How much information to include in an individual note?

With regards to the idea of atomic notes etc, I am a little unclear about how much to include, because this doesn’t seem to be a one size fits all notion.

For example, a note on Nietzsche may include biography, quotes by and about the man, key ideas etc and that seems to go against the notion of a note containing a single idea.

Would love to hear how others have managed this, thanks

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That depends. When I make reading notes on a book or text, I write a new note for each idea, each note. These notes contain only a few lines, just as Luhmann intended. For books I add the page number and for all the source.
But when I enter key data, for example, on a person, the note becomes longer, because it makes no sense to make one note with the name, another with the dates of birth, etc.

I think a note on “Nietzsche” (I also assume that to be the name of the note) probably should be a biography, which includes events in his life, when and briefly why he wrote his most significant works, in a chronological order.

Such a note is a consolidation of years of events happening to a person, rather than a single idea that we can firmly grasp by the title (handle). In other words, if you consider an idea is atomic only if you can describe it with a sentence, the note doesn’t fit in.

If you take “atomic” to be an irreducible unit that forms a system, then such a note also wouldn’t fit the definition, since I can hardly imagine referencing “Nietzsche” in other notes without combining it with some of his particular ideas (says “I think therefore I am”). In other words, “Nietzsche” can be further reduced to units that can actually help form a system.

Atomicity is about being a useful abstraction

Asking how much information should go into an atomic note isn’t a good question, because certain atomic ideas can be information-dense, which means you can unpack them into a surprising amount of details (for example “I think therefore I am” has a lot of history and interplaying of schools of thoughts behind it). Therefore, thinking about how much information should be limits the degree of useful abstractions to which an atomic note can be.

Instead, try these criteria when attempting to write an atomic note:

  • Wether or not the title of this note (and more importantly its content) can be represented by a sentence. Using abstract words in the sentence is fine, as long as the relationship between these abstractions is logical enough. (“unit test of useful abstraction”)
  • Wether or not I can imagine referencing this sentence by its title in a way that allows me to support another idea. (“integration test of useful abstraction”)

Biographies and grand narratives should be MOCs

Instead of “Nietzsche”, use “Nietzsche MOC”, and then his biography would be a grand narrative, within which his ideas/body of work are densely referenced. A way to think about it is that “Nietzsche MOC” (in particular, the grand narrative) is just an imposed structure on the notes that it references, which suggests you can have multiple imposed structures given a set of notes. These different imposed structures are called MOC (Map Of Contents).

Hope it helps !

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I would consider “notes on Nietzsche” to be a perfectly valid atomic idea.

If you then had insights, projects, best-of quotes, or ideas that spawned from those notes, those could become their own atomic note. I can have a long note summarizing a book. And I can have a tiny separate note with a quote I love that inspires or informs me.

“a little unclear about how much to include”.

I see a lot of people trying to come up with note templates or clear rules. There’s nothing wrong about that. Systems and rules are fantastic!!! But here is a quote from “How to Take Smart Notes” when he is discussing what tools you need to have. And when you read “Computers”, also remember to think, “rules in your system”. (emphasis mine):

Computers can only speed up a relatively minor part of the work anyway, like adding links and formatting references. They can’t speed up the main part of the work, which is thinking, reading and understanding. - (Chapter 3.1)

I read that quote as “Apps, rules, systems, and excessive management, cannot replace the main part of the work, which is thinking, reading and understanding.”

And here is a note I wrote just this morning (emphasis mine):

Don’t throw any of yourself away. Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision for your work. Don’t worry about unity—what unifies your work is the fact that you made it. One day, you’ll look back and it will all make sense.

  • From [[Steal Like An Artist]] by Austin Kleon

This is interesting because, like in [[Back of The Napkin]], we scatter a bunch of stuff in front of us, and we can detect patterns. Things emerge.

But we don’t have to meticulously sort and manage it. We can trust in the process, and trust in our minds and creativity! Trust in the pattern-seeking mechanism of our minds, and trust in the [[Serendipity]] of just beginning to move.

Kleon’s quote is about deleting stuff or censoring ourselves based on who we think we are as an artist (I can’t write about X, I’m a Y.) But I also see it as referring to excessive rules or management, or fear of getting it “correct” or properly categorized. Austin Kleon would encourage us to try and to play. To trust our creativity and our minds to be able to find the patterns later.

Sorry if that was too tangential! That’s how I would think about your question.

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Here is my note on this question

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I agree with what was said here. However, it is necessary to consider one more level when we consider if note is “atomic”/useful/linkable enough - extrinsic (contextual) characteristics. We tend to consider only intrinsic characteristic (how much info there is inside note, how structured it is, how many “units” of information it holds). But based on its external future use, all these internal characteristics may or may not be useful/atomic.

Lets consider Nietzsche - for me, I will tend to have great focus on philosophy in my zettelkasten notes, so note named “Nietszche” will definitely be rather MOC/TOC/structured note as @minhthanh3145 suggests above.

However, note with name “Theodor Roosvelt” or “Lance Armstrong” will be probably more than ok to consider atomic (or one unit of info), as I am not interested in American history / sport much/at all.

Of course, that contextual characteristic (what is context of my zettelkasten/interests/project) broadly correlates with length/amount of information (intrinsic characteristic) but it does not have always to be necessary case. I can imagine that I would like to record quite detailed info about Armstrong (e.g. using Armstrong doping as metaphor in my article) , however still, as I know that very probably I will not use it in different contexts other than this metaphor, I will be more than satisfied to have all this info in one note, which will be highly linkable/atomic for my use (but not in context of somebody others` zettelkastens, who e.g. interests much in sports - he/she will prefer Armstrong as MOC etc)

@RufusResearch I just realized that my earlier comment didn’t really address what you question actually was.

I think about how much information to include on an individual note using the concept of utility. Why bother splitting up a set of information into a more granular format?

You’d want to do so because you get more utility out of the information by splitting it up. Say you have 10 paragraphs of writing in your note on Nietzsche. Say one of those paragraphs is about his concept of amor fati and eternal reoccurrence. While reading you come across the same idea in Indian Philosophy and want to link to it in the Nietzsche note. How would you do that?

You could just link to the Nietzsche note and include in parentheses (look for paragraph on eternal recurrence) but that would be a pain in the ass to find every single time you need to. So what I’d do instead is make it into its own note that can be linked to. After doing so, you can then either embed the new eternal reoccurrence note in the Nietzsche one using ![[note name]]. You could also just [[link]] to the new note on eternal reoccurrence. If you do this then you essentially get a table of contents under the note linking to other information. For example, here is my note on psychology

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