags:   :testing:denote:emacs:
#+identifier: 20220805T131044

The file name still shows the old title and keywords. So after saving the buffer, you invoke denote-rename-file-using-front-matter and it updates the file name to:

The renaming is subject to a “yes or no” prompt that shows the old and new names, just so the user is certain about the change.

The identifier of the file, if any, is never modified even if it is edited in the front matter: Denote considers the file name to be the source of truth in this case, to avoid potential breakage with typos and the like.

4.4 Rename multiple files based on their front matter

As already noted, Denote can rename a file based on the data in its front matter (Rename a single file based on its front matter). The command denote-dired-rename-marked-files-using-front-matter extends this principle to a batch operation which applies to all marked files in Dired.

Marked files must count as notes for the purposes of Denote, which means that they at least have an identifier in their file name and use a supported file type, per denote-file-type. Files that do not meet this criterion are ignored.

The operation does the following:

  • the title in the front matter becomes the TITLE component of the file name (The file-naming scheme);
  • the keywords in the front matter are used for the KEYWORDS component of the file name and are processed accordingly, if needed;
  • the identifier remains unchanged in the file name even if it is modified in the front matter (this is done to avoid breakage caused by typos and the like).

NOTE that files must be saved, because Denote reads from the underlying file, not a modified buffer (this is done to avoid potential mistakes). The return value of a modified buffer is the one prior to the modification, i.e. the one already written on disk.

This command is useful for synchronizing multiple file names with their respective front matter.

5 The file-naming scheme

Notes are stored the denote-directory. The default path is ~/Documents/notes. The denote-directory can be a flat listing, meaning that it has no subdirectories, or it can be a directory tree. Either way, Denote takes care to only consider “notes” as valid candidates in the relevant operations and will omit other files or directories.

Every note produced by Denote follows this pattern (Points of entry):


The DATE field represents the date in year-month-day format followed by the capital letter T (for “time”) and the current time in hour-minute-second notation. The presentation is compact: 20220531T091625. The DATE serves as the unique identifier of each note.

The TITLE field is the title of the note, as provided by the user. It automatically gets downcased and hyphenated. An entry about “Economics in the Euro Area” produces an economics-in-the-euro-area string for the TITLE of the file name.

The KEYWORDS field consists of one or more entries demarcated by an underscore (the separator is inserted automatically). Each keyword is a string provided by the user at the relevant prompt which broadly describes the contents of the entry. Keywords that need to be more than one-word-long must be written with hyphens: any other character, such as spaces or the plus sign is automatically converted into a hyphen. So when emacs_library appears in a file name, it is interpreted as two distinct keywords, whereas emacs-library is one keyword. This is reflected in how the keywords are recorded in the note (Front matter). While Denote supports multi-word keywords by default, the user option denote-allow-multi-word-keywords can be set to nil to forcibly join all words into one, meaning that an input of word1 word2 will be written as word1word2.

The EXTENSION is the file type. By default, it is .org (org-mode) though the user option denote-file-type provides support for Markdown with YAML or TOML variants (.md which runs markdown-mode) and plain text (.txt via text-mode). Consult its doc string for the minutiae. While files end in the .org extension by default, the Denote code base does not actually depend on org.el and/or its accoutrements.


The different field separators, namely -- and __ introduce an efficient way to anchor searches (such as with Emacs commands like isearch or from the command-line with find and related). A query for _word always matches a keyword, while a regexp in the form of, say, "\\([0-9T]+?\\)--\\(.*?\\)_" captures the date in group \1 and the title in \2 (test any regular expression in the current buffer by invoking M-x re-builder).

Features of the file-naming scheme for searching or filtering.

While Denote is an Emacs package, notes should work long-term and not depend on the functionality of a specific program. The file-naming scheme we apply guarantees that a listing is readable in a variety of contexts.

5.1 Sluggified title and keywords

Denote has to be highly opinionated about which characters can be used in file names and the file’s front matter in order to enforce its file-naming scheme. The private variable denote--punctuation-regexp holds the relevant value. In simple terms:

  • What we count as “illegal characters” are converted into hyphens.
  • Input for a file title is hyphenated and downcased. The original value is preserved in the note’s contents (Front matter).
  • Keywords should not have spaces or other delimiters. If they do, they are converted into hyphens. Keywords are always downcased.

5.2 Features of the file-naming scheme for searching or filtering

File names have three fields and two sets of field delimiters between them:


The first field delimiter is the double hyphen, while the second is the double underscore. These practically serve as anchors for easier searching. Consider this example:


You will notice that there are two matches for the word denote: one in the title field and another in the keywords’ field. Because of the distinct field delimiters, if we search for -denote we only match the first instance while _denote targets the second one. When sorting through your notes, this kind of specificity is invaluable—and you get it for free from the file names alone!

Users can get a lot of value out of this simple arrangement, even if they have no knowledge of regular expressions. One thing to consider, for maximum effect, is to avoid using multi-word keywords as those get hyphenated like the title and will thus interfere with the above: either set the user option denote-allow-multi-word-keywords to nil or simply insert single words at the relevant prompts.

6 Front matter

Notes have their own “front matter”. This is a block of data at the top of the file, with no empty lines between the entries, which is automatically generated at the creation of a new note. The front matter includes the title and keywords (aka “tags” or “filetags”, depending on the file type) which the user specified at the relevant prompt, as well as the date and unique identifier, which are derived automatically.

This is how it looks for Org mode (when denote-file-type is nil):

#+title:      This is a sample note
#+date:       [2022-06-30 Thu 16:09]
#+filetags:   :denote:testing:
#+identifier: 20220630T160934

For Markdown with YAML (denote-file-type has the markdown-yaml value), the front matter looks like this:

title:      "This is a sample note"
date:       2022-06-30T16:09:58+03:00
tags:       ["denote", "testing"]
identifier: "20220630T160958"

For Markdown with TOML (denote-file-type has the markdown-toml value), it is:

title      = "This is a sample note"
date       = 2022-06-30T16:10:13+03:00
tags       = ["denote", "testing"]
identifier = "20220630T161013"

And for plain text (denote-file-type has the text value), we have the following:

title:      This is a sample note
date:       2022-06-30
tags:       denote  testing
identifier: 20220630T161028

The format of the date in the front matter is controlled by the user option denote-date-format. When nil, Denote uses a file-type-specific format:

  • For Org, an inactive timestamp is used, such as [2022-06-30 Wed 15:31].
  • For Markdown, the RFC3339 standard is applied: 2022-06-30T15:48:00+03:00.
  • For plain text, the format is that of ISO 8601: 2022-06-30.

