Zettelkasten-like process for non-linear reading

With the Zettelkasten process, it is often said that we write down literature notes that correspond to the papers/books first, and then organize them into linked permanent notes.

One issue is that this implies a linear reading process – one starts a paper/book, take literature notes, and incorporate the knowledge into the permanent notes by making new permanent notes and link them with existing ones, and move on to the next paper/book.

My reading process tends to be highly non-linear. With a topic at hand, I would read the relevant parts of a dozen papers and books and take notes. This result in highly incomprehensible literature notes, especially for books, because I typically am only interested in the topics in the books that add to the current topic. This happens with papers too, when what interests me is not the main topic of the paper.

In a way, the Zettelkasten method is supposed to promote such circular reading process, and so I am probably doing something incorrectly.

What is the best practice when it comes to topic-centric, non-linear reading?


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I have a similar process, and my literature notes vary from well organized pages of summary to just a single factoid.

I think it is fine for us to have mostly incomprehensible literature notes: our work is not about an in-depth understanding of this specific piece of literature - we need an in-depth understanding of the topic these 12 pieces touch on, and to track how each piece contributed to that topic. Our comprehension happens inside the personal/permanent notes that cite those literature notes.

Practically speaking, three key things in my literature notes have helped:

  1. Enough citation to search for it later (title, authors, year, journal)
  2. A direct link to the actual source (usually a link to Zotero)
  3. A barebones summary of this literature, even if it’s one sentence copied from the abstract

The citation and link are automatically generated using the Citations plugin.

Before I move on to another literature note, I add links to the current note from permanent notes. This prevents me from losing the information and/or source. I do not worry about making these new links fit nicely in the permanent note. Instead, I usually jot down information from several literature notes and then revise the permanent note later.

Also, a literature note is just as alive/dynamic as a permanent note, so you can always come back and add another factoid or flush out an extensive summary later.