Zettelkasten Forum


How do you treat pure fact that there's nothing to comment on?

So I am a young and starting zettler 😅 I have read Sonke Ahrens' book as well as the Kourosh Dini book on DEVONthink, and many posts here on Zettelkasten.de (shoutout to the team)! I have a question that might be elementary but I struggle to find an answer that makes sense from what I seem to understand of the method.

I have understood that you should never collect stuff for the sake of collecting it – you should, at the very least, try to rephrase or comment it in order to further your thinking (don't collect a quote, sum it up and write why it's important to you, for instance).

However, there are some pieces of information that seem "pure utilitarian fact" to me and that I can't see what to comment on. Such as:

  • The location of an important file in an app in the case I want to reinstall it (DEVONthink's global inbox, I'm looking at you)
  • How to build RSS feeds based on subreddits
  • The email server settings of my web host

And so on. I can't see what I can comment on those. It's just information I want to have somewhere because I know I want to look for it exactly once and then store it in a trusted system so it might find it easily next time.

Is it "okay" to keep that kind of information in your Zettelkasten? Provided you link it correctly, of course, trace sources and all the rest? Or should it go somewhere else?

Thank you for your insights!

"A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

Comments

  • @KillerWhale I am also new to Zettelkasten. If you read some of my posts, you will see that I grapple with some of the fundamentals as well, particularly with what constitutes a "good" note, and whether or not to include a note in your Zettelkasten (some informative thoughts given by others in the post "Werner Herzog and Zettelkasten").

    In answer to your question, I don't see why you can't do just as you proposed. I don't think it can do any harm. It has the benefit of allowing you to quickly find the information. And who knows, maybe at some later date you will have something to say about the content, which will enrich the note and your Zettelkasten.

  • I have some of such pieces of information in my Zettelkasten, too. So, from experience, nothing bad happened in 10 years because of it. :)

    I am a Zettler

  • Whew :smile:

    Thanks a lot to you both for sharing your insight! That was the last thing holding me up from starting my Zettelkasten and making sure I could commit to it. I'm glad I can finally get to it!

    @GeoEng51 duly noted, will delve into those references. :smile:

    "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

    Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
    Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

  • What would be the point of keeping such information in your Zettelkasten ? While nothing bad would happen, that information does not have the ability to "converse" with the rest of the zettles. I have a lot of technical information - it lives in Devonthink in very boring folders with tags. I guess the issue of having too many information silos can arise - what goes where. For me, things I want to comment on or think about (personal commentary) goes in my Zettelkasten, technical information goes in Devonthink(nothing wrong with DT also indexing the Zettelkasten), and short term notes go in nvAlT. iAwriter hangs in the middle of uncomfortable limbo causing all sorts of grief in classification.

  • edited June 13

    @NiranS I would indeed like to avoid siloing my information in too many places (it has been my problem for many years). I agree this is technical information, but… 

    To not muddle the waters in my question, I left out another kind of case, but for writing fiction, I need various information that I have compiled throughout the years, for instance travel times (of an army, of a small band of riders, on a group on foot, and so on). To me this is definitely a Zettel because I have done compiling work from trusted sources and it can converse with zettels on geography, military strategy and so on… and yet, this is purely technical. (Same would go with the ranges of siege engines, all those kind of things.) But basically, it's the same kind of info… In that case, it's clear, but for atomic technical information… It's not clear 😅

    So yeah, the idea is to have one place to look for, and only one for those things.

    "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

    Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
    Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

  • My notes are rife with this kind of stuff, because a large part of their purpose is to help me retain, revisit, and draw connections between the what/when/where of technical work. That means a lot of facts about shell commands, configuration files, server systems, etc., along with advice from co-workers and high-level descriptions of systems.

    I personally wouldn't advise getting dogmatic about this. I think I'd advance the idea that the field of knowledge your notes cover should be the field of your entire work.