If the value is a string, ignore the above and use it instead. The string must include format specifiers for the date. These are described in the doc string of format-time-string..

6.1 Change the front matter format

Per Denote’s design principles, the code is hackable. All front matter is stored in variables that are intended for public use. We do not declare those as “user options” because (i) they expect the user to have some degree of knowledge in Emacs Lisp and (ii) implement custom code.

[ NOTE for tinkerers: code intended for internal use includes double hyphens in its symbol. “Internal use” means that it can be changed without warning and with no further reference in the change log. Do not use any of it without understanding the consequences. ]

The variables which hold the front matter format are:

  • denote-org-front-matter
  • denote-text-front-matter
  • denote-toml-front-matter
  • denote-yaml-front-matter

These variables hold a string with specifiers that are used by the format function. The formatting operation passes four arguments (five in the case of denote-text-front-matter as noted in its doc string) which include the values of the given entries. The doc string of denote-org-front-matter describes the technicalities:

The order of the arguments is TITLE, DATE, KEYWORDS, ID. If you are an advanced user who wants to edit this variable to affect how front matter is produced, consider using something like %2$s to control where Nth argument is placed.

Make sure to:

  1. Not use empty lines inside the front matter block.
  2. Insert at least one empty line after the front matter block and do not use any empty line before it.

These help with consistency and might prove useful if we ever need to operate on the front matter as a whole.

With those granted, below are some examples. The approach is the same for all variables.

;; Like the default, but upcase the entries
(setq denote-org-front-matter
  "#+TITLE:      %s
#+DATE:       %s
#+FILETAGS:   %s

;; Change the order (notice the %N$s notation)
(setq denote-org-front-matter
  "#+title:      %1$s
#+filetags:   %3$s
#+date:       %2$s
#+identifier: %4$s

;; Remove the date
(setq denote-org-front-matter
  "#+title:      %1$s
#+filetags:   %3$s
#+identifier: %4$s

;; Remove the date and the identifier
(setq denote-org-front-matter
  "#+title:      %1$s
#+filetags:   %3$s

Note that setq has a global effect: it affects the creation of all new notes. Depending on the workflow, it may be preferrable to have a custom command which let binds the different format. We shall not provide examples at this point as this is a more advanced feature and we are not yet sure what the user’s needs are. Please provide feedback and we shall act accordingly.

6.2 Regenerate front matter

Sometimes the user needs to produce new front matter for an existing note. Perhaps because they accidentally deleted a line and could not undo the operation. The command denote-add-front-matter can be used for this very purpose.

In interactive use, denote-add-front-matter must be invoked from a buffer that visits a Denote note. It prompts for a title and then for keywords. These are the standard prompts we already use for note creation, so the keywords’ prompt allows minibuffer completion and the input of multiple entries, each separated by a comma (Points of entry).

The newly created front matter is added to the top of the file.

This command does not rename the file (e.g. to update the keywords). To rename a file by reading its front matter as input, the user can rely on denote-rename-file-using-front-matter (Renaming files).

Note that denote-add-front-matter is useful only for existing Denote notes. If the user needs to convert a generic text file to a Denote note, they can use one of the command which first rename the file to make it comply with our file-naming scheme and then add the relevant front matter.

7 Linking notes

Denote offers several commands for linking between notes.

All links target files which are Denote notes. This means that they have our file-naming scheme, are writable/regular (not directory, named pipe, etc.), and use the appropriate file type extension (per denote-file-type). Furthermore, the files need to be inside the denote-directory or one of its subdirectories. No other file is recognised.

The following sections delve into the details.

7.1 Adding a single link

The denote-link command inserts a link at point to an entry specified at the minibuffer prompt. Links are formatted depending on the file type of current note. In Org and plain text buffers, links are formatted thus: [[denote:IDENTIFIER][TITLE]]. While in Markdown they are expressed as [TITLE](denote:IDENTIFIER).

When denote-link is called with a prefix argument (C-u by default), it formats links like [[denote:IDENTIFIER]]. The user might prefer its simplicity.

Inserted links are automatically buttonized and remain active for as long as the buffer is available. In Org this is handled by the major mode: the denote: hyperlink type works exactly like the standard file:. In Markdown and plain text, Denote performs the buttonization of those links. To buttonize links in existing files while visiting them, the user must add this snippet to their setup (it already excludes Org):

(add-hook 'find-file-hook #'denote-link-buttonize-buffer)

The denote-link-buttonize-buffer is also an interactive function in case the user needs it.

Links are created only for files which qualify as a “note” for our purposes (Linking notes).

Links are styled with the denote-faces-link face, which looks exactly like an ordinary link by default. This is just a convenience for the user/theme in case they want denote: links to remain distinct from other links.

In Org files, broken links get the denote-faces-broken-link if the linked identifier does not resolve to a file path with a note. The ability to use distinct faces for such a scenario is a feature of Org, which is not available in other supported file types that use Emacs’ generic button mechanism.

7.2 Insert links matching a regexp

The command denote-link-add-links adds links at point matching a regular expression or plain string. The links are inserted as a typographic list, such as:

- link1
- link2
- link3

Each link is formatted according to the file type of the current note, as explained further above about the denote-link command. The current note is excluded from the matching entries (adding a link to itself is pointless).

When called with a prefix argument (C-u) denote-link-add-links will format all links as [[denote:IDENTIFIER]], hence a typographic list:

- [[denote:IDENTIFIER-1]]
- [[denote:IDENTIFIER-2]]
- [[denote:IDENTIFIER-3]]

Same examples of a regular expression that can be used with this command:

  • journal match all files which include journal anywhere in their name.
  • _journal match all files which include journal as a keyword.
  • ^2022.*_journal match all file names starting with 2022 and including the keyword journal.
  • \.txt match all files including .txt. In practical terms, this only applies to the file extension, as Denote automatically removes dots (and other characters) from the base file name.

