Zettelkasten, “note box” in German, is a broad term that can represent a different set of ideas depending on who you talk to. For the purpose of this guide, I am using it to reference both the note taking system of sociologist Niklas Luhmann and my digital interpretation of it.
The zettelkasten system is about introducing a fifth function, that of development. Instead of just structuring material for future reference (e.g. book or wiki), you are structuring it in a way that helps you further develop your knowledge base . Once a section of your knowledge base (zettelkasten) has been sufficiently developed, you can then use it in a couple of ways.
You can share the knowledge you developed through a research paper, blog post, or book.
You can formalize the knowledge into a more useful form that can then be referenced later. This would be using your zettelkasten to create an entry in your personal wiki.
Leave the notes alone and just reference them next time you run into a situation where that set of information would be helpful.
You can formalize the knowledge into a model that you memorize. This would be akin to creating a sequence of notes about a cooking recipe that you are experimenting with. After you’ve created a sequence of notes on the recipe over a span of 3 years, you memorize the ideal recipe intentionally with a program like Anki or unintentionally by just using the recipe frequently.
You can further developing your knowledge base in multiple ways. The two primary forms it takes is the generation of new ideas and the creation of structure.
As you create individual notes and link them together, you are creating a structure. Structure can take the form of mapping out the most important components of a idea. If I were to model/map out “my family”, I would include notes on all the members and the interpersonal dynamics between us. Another form of structure is the creation of arguments and the corresponding evidence, including counter evidence. For example, I have a sequence of notes about how awesome dogs are. Every time I come across new information that supports or detracts from this argument, I add it to the note sequence.
One important understanding about Luhmann’s Zettelkasten system is a lot of his design choices were centered around limitations placed on him by having a physical system. It is important to keep that in mind when creating a digital zettelkasten because it does not face the same restrictions, so some design choices may be different.
143 - Exploring Pizza with a Zettelkasten, a Practical Example - explaining how a zettelkasten works through further developing my own knowledge of pizza
The first part is to develop an understanding of your subject matter. Developing an understanding is about taking the existing knowledge on a subject matter and forming it into a working model. Mapping out all the different ways you can approach the subject in order to understand its components and how they connect.
Developing an Understanding - What makes a pizza? What is the history of pizza?
The second part is about developing new knowledge. In this case it could be developing your own preferences for pizzas and using your knowledge to communicate opinions.
Developing an Argument - Should pineapple be outlawed?
A students job is to acquire knowledge, understanding, and skills necessary to thrive in a given field. The could take the form of applying the skills and background knowledge to the problems faced by the private sector. Or it can mean using the knowledge and skills in academia to help further push understanding forward (graduate student).
What is a student developing and how can the zettelkasten help?
The primary goal for an undergraduate student is to structure build internal models (aka developing personal knowledge) that they then use for passing tests and writing papers. Often students will fail by only engaging in rote memorization instead of combining it with structure building. Structure building internal models lead to better understanding and longer lasting models. But even these models will fade overtime without use. This is where the zettelkasten comes in. It serves as a form of external memory to keep track of the models and their details. Then years down the line, if the student has forgotten about the model, they can reference their zettelkasten to refresh their understanding.
What is a graduate student developing and how can the zettelkasten help?
A graduate student is further developing both their understanding of a field writ large while also attempting to develop a novel contribution. This contribution could be the exploration of a unexplored connection between two well established concepts or completely new theorizing. They do this primarily by cycling between consulting their graduate advisors and exploratory reading (Shore 2016, pg 127).
Undergraduate students are not developing new knowledge but instead developing an understanding of existing knowledge. What does that look like?
You are creating an understanding of a set of ideas and the relationships between them. How the ideas connect to each other and the wider picture (e.g. the field you are studying) is the context.
With a zettelkasten , you have two options.
You can create notes out of what you are studying and then use them as a basis for further development, because all knowledge builds off each other. But this is not always necessary, more of a personal preference, usually depending on how well you know the material. You typically don’t have notes for material that is so well ingrained in you because there is no need for them. You can just rely on your memory instead.
You can creates notes out of what you are studying as a way to facilitate understanding. Often times explicitly writing down concepts and their connections forces you to really understand what you are learning, so creating notes can serve as a elaboration tool for learning. See “processing a textbook for understanding” below for how this would look pratically.
When taking notes to facilitate understanding (option 2 above) it is important to keep in my that you are engaging in a trade off. By choosing to take notes on a topic, you are giving up precious time to the universe and that may not be worth it. For example, I’m not going to create notes for every word in the english language because that would be a waste of time. Instead I might create notes for words I find very important and am actively writing about. You want to do the same thing with textbooks.
Think of it as a spectrum. One one end, it is a waste of time when you are creating notes around concepts you are extremely familiar with because you already have mental notes. On the opposite end, you are wasting time by taking notes on concepts you’ll never use or write about. You want to be in the middle, where you are taking notes on concepts that you don’t know so well but will still use in your working life.
