Emacs: Denote version 2.0.0

Denote aims to be a simple-to-use, focused-in-scope, and effective note-taking and file-naming tool for Emacs.

Denote is based on the idea that files should follow a predictable and descriptive file-naming scheme. The file name must offer a clear indication of what the contents are about, without reference to any other metadata. Denote basically streamlines the creation of such files or file names while providing facilities to link between them (where those files are editable).

Denote’s file-naming scheme is not limited to “notes”. It can be used for all types of file, including those that are not editable in Emacs, such as videos. Naming files in a constistent way makes their filtering and retrieval considerably easier. Denote provides relevant facilities to rename files, regardless of file type.

Below are the release notes.

This is the second major version of Denote, close to one year after its initial release. The video demo I did back then remains relevant, even though lots of details have changed.

Notes have a new optional SIGNATURE field

It is now possible to create notes that include a SIGNATURE field in their file name. Either use the convenience command denote-signature or configure the user option denote-prompts to affect what the denote command should prompt for.

Signatures are arbitrary strings of characters that enable the user to further qualify their documents. One possible workflow is to write relational notes, such that 1a1 is the first extension of another note with a 1a signature.

The design of the SIGNATURE field is consistent with the Denote file-naming scheme. The field separator is the double equals sign (==), while words that comprise the signature are joined together by a single equals sign. As such, the user can prefix a search with an equals sign to match words in the SIGNATURE, just as they would use dashes for the TITLE and underscores for the KEYWORDS.

[ Read the manual for the technicalities of the Denote file-naming scheme. This is not limited to “notes”: any file can be named accordingly (I do it with my videos, for example). ]

Signatures are not included in a file’s front matter. This is a strategic decision to preserve backward compatibility, while not introducing a feature that has not enjoyed widespread usage. I want to make signatures behave the same as the rest of the file name fields, though I am interested to learn how users employ them in their workflow.

The signature extension was discussed at length on the GitHub mirror in issue 115: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/115. Thanks to Stefan Thesing, Mirko Hernandez, Noboru Ota (nobiot), Xiaoxing Hu, nbehrnd, Elias Storms, and 101scholar for helping me reason about this feature, understand its scope, and prototype its implementation.

Also thanks to Alfredo Borrás and Jeremy Friesen for discussing with me the field delimiter of signatures on the mailing list: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/%3C2A597B4E-5F18-4D97-9457-B3C859DAA020%40zoho.eu%3E. Thanks to Kai von Fintel for doing the same on the GitHub mirror in issue 147: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/147.

Read the original announcement: https://protesilaos.com/codelog/2023-03-20-emacs-denote-signature-feature/.

As part of the development, I fixed a case where denote-rename-file-using-front-matter would fail if it could not find a signature

The idea is that we want the command to behave the way it always did when the file has no signature and to preserve the signature when it is present.

Thanks to relict for reporting the issue on the mailing list: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/%3C87zg86lru9.fsf%40kotlak.com%3E.

The rename commands avoid creating duplicate identifiers

Denote provides commands to rename an existing file to one that follows the Denote file-naming scheme (videos, PDFs, other text documents, …). Check, for example, the denote-rename-file and denote-dired-rename-marked-files. The idea is to make everything easier to search.

In prior versions, these commands could produce duplicate identifiers if the modification date of the underlying files was the same. Such a scenario occurs when the files are modified programmatically, as with the touch command or the various git operations.

Denote will now take care to increment the identifier until it becomes unique within the current scope.

Thanks to Felipe Balbi for reporting this bug in issue 105 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/105.

Thanks to Vedang Manerikar and Jean-Charles Bagneris for commenting on this feature on the mailing list: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/%3C87v8emeus0.fsf%40protesilaos.com%3E.

Thanks to Ashton Wiersdorf for noticing a mistake I made that caused a regression in denote-rename-file: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/%3Cm2lefbbzl1.fsf%40wiersdorfmail.net%3E.