If files are created with denote-sort-keywords as non-nil (the default), then it is easy to write a regexp that includes multiple keywords in alphabetic order:

  • _denote.*_package match all files that include both the denote and package keywords, in this order.
  • \(.*denote.*package.*\)\|\(.*package.*denote.*\) is the same as above, but out-of-order.

Remember that regexp constructs only need to be escaped once (like \|) when done interactively but twice when called from Lisp. What we show above is for interactive usage.

Links are created only for files which qualify as a “note” for our purposes (Linking notes).

7.3 Insert links from marked files in Dired

The command denote-link-dired-marked-notes is similar to denote-link-add-links in that it inserts in the buffer a typographic list of links to Denote notes (Insert links matching a regexp). Though instead of reading a regular expression, it lets the user mark files in Dired and link to them. This should be easier for users of all skill levels, instead of having to write a potentially complex regular expression.

If there are multiple buffers that visit a Denote note, this command will ask to select one among them, using minibuffer completion. If there is only one buffer, it will operate in it outright. If there are no buffers, it will produce an error.

With optional ID-ONLY as a prefix argument (C-u by default), the command inserts links with just the identifier, which is the same principle as with denote-link and others (Adding a single link).

The command denote-link-dired-marked-notes is meant to be used from a Dired buffer.

As always, links are created only for files which qualify as a “note” for our purposes (Linking notes).

7.4 The backlinks’ buffer

The command denote-link-backlinks produces a bespoke buffer which displays the file name of all notes linking to the current one. Each file name appears on its own line and is buttonized so that it performs the action of visiting the referenced file. The backlinks’ buffer looks like this:

Backlinks to "On being honest" (20220614T130812)


The backlinks’ buffer is fontified by default, though the user has access to the denote-link-fontify-backlinks option to disable this effect by setting its value to nil.

The placement of the backlinks’ buffer is subject to the user option denote-link-backlinks-display-buffer-action. Due to the nature of the underlying display-buffer mechanism, this inevitably is a relatively advanced feature. By default, the backlinks’ buffer is displayed below the current window. The doc string of our user option includes a sample configuration that places the buffer in a left side window instead. Reproducing it here for the sake of convenience:

(setq denote-link-backlinks-display-buffer-action
	(side . left)
	(slot . 99)
	(window-width . 0.3)))

The backlinks’ buffer runs the major-mode denote-backlink-mode, which is derived from special-mode. It binds keys to move between links with n (next) and p (previous). These are stored in the denote-backlink-mode-map (use M-x describe-mode (C-h m) in an unfamiliar buffer to learn more about it).

Note that the backlinking facility uses Emacs’ built-in Xref infrastructure. On some operating systems, the user may need to add certain executables to the relevant environment variable.

Why do I get “Search failed with status 1” when I search for backlinks?

7.5 Writing metanotes

A “metanote” is an entry that describes other entries who have something in common. Writing metanotes can be part of a workflow where the user periodically reviews their work in search of patterns and deeper insights. For example, you might want to read your journal entries from the past year to reflect on your experiences, evolution as a person, and the like.

The commands denote-link-add-links, denote-link-dired-marked-notes are suited for this task.

Insert links matching a regexp.

Insert links from marked files in Dired.

You will create your metanote the way you use Denote ordinarily (metanotes may have the metanote keyword, among others), write an introduction or however you want to go about it, invoke the command which inserts multiple links at once (see the above-cited nodes), and continue writing.

Metanotes can serve as entry points to groupings of individual notes. They are not the same as a filtered list of files, i.e. what you would do in Dired or the minibuffer where you narrow the list of notes to a given query. Metanotes contain the filtered list plus your thoughts about it. The act of purposefully grouping notes together and contemplating on their shared patterns is what adds value.

Your future self will appreciate metanotes for the function they serve in encapsulating knowledge, while current you will be equipped with the knowledge derived from the deliberate self-reflection.

7.6 Visiting linked files via the minibuffer

Denote has a major-mode-agnostic mechanism to collect all linked file references in the current buffer and return them as an appropriately formatted list. This list can then be used in interactive commands. The denote-link-find-file is such a command. It uses minibuffer completion to visit a file that is linked to from the current note. The candidates have the correct metadata, which is ideal for integration with other standards-compliant tools (Extending Denote). For instance, a package such as marginalia will display accurate annotations, while the embark package will be able to work its magic such as in exporting the list into a filtered Dired buffer (i.e. a familiar Dired listing with only the files of the current minibuffer session).

7.7 Miscellaneous information about links

For convenience, the denote-link command has an alias called denote-link-insert-link. The denote-link-backlinks can also be used as denote-link-show-backlinks-buffer. While denote-link-add-links is aliased denote-link-insert-links-matching-regexp. The purpose of these aliases is to offer alternative, more descriptive names of select commands.

8 Fontification in Dired

One of the upsides of Denote’s file-naming scheme is the predictable pattern it establishes, which appears as a near-tabular presentation in a listing of notes (i.e. in Dired). The denote-dired-mode can help enhance this impression, by fontifying the components of the file name to make the date (identifier) and keywords stand out.

There are two ways to set the mode. Either use it for all directories, which probably is not needed:

(add-hook 'dired-mode-hook #'denote-dired-mode)

Or configure the user option denote-dired-directories and then set up the function denote-dired-mode-in-directories:

;; We use different ways to specify a path for demo purposes.
(setq denote-dired-directories
      (list denote-directory
	    (thread-last denote-directory (expand-file-name "attachments"))
	    (expand-file-name "~/Documents/vlog")))

(add-hook 'dired-mode-hook #'denote-dired-mode-in-directories)

The faces we define for this purpose are:

  • denote-faces-date
  • denote-faces-delimiter
  • denote-faces-extension
  • denote-faces-keywords
  • denote-faces-subdirectory
  • denote-faces-time
  • denote-faces-title

For the time being, the diredfl package is not compatible with this facility.