    What I suspect is worth doing is drawing connections between "pure utilitarian facts" and more general concepts/patterns, as well as summarizing the context in which you found a given thing important to remember. Maybe a note about how to build RSS feeds out of subreddits links to notes about reddit, the RSS format or the concept of syndication in general, details about your feedreader, etc. You could write a few lines about your motivations and how you arrived at the solution. A note about e-mail settings could link to the general concept of configuration, mail as a format, your web host, etc.

  • @brennen Thank you for that idea, that gives me food for thought! As this is all information related to how I like to organise information and build my workflows, this is could be "true" writing endeavour, to summarize why I want to have that information handy for the way I work – which is, streamlining processes and reduce friction.

    "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

    Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
    Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

  • I approach this from a pragmatic (or messy) perspective, too. I have a list of organizations that I need to mail when I change my address, for example. It doesn't have an ID. It's named Mail these when you move.txt or something. That's apparently not part of my Zettelkasten. It's not integrated in the web of notes. But I use the same application to access it. -- I think of this as the inverse of the mantra "a Zettel is not a file": you can have a fully working Zettelkasten in a single text file and jump from Zettel to Zettel via the in-text search functionality, for example. I happen to use a program that makes it easy to create one file per Zettel, so I do that. But it doesn't stop me from creating more files with the same app that are not Zettel. They live in the same directory in my file system and are synced between my devices, but they don't interfere with my ZK at all (apart from full-text search results, which become less and less useful as your archive grows, anyway).

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • For what it's worth, I also keep "factual" information in my ZK, although as someone coming from a cultural/literary studies background, there are different issues in play with regards to fact vs interpretation/commentary (hence my scare-quoting 'fact').

    I keep quotations in my ZK, plus summaries of arguments and passages that I want to retain. So I suppose my ZK also functions as a bit of a commonplace book as well.

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • Thank you for your approach @ctietze . Never thought I could indeed mix data of different nature in the same environment, even though I do like to collect stuff and that was the initial reason why I went with DEVONthink… stupid of me! 😅 That's a very interesting take which I guess also plays into your use of UIDs to the minute (for zettels) and to the second (for jumps in manuscripts) – those kind of facts have no IDs. One thing is sure, I want to avoid anything looking like PARA as much as I can, which I believe to be very inefficient.

    @Phil – your use case is very close to mine; I don't "publicly" comment on literature, but I'm absolutely bound to do so privately since I'm a fiction writer. To me literary "facts" are more about what was done, how, and why I thought it worked or did not work and what it makes me think of in my own work. I read elsewhere on the forums that one scientific conclusion, for example, can form a zettel with a series of references you can expand as the amount of proof accumulates. I'm thinking you can do the same with one idea that you come across in various forms with various writers.

    "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

    Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
    Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

  • @KillerWhale I keep a personal Wiki alongside my Zettelkasten, which I can then link to if needed. So I'll usually put it in there. An example of something I'd put in is a definition for a word I don't think I will remember in a year. So if I come across that note again I can hover over the word and a popover with the definition will show up.

    You could also just have the personal wiki as part of the Zettelkasten. I know some people on the forum do that. How that could be useful is in developing your own definition. Imagine a note sequence, where the first note would be your definition of a zettelkasten, then under that would be a series of notes of other peoples definitions you've come across. Eventually you can say use the 8 different definitions to help inform you in rewriting your own definition of it.

  • The more I read your comments, the more I sort of realize I might be taking this by the wrong end. I’m a fiction writer, so my use case might be a tad strange. I like to learn about things because they spark my imagination, but the fundamental difference with a classical researcher is, I’m not writing in order to further a field of knowledge, I’m writing on things that spark my imagination and that can make the foundation of stories if I push them forward in crazy directions. For instance, a NASA researcher will try and push the envelope on propulsion in order to design the next engine; I’m looking at the current research and think of ways I can throw myself 100, 200 years in the future in order to write science-fiction. By definition, all fiction is a lie, and for that reason, I believe it should never live in the Zettelkasten, but be entirely separate from it.