Optional arguments affect denote-dired-rename-marked-files

The denote-dired-rename-marked-files now accepts two optional arguments. When called interactively, these are interpreted as a single or double universal prefix argument (C-u by default, though do M-x where-is and search for universal-argument).

The first argument, named SKIP-FRONT-MATTER-PROMPT, skips the “yes or no” prompt requested at the outset of the operation, passing to it an affirmative response. Thanks to Jay Rajput for asking the question that inspired me to implement this. It was done in issue 155 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/155.

The second argument, named NO-UNIQUE-ID-CHECK, will not perform any checks for potential duplicate identifiers. The default is to check for duplicates and increment them such that they become unique. The reason this optional argument exists is for those who want to speed up the process, perhaps because they know ahead of time all identifiers will be unique or do not care about them.

Thanks to Bruno Boal for refining how the prefix argument is processed. The patch was sent via a private channel. The change is small and thus does not require copyright assignment to the Free Software Foundation.

Menu entries help users discover Denote

Users of menu-bar-mode and/or context-menu-mode will now find a submenu with points of entry to Denote. Refer to the publication I made on my website, as it includes a picture: https://protesilaos.com/codelog/2023-03-31-emacs-denote-menu/. I will save the thousand words for the following sections. 🙃

There is a known issue where the menu-bar-mode entry is positioned before the File submenu. Apparently, there exists an inelegant way to place the menu elsewhere, but I am not willing to maintain hacks for missing functionality. If someone knows a clear way to put the submenu elsewhere, please contact me: I want it to be after Tools.

Thanks to Kai von Fintel and Noboru Ota (nobiot) for discussing the placement of the submenu: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/%3C2B60992C-0FC9-42CC-B669-69A544450FEF%40mit.edu%3E.

“Link” commands have simpler names

Originally, Denote was organised as a collection of several files, each of which had its own prefix like denote-dired.el, and denote-link.el. This arrangement was deemed surplus to requirements and all core code was consolidated in denote.el. An artefact of that design was the presence of symbols that retained their admittedly awkward names, like the command denote-link-backlinks or denote-link-add-missing-links.

All such commands are deprecated. They are replaced with more discoverable names. The deprecation is done in such a way that the old names are aliases for the new ones, but the user is warned not to rely on them.

The new names in detail:

Old name 🤨 New name 🤩
denote-link-add-links denote-add-links
denote-link-add-missing-links denote-add-missing-links
denote-link-backlinks denote-backlinks
denote-link-find-file denote-find-link
denote-link-insert-link denote-insert-link (alias for denote-link)
denote-link-show-backlinks-buffer denote-show-backlinks-buffer (alias for denote-backlinks)

Denote buffers can have shorter names

The Denote file-naming scheme is designed to be a low-tech way of embedding information in files, making them easier to find. A downside is that the names are longer than blah.txt and so the default Emacs behaviour is to derive a buffer name from the file name.

The new optional denote-rename-buffer.el provides a minor mode to automatically rename the buffer of an existing file, such that it reflects the file’s TITLE field. Users must enable denote-rename-buffer-mode.

The renaming procedure is controlled by the user option denote-rename-buffer-function. By default, it provides the means to rename using (i) the title, (ii) the identifier, or (iii) a custom function that returns a string. Experienced users can refer to denote-rename-buffer-with-title to draw inspiration on the design of such a function.

Thanks to Morgan Davidson for asking a question that inspired me to implement this feature. The discussion took place in issue 151 on the GitHub mirror https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/151.

Silos work as directory trees

Denote provides a feature to isolate files in to their own silos, each of which functions as its own denote-directory variable. The technicalities are explained in the manual. Silos have proven to be a valuable aspect of file management and I have thus expanded their scope to work as fully fledged directory trees. This means that we no longer assume a silo to be a flat directory listing, but instead recognise any subdirectories inside of it.