The denote-dired-mode does not only fontify note files that were created by Denote: it covers every file name that follows our naming conventions (The file-naming scheme). This is particularly useful for scenaria where, say, one wants to organise their collection of PDFs and multimedia in a systematic way (and, perhaps, use them as attachments for the notes Denote produces if you are writing Org notes and are using its standand attachments’ facility).

9 Minibuffer histories

Denote has a dedicated minibuffer history for each one of its prompts. This practically means that using M-p (previous-history-element) and M-n (next-history-element) will only cycle through the relevant record of inputs, such as your latest titles in the TITLE prompt, and keywords in the KEYWORDS prompt.

The built-in savehist library saves minibuffer histories. Sample configuration:

(require 'savehist)
(setq savehist-file (locate-user-emacs-file "savehist"))
(setq history-length 500)
(setq history-delete-duplicates t)
(setq savehist-save-minibuffer-history t)
(add-hook 'after-init-hook #'savehist-mode)

10 Extending Denote

Denote is a tool with a narrow scope: create notes and link between them, based on the aforementioned file-naming scheme. For other common operations the user is advised to rely on standard Emacs facilities or specialised third-party packages. This section covers the details.

10.1 Keep a journal or diary

While there are subtle technical differences between a journal and a diary, we will consider those equivalent in the interest of brevity: they both describe a personal space that holds a record of your thoughts about your experiences and/or view of events in the world.

Suppose you are committed to writing an entry every day. Unlike what we demonstrated before, your writing will follow a regular naming pattern. You know that the title of the new note must always look like Tuesday 14 June 2022 and the keyword has to be journal or diary. As such, you want to automate the task instead of being prompted each time, as is the norm with denote and the relevant commands (Points of entry). This is easy to accomplish because denote can be called from Lisp and given the required arguments of TITLE and KEYWORDS directly. All you need is a simple wrapper function:

(defun my-denote-journal ()
  "Create an entry tagged 'journal' with the date as its title."
   (format-time-string "%A %e %B %Y") ; format like Tuesday 14 June 2022
   '("journal"))) ; multiple keywords are a list of strings: '("one" "two")

By invoking my-denote-journal you will go straight into the newly created note and commit to your writing outright.

Of course, you can always set up the function so that it asks for a TITLE but still automatically applies the journal tag:

(defun denote-journal-with-title ()
  "Create an entry tagged 'journal', while prompting for a title."
   (denote--title-prompt) ; ask for title, instead of using human-readable date

Sometimes journaling is done with the intent to hone one’s writing skills. Perhaps you are learning a new language or wish to communicate your ideas with greater clarity and precision. As with everything that requires a degree of sophistication, you have to work for it—write, write, write!

One way to test your progress is to set a timer. It helps you gauge your output and its quality. To use a timer with Emacs, consider the tmr package:

(defun my-denote-journal-with-tmr ()
  "Like `my-denote-journal', but also set a 10-minute timer.
The `tmr' command is part of the `tmr' package."
   (format-time-string "%A %e %B %Y")
  (tmr "10" "Practice writing in my journal")) ; set 10 minute timer with a description

Once the timer elapses, stop writing and review your performance. Practice makes perfect!

[ As Denote matures, we may add hooks to control what happens before or after the creation of a new note. We shall also document more examples of tasks that can be accomplished with this package. ]

Sources for tmr:

10.2 Narrow the list of files in Dired

Emacs’ standard file manager (or directory editor) can read a regular expression to mark the matching files. This is the command dired-mark-files-regexp, which is bound to % m by default. For example, % m _denote will match all files that have the denote keyword (Features of the file-naming scheme for searching or filtering).

Once the files are matched, the user has to options: (i) narrow the list to the matching items or (ii) exclude the matching items from the list.

For the former, we want to toggle the marks by typing t (calls the command dired-toggle-marks by default) and then hit the letter k (for dired-do-kill-lines). The remaining files are those that match the regexp that was provided earlier.

For the latter approach of filtering out the matching items, simply involves the use of the k command (dired-do-kill-lines) to omit the marked files from the list.

These sequences can be combined to incrementally narrow the list. Note that dired-do-kill-lines does not delete files: it simply hides them from the current view.

Revert to the original listing with g (revert-buffer).

For a convenient wrapper, consider this example:

(defvar prot-dired--limit-hist '()
  "Minibuffer history for `prot-dired-limit-regexp'.")

(defun prot-dired-limit-regexp (regexp omit)
  "Limit Dired to keep files matching REGEXP.

With optional OMIT argument as a prefix (\\[universal-argument]),
exclude files matching REGEXP.

Restore the buffer with \\<dired-mode-map>`\\[revert-buffer]'."
     (concat "Files "
	     (when current-prefix-arg
	       (propertize "NOT " 'face 'warning))
	     "matching PATTERN: ")
     nil 'prot-dired--limit-hist)
  (dired-mark-files-regexp regexp)
  (unless omit (dired-toggle-marks))

10.3 Use Embark to collect minibuffer candidates

embark is a remarkable package that lets you perform relevant, context-dependent actions using a prefix key (simplifying in the interest of brevity).

For our purposes, Embark can be used to produce a Dired listing directly from the minibuffer. Suppose the current note has links to three other notes. You might use the denote-link-find-file command to pick one via the minibuffer. But why not turn those three links into their own Dired listing? While in the minibuffer, invoke embark-act which you may have already bound to C-. and then follow it up with E (for the embark-export command).

This pattern can be repeated with any list of candidates, meaning that you can narrow the list by providing some input before eventually exporting the results with Embark.

Overall, this is very powerful and you might prefer it over doing the same thing directly in Dired, since you also benefit from all the power of the minibuffer (Narrow the list of files in Dired).

10.4 Search file contents

Emacs provides built-in commands which are wrappers of standard Unix tools: M-x grep lets the user input the flags of a grep call and pass a regular expression to the -e flag.

The author of Denote uses this thin wrapper instead:

(defvar prot-search--grep-hist '()
  "Input history of grep searches.")

(defun prot-search-grep (regexp &optional recursive)
  "Run grep for REGEXP.