    One crucial dimension I might have overlooked – because I’m not an academic, and I’ve been more fascinated by the linking of the Zettelkasten itself – is the one of literature notes (this seems to point to your wiki, @Nick) Vs. the Zettelkasten itself. « Reference facts » do indeed look like literature notes in that regard, because there’s nothing to add upon them – yet.

    "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

    Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
    Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

  • @KillerWhale as a fiction writer you should be furthering a field of knowledge, that of the human experience. You aren't going to write a novel that is the exact same, word for word, of another novel. Yes there is a common story structure and you'll use existing themes but that is because those are at the base of human experience. In the same way we have laws of physics representing the base of reality.

    Because zettelkasten at its heart is about development over time you can accumulate information about different aspects of a story. As you read various history books, you decide to add details to a note about Victorian Britain which is a setting you want to explore. After adding details for 6 years, when you go to write a novel in that setting, you have a plethora of details to help with writing the novel.

    More explicitly you can use a zettelkasten to "further the field of human experience" by tracking themes that interest you. As you read books you can collect viewpoints illustrating how other people have tackled that theme. Then when you go to write about it, you can see what aspects and commentaries of that theme have already been said. This allows you to theme where no one has themed before.

    Hope that helps :)

  • Hi @Nick , it does a lot, thank you. Your example about Renaissance is especially apt as writing fiction works a lot that way (as academia does at this stage). However I guess I'm much more fuzzy about what goes in the Zettelkasten than I previously thought and deep down I'm not really sure about the difference with literature notes.

    May I ask for your insight on a specific example –
    Since I'm a guy writing, I've been documenting myself (mostly online) on the notion of male gaze in cinema, which can apply to writing, so as to be aware of my possible unconscious biases when writing women. I thought this would make a perfect subject to kick my Zettelkasten off.

    I have distilled what I have understood of the notion to a few bullet points written in my own words. However, at this stage, from what I gather, this appears to still be literature notes, wouldn't it?

    I'm embarrassed to ask this but I haven't found a clear answer: what exactly goes on a Zettel? Would this "summary" have its place there, or does the method imply that I absolutely need to bring in my own view to it in order to make Zettel out of that (such as, in my example: how I feel the notion of male gaze applies to writing, where I believe I should look out for such bias my own work, and so on)? (The second approach does not preclude the first one, so I guess: does the first "writeup" have its place in a Zettelkasten?)

    "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

    Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
    Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

  • @KillerWhale you put on it information you find interesting that you think could possibly be used in a future or current project. This can be explanations of ideas, commentaries you have, or new ideas yourself. Instead of centralizing notes for a certain topic during a specific topic, you are doing so for many topics over a long period of time. And allowing a note to contribute to multiple topics.

    When it comes to literature notes vs. permanent notes, here is a good explanation from Reddit user Hynjia,

    "I think the answer to this question was in Ahrens' book: is it relevant to what is already in your zettelkasten? If so, add it; if not, then don't. He also said, if I remember correctly, the idea of permanents note removes ideas from their original context so that their abstraction can be applied to other areas. Keeping them as literature notes maintains that context. So, permanent notes should be for your own personal thoughts, which is probably an elaboration of what the author said, which can then be linked to other ideas in your zettelkasten."

    Literature notes are just the information you need to write good permanent notes. Sometimes that means a paragraph explaining an idea in its original context. Other times it is just a short sentence that will jog your memory.

  • Thank you so much @Nick – I think I'm getting it now. So the so-called "literature notes" can get into the Zettelkasten, as long as they actually add to what's already there. This means that every time you start digging on a subject, the first literature notes are more or less bound to become permanent notes, as you discover the theme. As you build up knowledge on that, some content that you read will inevitably rehash some basic notions you have encountered before, so you might update those zettels with those new references, but their content will almost not change. It might however spark new ideas of your own which will always get into the Zettelkasten.