Thanks to relict007, Hilde Rhyne, Mirko Hernández, Noboru Ota (nobiot), Alan Schmitt, hapst3r, and Hilde Rhyne for their participation in the relevant discussions:

Keywords do not accept multiple words by default

The idea is to have short keywords and then use more than one, if necessary. We do not want to encourage the habit of long keywords that become overly specific, while we want to avoid the use of dashes as delimited in the file name’s KEYWORDS field.

Technically, this changes the default value of the user option denote-allow-multi-word-keywords. Users who preferred the old behaviour can simply toggle it on.

Pass arguments to Org capture

Denote is not an extension of Org mode, though it can integrate with org-capture. I now make it possible to design a capture template that uses specific prompts. Consult the section in the manual titled “Create note with specific prompts using Org capture”.

Thanks to Aditya Yadav for asking about this in issue 132 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/132.

Change an existing note’s file type

The command denote-change-file-type changes the file type of an existing note. The available options are those among denote-file-type. Thanks to Jean-Philippe Gagné Guay for the contribution, which was done in pull request 137 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/pull/137.

Denote dynamic blocks can now parse rx notation

Denote can leverage the Org feature of “dynamic blocks” to produce lists of links/backlinks. This is especially useful for metanotes (read the Denote manual—I document everything for a reason).

Before, regular expressions were implemented only as strings while now they can also be written using the rx notation. Thanks to Mirko Hernandez for proposing this feature and discussing it with me in issue 122 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/122.

Thanks to Elias Storms, the author of denote-org-dblock.el, for iterating on this functionality. This was done in pull request 130 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/pull/130.

Made links to non-note files works as intended

The function denote-get-path-by-id is refactored to accept any file with an identifier. This always was its intended purpose. The user was always able to create denote: Org link types to, for example, jpg files but denote-get-path-by-id was refusing to resolve the otherwise valid path. Thanks to user relict007 for reporting the problem and discussing it with me in issue 135 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/135.

The change was not trivial. It was followed up by a patch from Noboru Ota (nobiot) which elaborated on the conditionality. Quoting from commit 9ce9a24:

fix(denote-get-path-by-id): #135

Reference: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/135

This patch change function ‘denote-get-path-by-id’ to allow for the following:

  • A single ID points to multiple files with different extensions
  • Denote needs to find a single file out of the multiple files
  • This is not necessarily a user error (export an Org file to an HTML)
  • Denote should let user decide their “primary” file extension

The case the patch is intended to fix goes something like this:

  • You have 20230216_mynotes–tag.org.
  • You export it to 20230216_mynotes–tag.html.
  • Both files are in denote-directory
  • This means you have two files with the same ID with different extensions denote-link-find-file, denote-link-find-backlink, and xref integration might find the html file INSTEAD OF the .org file

This is because html is earlier in the alphabetical order than org. Because the function uses seq-find, it will find the .html file first and returns it.

The denote-rename-file-using-front-matter works with empty keywords

Keywords are an optional field in the Denote file-naming scheme. However, an earlier version of the command mentioned in this heading was considering them mandatory and would refuse to proceed if the keywords were nil. Thanks to Eduardo Grajeda for fixing this: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/patches/39896.

The change is within the ~15 line limit and does not require copyright assignment to the Free Software Foundation.

The denote-title-prompt has its own history

Denote implements minibuffer histories for all its relevant functions. This makes it easier for users to retrieve their previous inputs and to not get irrelevant ones.

Before, the denote-title-prompt was not using its own history but was instead relying on another one that was intended only for file paths, thus mixing unrelated inputs.

Thanks to Jonathan Sahar for bringing this matter to my attention. This was done in issue 144 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/144.

For developers or advanced users

Made it possible to add predicates for recursive file listing

The helper function denote--directory-all-files-recursively accepts predicates to help speed up its work.