Search in the current directory using `lgrep'.  With optional
prefix argument (\\[universal-argument]) for RECURSIVE, run a
search starting from the current directory with `rgrep'."
    (read-from-minibuffer (concat (if current-prefix-arg
				      (propertize "Recursive" 'face 'warning)
				  " grep for PATTERN: ")
			  nil nil nil 'prot-search--grep-hist)
  (unless grep-command
  (if recursive
      (rgrep regexp "*" default-directory)
    (lgrep regexp "*" default-directory)))

Rather than maintain custom code, consider using the excellent consult package: it provides commands such as consult-grep and consult-find which provide live results and are generally easier to use than the built-in commands.

10.5 Bookmark the directory with the notes

Part of the reason Denote does not reinvent existing functionality is to encourage you to learn more about Emacs. You do not need a bespoke “jump to my notes” directory because such commands do not scale well. Will you have a “jump to my downloads” then another for multimedia and so on? No.

Emacs has a built-in framework for recording persistent markers to locations. Visit the denote-directory (or any dir/file for that matter) and invoke the bookmark-set command (bound to C-x r m by default). It lets you create a bookmark.

The list of bookmarks can be reviewed with the bookmark-bmenu-list command (bound to C-x r l by default). A minibuffer interface is available with bookmark-jump (C-x r b).

If you use the consult package, its default consult-buffer command has the means to group together buffers, recent files, and bookmarks. Each of those types can be narrowed to with a prefix key. The package consult-dir is an extension to consult which provides useful extras for working with directories, including bookmarks.

10.6 Use the consult-notes package

If you are already using consult (which is a brilliant package), you will probably like its consult-notes extension. It uses the familiar mechanisms of Consult to filter searches via a prefix key. For example:

(setq consult-notes-sources
      `(("Notes"  ?n ,denote-directory)
	("Books"  ?b "~/Documents/books")))

With the above, M-x consult-notes will list the files in those two directories. If you type n and space, it narrows the list to just the notes, while b does the same for books.

To search all your notes with grep (or ripgrep if installed – see consult-notes-use-rg variable) use the command consult-notes-search-in-all-notes. This will employ grep/ripgrep for searching terms in all the directories set in consult-notes-sources.

Note that consult-notes is in its early stages of development. Expect improvements in the near future (written on 2022-06-22 16:48 +0300).

10.7 Treat your notes as a project

Emacs has a built-in library for treating a directory tree as a “project”. This means that the contents of this tree are seen as part of the same set, so commands like project-switch-to-buffer (C-x p b by default) will only consider buffers in the current project (e.g. three notes that are currently being visited).

Normally, a “project” is a directory tree whose root is under version control. For our purposes, all you need is to navigate to the denote-directory (for the shell or via Dired) and use the command-line to run this (requires the git executable):

git init

From Dired, you can type M-! which invokes dired-smart-shell-command and then run the git call there.

The project can then be registered by invoking any project-related command inside of it, such as project-find-file (C-x p f).

It is a good idea to keep your notes under version control, as that gives you a history of changes for each file. We shall not delve into the technicalities here, though suffice to note that Emacs’ built-in version control framework or the exceptionally well-crafted magit package will get the job done (VC can work with other backends besides Git).

11 Installation

11.1 GNU ELPA package

The package is available as denote. Simply do:

M-x package-refresh-contents
M-x package-install

And search for it.

GNU ELPA provides the latest stable release. Those who prefer to follow the development process in order to report bugs or suggest changes, can use the version of the package from the GNU-devel ELPA archive. Read:

11.2 Manual installation

Assuming your Emacs files are found in ~/.emacs.d/, execute the following commands in a shell prompt:

cd ~/.emacs.d

# Create a directory for manually-installed packages
mkdir manual-packages

# Go to the new directory
cd manual-packages

# Clone this repo, naming it "denote"
git clone denote

Finally, in your init.el (or equivalent) evaluate this:

;; Make Elisp files in that directory available to the user.
(add-to-list 'load-path "~/.emacs.d/manual-packages/denote")

Everything is in place to set up the package.

12 Sample configuration

(require 'denote)

;; Remember to check the doc strings of those variables.
(setq denote-directory (expand-file-name "~/Documents/notes/"))
(setq denote-known-keywords '("emacs" "philosophy" "politics" "economics"))
(setq denote-infer-keywords t)
(setq denote-sort-keywords t)
(setq denote-file-type nil) ; Org is the default, set others here
(setq denote-prompts '(title keywords))

;; Read this manual for how to specify `denote-templates'.  We do not
;; include an example here to avoid potential confusion.

;; We allow multi-word keywords by default.  The author's personal
;; preference is for single-word keywords for a more rigid workflow.
(setq denote-allow-multi-word-keywords t)

(setq denote-date-format nil) ; read doc string

;; By default, we fontify backlinks in their bespoke buffer.
(setq denote-link-fontify-backlinks t)

;; Also see `denote-link-backlinks-display-buffer-action' which is a bit
;; advanced.

;; If you use Markdown or plain text files (Org renders links as buttons
;; right away)
(add-hook 'find-file-hook #'denote-link-buttonize-buffer)

;; We use different ways to specify a path for demo purposes.
(setq denote-dired-directories
      (list denote-directory
	    (thread-last denote-directory (expand-file-name "attachments"))
	    (expand-file-name "~/Documents/books")))

;; Generic (great if you rename files Denote-style in lots of places):
;; (add-hook 'dired-mode-hook #'denote-dired-mode)
;; OR if only want it in `denote-dired-directories':
(add-hook 'dired-mode-hook #'denote-dired-mode-in-directories)

;; Here is a custom, user-level command from one of the examples we
;; showed in this manual.  We define it here and add it to a key binding
;; below.
(defun my-denote-journal ()
  "Create an entry tagged 'journal', while prompting for a title."