When processing a undergraduate textbook, I think of a four tasks
Create notes for the important concepts themselves (often bolded terms in the book)
Link the note (concepts) with other important notes (concepts) in the textbook chapter
Link the note with the immediate context it sits in (e.g. the textbook chapter)
Link the note to the wider context (e.g. the field you are studying)
For example, I am undergraduate psychology student (hypothetical) with a plan on going into the sub field of cognitive psychology. When reading I would create a note for the concept of “semantic memory”. Following the four tasks, I would:
Create a note for Semantic Memory
Link it to the related concept of “episodic memory”
Both semantic memory and episodic memory are forms of explicit memories, which in turn is a form of long term memory. So I would create a link to my notes on long term memory and explicit memory. This is the “immediate context” that semantic memory sits in.
I would then create a link to the wider context, saying why “episodic memory” is important to the field of cognitive psychology. Or even doing something as simple as including a tag in the note #CogSci
147 - Using my Textbook Note for Future Development
Now that I have a basic note on “semantic memory” I can use it as a starting point for further development. I created this note during my “introduction to psychology” college course. In my junior year I take a course on memory or cognition. In this course, the concept of “semantic memory” gets elaborated on even more in the corresponding textbook. So I add the most important parts of the elaboration to my original note. Then at the bottom of the note I may also put in references to studies we looked at surrounding semantic memory.
Two years go by and when I eventually get to grad school, I do even more research on the topic of “semantic memory”, collecting in my note all the cutting edge research that has been done on the topic. At some point I see an component of semantic memory that hasn’t been explained or explored, so I make that into my dissertation. I create my own study and add that to my note on semantic memory.
As you see, over a long period of time I’m elaborating on this concept more and more, further developing it in my notes. I’m essentially creating a wiki entry, collecting all the important information I’ve come across on this topic. For this example its all been one note, but in reality what I’d do is create multiple notes. At each step in this process (intro course, intermediate course, grad school, own research) I would make a new note and connect it to the previous one, thereby creating a sequence of notes on the topic of “semantic memory”. The reason for this is that it allows you to use the information of a note in multiple contexts. Say for example that the study I did has implications for other concepts. By having it in its own note, I am able to create a link to it. If I didn’t and instead just linked to the whole page on semantic memory, then it would be confusing and a pain in the ass to find.
You will get the most use out of a zettelkasten as you become a graduate student, where the goal is to not only to create a deeper understanding but further develop the knowledge of your chosen field through a thesis/dissertation. In this way, you are using the zettelkasten to track where your knowledge currently stands and facilitate the generation of new ideas through connecting material.
149 - Fiction Writing with a Zettelkasten works particularly well because the novel writing process is one of creative development. You are creating characters, places, and events from scratch. These different pieces of the story are informed by your personal understanding of reality, which in turn can be further developed in a zettelkasten.
How the universe works in your story is informed by your own knowledge of physics and the other natural sciences. How the societies operate in your story is informed by your own knowledge of our social systems, which can be further understood through the social sciences. How the characters experience the world is shaped by their mental state which can be understood through the study of psychology. For example, on my bookshelf I have the textbook Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research by Howard S. Friedman and Miriam W. Schustack. The idea of using the sciences to inform your writing is illustrated through the work of Will Storr and his book The Science of Storytellilng.
It doesn’t stop with the sciences though. You can study the existing body of literature (humanities) to understand the themes that have been important for our species and what has been said about them. By actively mapping them out, you can see how they have been already explored and use that information to say something new about a theme. The other option is to take a classic theme that has held true throughout human existence and illustrate an important point about it using a modern or new story.
First Question to Answer is what areas of information do writers develop?
Meta - further developing your understanding of storytelling itself
How do writers develop these various parts of a story?
You can use a zettelkasten to develop specific characters and your understanding of how people work.
A character you are developing could be a specific one in your universe/novel or a generalized one you are remixing from. Either basing it off an archetype or existing character you find interesting.
The reason a zettelkasten can help you with developing a specific character in your universe/novel is because you usually don’t fully develop a character in a single day. My hot take is that creativity comes about from the mixing of outside information with your internal knowledge. Therefore the best way to spark creativity is to be constantly exposing yourself to surprising & useful information. Because of our limited time and energy, you can’t expose yourself to large amounts of new information in one sitting through reading. Instead it happens over months and years, as you have to understand and reformulate the information.
An example of a remix would be taking the “wise wizard” and mapping out the different implementations of it (Gandalf, Dumbledore, Jiraiya). Then thinking about what new dimensions you can add to the character or interesting takes on themes associated with them.
154 - Zettelkasten for Everyday Living is about thinking how you can use a zettelkasten to further develop your understanding of the aspects of life that have the most day to day utility. In my zettelkasten this means collecting information on health, mental health, and productivity.
You now have Obsidian set up and ready to use, staring at a blank screen. It doesn’t really matter what your first note is. If you are having note creation paralysis then create a note describing what problem you want to solve or what area of information you want to develop knowledge in. Once you’ve done that then start with step 1 of the Core Zettelkasten Workflow.