Thanks to Wade Mealing for reporting the issue about the performance of the built-in function directory-files-recursively in large, nested directories. And thanks to Graham Marlow for the patch, which was prepared as part of an extended discussion with me:

New public symbols

The following are now public symbols that we commit to support and document henceforth:

  • Function denote-file-type-extensions: Return all file type extensions in denote-file-types.

  • Variable denote-encryption-file-extensions: List of strings specifying file extensions for encryption.

  • Function denote-file-type-extensions-with-encryption: Derive denote-file-type-extensions plus denote-encryption-file-extensions.

  • Function denote-link-return-links: Return list of links in current or optional FILE. Also see denote-link-return-backlinks.

  • Function denote-link-return-backlinks: Return list of links in current or optional FILE. Also see denote-link-return-links.

  • Function denote-rewrite-front-matter: Rewrite front matter of note after denote-rename-file (or related) The FILE, TITLE, KEYWORDS, and FILE-TYPE arguments are given by the renaming command and are used to construct new front matter values if appropriate.

  • Function denote-rewrite-keywords: Rewrite KEYWORDS in FILE outright according to FILE-TYPE. Do the same as denote-rewrite-front-matter for keywords, but do not ask for confirmation. This is for use in denote-keywords-add, denote-keywords-remove, denote-dired-rename-marked-files, or related.

I am publicising the denote-link-return-links and its counterpart in response to the mailing list thread started by relict007: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/%3C87a5ygk6yi.fsf@kotlak.com%3E. relict007 is the developer of the denote-cache package (in progress): https://git.sr.ht/~relict007/denote-cache.

Similarly, the denote-rewrite-keywords is made public upon the request of Alan Schmitt: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/%3Cm2ttzgn2wu.fsf%40m4x.org%3E.


  • Revised denote-link-return-{links,backlinks} to not produce a user-error. The errors are reserved for the interactive functions. The others are for developers. Thanks to Elias Storms for bringing this matter to my attention: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/commit/694c1517be73949edbc3993c105c764da8e2571f#commitcomment-112677876.

  • Refrained from trying to find forward links in non-text-files. If a file extension is not in denote-file-types, we have no way of parsing or finding outgoing links in it. This change checks for the file extension early on in ‘when-let*’ block and avoids opening the file which is a relatively costly operation (and would fail finding links anyway). Thanks to relict007 for the patch. This was done on the mailing list: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/%3C87r0riffdx.fsf%40kotlak.com%3E The change is small and thus does not require copyright assignment to the Free Software Foundation.

  • Explained how to troubleshoot Denote. Refer to the section in the manual titled “Troubleshoot Denote in a pristine environment.” While this is about Denote, the skills apply to all Emacs packages.

  • Ensured backlinks get correct denote-directory path. The backlinks buffer will now get the correct path when it is generated inside a silo. This is related to issue 129 reported by hapst3r on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/129. The change is necessary because .dir-locals.el do not work for buffers, so we must get the value from the file that calls denote-link-backlinks.

  • Added missing underscore from examples in exporting section. Thanks to Peter Prevos for bringing this matter to my attention: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/%3C87fs8b85tq.fsf%40prevos.net%3E#%3C87lehiuxfo.fsf@protesilaos.com%3E.

  • Made the command denote-open-or-create work with an empty denote-directory. The denote-file-prompt would throw an error before. The correct behaviour is to proceed to the “Create” phase if the denote-directory is empty. Thanks to user drcxd for reporting the bug in issue 131 on the GitHub mirror and for testing my sample code: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/131.

  • Documented how to use tree-based file prompt on demand. This is my solution to a request made by Mirko Hernandez on the possible use of the old Denote file prompt. It is better not to introduce a user option for this case, nor to keep multiple variants of the denote-file-prompt in denote.el, as we want to keep things simple. Mirko’s feedback was provided in issue 121 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/121.