;; Denote DOES NOT define any key bindings.  This is for the user to
;; decide.  For example:
(let ((map global-map))
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n j") #'my-denote-journal) ; our custom command
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n n") #'denote)
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n N") #'denote-type)
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n d") #'denote-date)
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n s") #'denote-subdirectory)
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n t") #'denote-template)
  ;; If you intend to use Denote with a variety of file types, it is
  ;; easier to bind the link-related commands to the `global-map', as
  ;; shown here.  Otherwise follow the same pattern for `org-mode-map',
  ;; `markdown-mode-map', and/or `text-mode-map'.
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n i") #'denote-link) ; "insert" mnemonic
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n I") #'denote-link-add-links)
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n l") #'denote-link-find-file) ; "list" links
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n b") #'denote-link-backlinks)
  ;; Note that `denote-rename-file' can work from any context, not just
  ;; Dired bufffers.  That is why we bind it here to the `global-map'.
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n r") #'denote-rename-file)
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c n R") #'denote-rename-file-using-front-matter))

;; Key bindings specifically for Dired.
(let ((map dired-mode-map))
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c C-d C-i") #'denote-link-dired-marked-notes)
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c C-d C-r") #'denote-dired-rename-marked-files)
  (define-key map (kbd "C-c C-d C-R") #'denote-dired-rename-marked-files-using-front-matter))

(with-eval-after-load 'org-capture
  (setq denote-org-capture-specifiers "%l\n%i\n%?")
  (add-to-list 'org-capture-templates
	       '("n" "New note (with denote.el)" plain
		 (file denote-last-path)
		 :no-save t
		 :immediate-finish nil
		 :kill-buffer t
		 :jump-to-captured t)))

13 Contributing

Denote is a GNU ELPA package. As such, any significant change to the code requires copyright assignment to the Free Software Foundation (more below).

You do not need to be a programmer to contribute to this package. Sharing an idea or describing a workflow is equally helpful, as it teaches us something we may not know and might be able to cover either by extending Denote or expanding this manual (Things to do). If you prefer to write a blog post, make sure you share it with us: we can add a section herein referencing all such articles. Everyone gets acknowledged (Acknowledgements). There is no such thing as an “insignificant contribution”—they all matter.

If our public media are not suitable, you are welcome to contact me (Protesilaos) in private:

Copyright assignment is a prerequisite to sharing code. It is a simple process. Check the request form below (please adapt it accordingly). You must write an email to the address mentioned in the form and then wait for the FSF to send you a legal agreement. Sign the document and file it back to them. This could all happen via email and take about a week. You are encouraged to go through this process. You only need to do it once. It will allow you to make contributions to Emacs in general.

Please email the following information to, and we
will send you the assignment form for your past and future changes.

Please use your full legal name (in ASCII characters) as the subject
line of the message.


[What is the name of the program or package you're contributing to?]

GNU Emacs

[Did you copy any files or text written by someone else in these changes?
Even if that material is free software, we need to know about it.]

Copied a few snippets from the same files I edited.  Their author,
Protesilaos Stavrou, has already assigned copyright to the Free Software

[Do you have an employer who might have a basis to claim to own
your changes?  Do you attend a school which might make such a claim?]

[For the copyright registration, what country are you a citizen of?]

[What year were you born?]

[Please write your email address here.]

[Please write your postal address here.]

[Which files have you changed so far, and which new files have you written
so far?]

14 Things to do

Denote should work well for what is described in this manual. Though we can always do better. These are some of the tasks that are planned for the future and which you might want to help with (Contributing).

This is a non-exhaustive list and you are always welcome to either report or work on something else.

  • [ ] Ensure integration between denote: links and Embark.
  • [ ] Add command that expands the identifier in links to a full name.
  • [ ] Add command that rewrites full names in links, if they are invalid.
  • [ ] Consider completion-at-point after denote: links.
  • [ ] Support mutually-exclusive sets of tags.

These are just ideas. We need to consider the pros and cons in each case and act accordingly.

15 Alternatives to Denote

What follows is a list of Emacs packages for note-taking. I (Protesilaos) have not used any of them, as I was manually applying my file-naming scheme beforehand and by the time those packages were available I was already hacking on the predecessor of Denote as a means of learning Emacs Lisp (a package which I called “Unassuming Sidenotes of Little Significance”, aka “USLS” which is pronounced as “U-S-L-S” or “useless”). As such, I cannot comment at length on the differences between Denote and each of those packages, beside what I gather from their documentation.

The de facto standard in the Emacs milieu—and rightly so! It has a massive community, is featureful, and should be an excellent companion to anyone who is invested in the Org ecosystem and/or knows what “Roam” is (I don’t). It has been explained to me that Org Roam uses a database to store a cache about your notes. It otherwise uses standard Org files. The cache helps refer to the same node through aliases which can provide lots of options. Personally, I follow a single-topic-per-note approach, so anything beyond that is overkill. If the database is only for a cache, then maybe that has no downside, though I am careful with any kind of specialised program as it creates a dependency. If you ask me about database software in particular, I have no idea how to use one, let alone debug it or retrieve data from it if something goes awry (I could learn, but that is beside the point).
zk (or zk.el)
Reading its documentation makes me think that this is Denote’s sibling—the two projects have a lot of things in common, including the preference to rely on plain files and standard tools. The core difference is that Denote has a strict file-naming scheme. Other differences in available features are, in principle, matters of style or circumstance: both packages can have them. As its initials imply, ZK enables a zettelkasten-like workflow. It does not enforce it though, letting the user adapt the method to their needs and requirements.
This is another one of Denote’s relatives, at least insofar as the goal of simplicity is concerned. The major difference is that according to its documentation “the name of the file that is created is just a unique ID”. This is not consistent with our file-naming scheme which is all about making sense of your files by their name alone and being able to visually parse a listing of them without any kind of specialised tool (e.g. ls -l or ls -C on the command-line from inside the denote-directory give you a human-readable set of files names, while find * -maxdepth 0 -type f is another approach).
This is a zettelkasten note-taking system built on top of the deft package. Deft provides a search interface to a directory, in this case the one holding the user’s zetteldeft notes. Denote has no such dependency and is not opinionated about how the user prefers to search/access their notes: use Dired, Grep, the consult package, or whatever else you already have set up for all things Emacs, not just your notes.

Searching through M-x list-packages for “zettel” brings up more matches. zetteldesk is an extension to Org Roam and, as such, I cannot possibly know what Org Roam truly misses and what the added-value of this package is. neuron-mode builds on top of an external program called neuron, which I have never used.

Searching for “note” gives us a few more results. notes-mode has precious little documentation and I cannot tell what it actually does (as I said in my presentation for LibrePlanet 2022, inadequate docs are a bug). side-notes differs from what we try to do with Denote, as it basically gives you the means to record your thoughts about some other project you are working on and keep them on the side: so it and Denote should not be mutually exclusive.

If I missed something, please let me know.

15.1 Alternative ideas wih Emacs and further reading

This section covers blog posts from the Emacs community on the matter of note-taking. They may reference some of the packages covered in the previous section or provide their custom code (Alternatives to Denote). The list is unsorted.

[ Development note: help expand this list. ]

16 Frequently Asked Questions

I (Protesilaos) answer some questions I have received or might get. It is assumed that you have read the rest of this manual: I will not go into the specifics of how Denote works.

16.1 Why develop Denote when PACKAGE already exists?

I wrote Denote because I was using a variant of Denote’s file-naming scheme before I was even an Emacs user (I switched to Emacs from Tmux+Vim+CLI in the summer of 2019). I was originally inspired by Jekyll, the static site generator, which I started using for my website in 2016 (was on WordPress before). Jekyll’s files follow the pattern. I liked its efficiency relative to the unstructured mess I had before. Eventually, I started using that scheme outside the confines of my website’s source code. Over time I refined it and here we are.

Note-taking is something I take very seriously, as I am a prolific writer (just check my website, which only reveals the tip of the iceberg). As such, I need a program that does exactly what I want and which I know how to extend. I originally tried to use Org capture templates to create new files with a Denote-style file-naming scheme but never managed to achieve it. Maybe because org-capture has some hard-coded assumptions or I simply am not competent enough to hack on core Org facilities. Whatever the case, an alternative was in order.

The existence of PACKAGE is never a good reason for me not to conduct my own experiments for recreational, educational, or practical purposes. When the question arises of “why not contribute to PACKAGE instead?” the answer is that without me experimenting in the first place, I would lack the skills for such a task. Furthermore, contributing to another package does not guarantee I get what I want in terms of workflow.

Whether you should use Denote or not is another matter altogether: choose whatever you want.

16.2 Why not rely exclusively on Org?

I think Org is one of Emacs’ killer apps. I also believe it is not the right tool for every job. When I write notes, I want to focus on writing. Nothing more. I thus have no need for stuff like org-babel, scheduling to-do items, clocking time, and so on. The more “mental dependencies” you add to your workflow, the heavier the burden you carry and the less focused you are on the task at hand: there is always that temptation to tweak the markup, tinker with some syntactic construct, obsess about what ought to be irrelevant to writing as such.

In technical terms, I also am not fond of Org’s code base (I understand why it is the way it is—just commenting on the fact). Ever tried to read it? You will routinely find functions that are tens-to-hundreds of lines long and have all sorts of special casing. As I am not a programmer and only learnt to write Elisp through trial and error, I have no confidence in my ability to make Org do what I want at that level, hence denote instead of org-denote or something.

Perhaps the master programmer is one who can deal with complexity and keep adding to it. I am of the opposite view, as language—code included—is at its communicative best when it is clear and accessible.

Make no mistake: I use Org for the agenda and also to write technical documentation that needs to be exported to various formats, including this very manual.

16.3 Why care about Unix tools when you use Emacs?

My notes form part of my longer-term storage. I do not want to have to rely on a special program to be able to read them or filter them. Unix is universal, at least as far as I am concerned.

Denote streamlines some tasks and makes things easier in general, which is consistent with how Emacs provides a layer of interactivity on top of Unix. Still, Denote’s utilities can, in principle, be implemented as POSIX shell scripts (minus the Emacs-specific parts like fontification in Dired or the buttonization of links).

Portability matters. For example, in the future I might own a smartphone, so I prefer not to require Emacs, Org, or some other executable to access my files on the go.

Furthermore, I might want to share those files with someone. If I make Emacs a requirement, I am limiting my circle to a handful of relatively advanced users.

Please don’t misinterpret this: I am using Emacs full-time for my computing and maintain a growing list of packages for it. This is just me thinking long-term.

16.4 Why many small files instead of few large ones?

I have read that Org favours the latter method. If true, I strongly disagree with it because of the implicit dependency it introduces and the way it favours machine-friendliness over human-readability in terms of accessing information. Notes are long-term storage. I might want to access them on (i) some device with limited features, (ii) print on paper, (iii) share with another person who is not a tech wizard.

There are good arguments for few large files, but all either prioritize machine-friendliness or presuppose the use of sophisticated tools like Emacs+Org.

Good luck using less on a generic TTY to read a file with a zillion words, headings, sub-headings, sub-sub-headings, property drawers, and other constructs! You will not get the otherwise wonderful folding of headings the way you do in Emacs—do not take such features for granted.

My point is that notes should be atomic to help the user—and potentially the user’s family, friends, acquaintances—make sense of them in a wide range of scenaria. The more program-agnostic your file is, the better for you and/or everyone else you might share your writings with.

Human-readability means that we optimize for what matters to us. If (a) you are the only one who will ever read your notes, (b) always have access to good software like Emacs+Org, (c) do not care about printing on paper, then Denote’s model is not for you. Maybe you need to tweak some org-capture template to append a new entry to one mega file (I do that for my Org agenda, by the way, as I explained before about using the right tool for the job).

16.5 Does Denote perform well at scale?

Denote does not do anything fancy and has no special requirements: it uses standard tools to accomplish ordinary tasks. If Emacs can cope with lots of files, then that is all you need to know: Denote will work.

To put this to the test, Peter Prevos is running simulations with R that generate large volumes of notes. You can read the technicalities here: Excerpt:

Using this code I generated ten thousands notes and used this to test the Denote package to see it if works at a large scale. This tests shows that Prot’s approach is perfectly capable of working with thousands of notes.

Of course, we are always prepared to make refinements to the code, where necessary, without compromising on the project’s principles.

16.6 I add TODOs to my files; will the many files slow down the Org agenda?

I have not tested it, but assume that yes, many files will slow down the agenda due to how that works.

If you want my opinion though, decouple your knowledge base from your ephemeral to-do list: Denote (and others) can be used for the former, while you let standard Org work splendidly for the latter—that is what I do, anyway.