  • Added the variable denote-user-enforced-denote-directory. This is intended for users who write custom code to extend Denote. The value of this variable should be let bound around calls to the function denote-directory, thus overriding its return value. This was discussed on the mailing list and then introduced by Vedang Manerikar in commit 977c757, with further changes by me in 20ddc97: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/patches/41776. Vedang has assigned copyright to the Free Software Foundation.

  • Fixed my-denote-org-extract-subtree section of the documentation. This is part of some sample code that is not part of denote.el, but we provide as a convenience/inspiration for interested parties.

    The provided function did not work correctly.

    1. Tags are extracted before deleting the region from the source file.
    2. The function org-end-of-subtree is called to calculate the point we should delete up to. The previously used function org-entry-end-position ends at the first sub-heading under the tree, which is not what we want. Instead, we want to cut the whole subtree.
    3. The date information available in the subtree is retained. We look for three common places for this information: the CREATED or DATE properties in the PROPERTIES drawer, and the CLOSED cookie at the element level itself.

    Thanks to Vedang Manerikar for the contribution: https://lists.sr.ht/~protesilaos/denote/%3CCABzEscbPx24LCUCc7JsMmQtVGwhou5fUH_5h+%3Dt%3Dqi4396NqNQ%40mail.gmail.com%3E

  • Removed the dependency on the built-in xdg library and updated the default value of the user option denote-directory. The reason is that XDG is a Linux standard that does not work on other operating systems, according to private feedback I received.

  • Fixed a regression for M-p (previous-history-element) in “do or create” commands. Read the doc string of the commands denote-open-or-create or denote-link-or-create for how this is supposed to work. In short:

    • Invoke the “do or create” command.
    • Type something that does not match a file.
    • In the following title prompt, hit M-p to bring back the last input.

    I realised there was a regression when I read issue 152 on the GitHub mirror, which was created by user “ustcpxy”: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/152. The issue is about skipping the file title prompt.

  • Simplified the internal denote--buffer-file-names. Thanks to Adam Růžička for noting that my change was not compatible with older Emacs versions, and for preparing the change. This was discussed in pull request 158 on the GitHub mirror, with my suggestion to not use seq-filter as it affected the return value: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/pull/158. The change is below the 15 line limit, meaning that Adam does have to assign copyright to the Free Software Foundation.

  • Documented custom code in the manual on how to interactively select a silo. I am providing this in response to a request from GitHub user rbenit68. The discussion took place in issue 127 on the GitHub mirror, with the participation of Mirko Hernandez: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/127. The custom code I provide is the expanded version of an idea put forth by Mirko, to whom I am thankful.

  • Fixed an outdated reference in the denote-file-types doc string. Thanks to user doolio for spotting the error and reporting it in issue 139 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/issues/139.

  • Cited in the manual’s section “Publications about Denote” an article by Mohamed Suliman titled Managing a bibliography of BiBTeX entries with Denote (2022-12-20): https://www.scss.tcd.ie/~sulimanm/posts/denote-bibliography.html. If you have published something related to Denote, please let me know and I will add to the list.

  • Cited the essay by Summer Emacs titled An explanation of how I use Emacs (2023-05-04): https://github.com/summeremacs/howiuseemacs/blob/main/full-explanation-of-how-i-use-emacs.org

  • Cited the video series by Stefan Thesing titled /Denote as a Zettelkasten/: https://www.thesing-online.de/blog/denote-as-a-zettelkasten/.

  • Added link to Karl Voit’s work in the manual’s section “Alternative implementations and further reading.” Thanks to Norwid Behrnd for the contribution in pull request 123 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/pull/123.

  • Fixed the broken link to jao’s blog. Thanks to Tomasz Hołubowicz for the contribution, which was done in pull request 145 on the GitHub mirror: https://github.com/protesilaos/denote/pull/145.

  • Authored lots of other ancillary changes/features to the code base or the manual (yes, this change log is how I “cut the long story short”).