16.7 I want to sort by last modified, why won’t Denote let me?

Denote does not sort files and will not reinvent tools that handle such functionality. This is the job of the file manager or command-line executable that lists files.

I encourage you to read the manpage of the ls executable. It will help you in general, while it applies to Emacs as well via Dired. The gist is that you can update the ls flags that Dired uses on-the-fly: type C-u M-x dired-sort-toggle-or-edit (C-u s by default) and append --sort=time at the prompt. To reverse the order, add the -r flag. The user option dired-listing-switches sets your default preference.

16.8 How do you handle the last modified case?

Denote does not insert any meta data or heading pertaining to edits in the file. I am of the view that these either do not scale well or are not descriptive enough. Suppose you use a “lastmod” heading with a timestamp: which lines where edited and what did the change amount to?

This is where an external program can be helpful. Use a Version Control System, such as Git, to keep track of all your notes. Every time you add a new file, record the addition. Same for post-creation edits. Your VCS will let you review the history of those changes. For instance, Emacs’ built-in version control framework has a command that produces a log of changes for the current file: M-x vc-print-log, bound to C-x v l by default. From there one can access the corresponding diff output (use M-x describe-mode (C-h m) in an unfamiliar buffer to learn more about it). With Git in particular, Emacs users have the option of the all-round excellent magit package.

In short: let Denote (or equivalent) create notes and link between them, the file manager organise and provide access to files, search programs deal with searching and narrowing, and version control software handle the tracking of changes.

16.9 Why do I get “Search failed with status 1” when I search for backlinks?

Denote uses Emacs’ Xref to find backlinks. Xref requires xargs and one of grep or ripgrep, depending on your configuration.

This is usually not an issue on *nix systems, but the necessary executables are not available on Windows Emacs distributions. Please ensure that you have both xargs and either grep or ripgrep available within your PATH environment variable.

If you have git on Windows installed, then you may use the following code (adjust the git’s installation path if necessary):

(setenv "PATH" (concat (getenv "PATH") ";" "C:\\Program Files\\Git\\usr\\bin"))

17 Acknowledgements

Denote is meant to be a collective effort. Every bit of help matters.

Protesilaos Stavrou.
Contributions to code or the manual
Benjamin Kästner, Colin McLear, Damien Cassou, Jack Baty, Jean-Philippe Gagné Guay, Jürgen Hötzel, Kaushal Modi, Kyle Meyer, Peter Prevos, Philip Kaludercic, Quiliro Ordóñez, Stefan Monnier.
Ideas and/or user feedback
Abin Simon, Alan Schmitt, Alfredo Borrás, Benjamin Kästner, Colin McLear, Damien Cassou, Frank Ehmsen, Hanspeter Gisler, Jack Baty, Kaushal Modi, M. Hadi Timachi, Paul van Gelder, Peter Prevos, Shreyas Ragavan, Summer Emacs, Sven Seebeck, Taoufik, Ypot, hpgisler, pRot0ta1p.

Special thanks to Peter Povinec who helped refine the file-naming scheme, which is the cornerstone of this project.

Special thanks to Jean-Philippe Gagné Guay for the numerous contributions to the code base.

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Old versions

denote-0.4.0.tar.lz2022-Jul-2581.4 KiB
denote-0.3.1.tar.lz2022-Jul-1273.2 KiB
denote-0.3.0.tar.lz2022-Jul-1173.2 KiB
denote-0.2.1.tar.lz2022-Jul-0567.7 KiB
denote-0.2.0.tar.lz2022-Jul-0467.7 KiB


This document contains the release notes for each tagged commit on the project's main git repository:

The newest release is at the top. For further details, please consult the manual:

Version 0.5.0 on 2022-08-10

The general theme of this release is to refine what we already offer. As I explained in some discussions, Denote is feature-complete. We can always improve the code or add some ancillary function/command/variable, though all the main ideas have already been implemented. Additional functionality can be provided by other packages: I remain at the disposal of anyone willing to write such a package.

The present release covers more than 150 commits since version 0.4.0 on 2022-07-25.

All release notes:

Templates for new notes

We now provide the denote-templates user option. A "template" is arbitrary text that Denote will add to a newly created note right below the front matter.

Templates are expressed as a (KEY . STRING) association.

  • The KEY is the name which identifies the template. It is an arbitrary symbol, such as report, memo, statement.
  • The STRING is ordinary text that Denote will insert as-is. It can contain newline characters to add spacing. The manual of Denote contains examples on how to use the concat function, beside writing a generic string:

The user can choose a template either by invoking the new command denote-template or by changing the user option denote-prompts to always prompt for a template when calling the denote command.

Thanks to Jean-Philippe Gagné Guay for refinements to this facility. Done in pull request 77 on the GitHub mirror:

[ Jean-Philippe has assigned copyright to the Free Software Foundation. ]

Revised format for Org #+filetags entry

Denote used to format tags in Org files by separating them with two spaces:

#+filetags:  tag1  tag2

While this worked for some obvious use-cases, it is not supported by Org. The Org documentation stipulates that tags be separated by the colon sign. The above would then be written thus:

#+filetags:  :tag1:tag2:

Denote now conforms with Org's specifications. To help users update their existing notes, we provide the denote-migrate-old-org-filetags command. It will perform the conversion in all Org files that had the old notation. As with all Denote operations that rewrite file contents, it DOES NOT SAVE BUFFERS. The user is expected to review the changes, such as by using diff-buffer-with-file. Multiple buffers can be saved with save-some-buffers (check its doc string).

This command is provided for the convenience of the user. It shall be deprecated and eventually removed from future versions of Denote.

If you need help with any of this, please do not hesitate to contact me either in private or in one of Denote's official channels (mailing list, GitHub/GitLab mirror).

Thanks to Alan Schmitt for bringing this matter to my attention: Also thanks to Jean-Philippe Gagné Guay for commenting on it as it helped me decide to include the command in denote.el:

Revised format for Markdown+YAML tags: entry

:PROPERTIES: :CUSTOMID: h:205a09cf-0159-425e-a6b3-41700fa3ad31 … …