    So in my case, my "literature note" on the male gaze has its place in my Zettelkasten, as well as my reflexions on the subject. But if I keep digging the subject, only new approaches and details will find their way in the permanent notes.

    That's very helpful. Thank you!

    "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

    Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
    Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

  • @KillerWhale I'm not sure I get all the subtleties of what you are describing, but I don't get too fussed about what goes into a note (I did to start :>)

    My understanding is that a Zettle / note can contain any "bit" of information as long as it is short & precise (a single idea), written in my own words (not quoted or copied and pasted), so that I both capture its essence and learn from writing it, and is relevant to me in some way (which may be hard to determine for some notes). Again, I don't get fussed about "relevant" and tend to err on the side of putting too much into my ZK as opposed to too little. The more we try to prescribe the contents of the ZK, the less useful it will be in the long run.

    Since there is some overhead associated with writing a good note and then integrating it into my ZK, I tend to be a little bit selective (but not much). Since I'm new to it, I'm starting with ideas that are of most interest to me (although not in any particular order). I'm going over old notes written in other apps and "porting over" those that I find most interesting, and usually in the process simplifying them or even breaking them into several Zettels. I'm sure I'll go back and do that several times, perhaps many times. I'm thinking about topics of importance to me and writing whatever Zettels come to mind. I'm capturing notes from interesting ideas about which I'm reading (including ideas from this forum) or which I hear during conversations with friends and family.

    Hope that helps a bit. I believe that starting with what inherently feels important and just doing something is better than worrying too much about what should go into your ZK. You can always fine-tune your Zettels later (which I am already doing, as I gain experience).

    These are just ideas from a newbie to ZK. Those who've been around for a while and post here have more considered answers.

  • edited June 18

    @KillerWhale derp it sounds like I failed you in explaining it. The part about

    "so the so-called literature notes" can get into the Zettelkasten, as long as they actually add to what's already there."

    is actually a bit of a personal preference depending on who you talk to in the community. I've read sfast (I believe, sorry if I'm putting words in your mouth) and others include literature notes in their zettelkasten as a sort of proto-note, which then evolves into a permanent note as we traditionally think of one.

    I on the other hand trend more towards the Luhmann direction (where he kept them separate) as a structure that helps you avoid some problems. The main problem would be of putting a literature note into the zettelkasten, time passes and you forget the context in which it was written. So when you go back to write it, you have no clue what the note is talking about and either have to re-read the literature or throw out the note.

    By keeping the literature note separate (I use sticky notes), I create a pile of sorts that is looking me in the face and forcing me to process them before I create too many or let too much time pass.

    the first literature notes are more or less bound to become permanent notes, as you discover the theme. As you build up knowledge on that, some content that you read will inevitably rehash some basic notions you have encountered before, so you might update those zettels with those new references, but their content will almost not change. It might however spark new ideas of your own which will always get into the Zettelkasten.

    This part is definitely true. I also find this explains why you usually take more notes on a subject when you are first learning about it. You are essentially building a basic framework that you will hang new knowledge from. As you read more then you will take less notes (less from books but it is kind counter intuitive as you'll take more notes overall because this leads to you having more ideas yourself) as you'll be encountering the same information. In Luhmann's essay he put it like this

    The problem of reading theoretical texts seems to consist in the fact that they do not require just short-term memory but also long-term memory in order to be able to distinguish between what is essential and what is not essential and what is new from what is merely repeated. But one cannot remember everything. This would simply be learning by heart. In other words, one must read very selectively and must be able to extract extensively networked references. One must be able to understand recursions. But how can one learn these skills, if no instructions can be given; or perhaps only about things that are unusual like “recursion” in the previous sentences as opposed to “must”?

    Perhaps the best method would be to take notes—not excerpts, but condensed reformulations of what has been read. The re-description of what has already been described leads almost automatically to a training of paying attention to “frames,” or schemata of observation, or even to noticing conditions which lead the text to offer some descriptions but not others.

    If you'd like I can share with you my proto-zettelkasten, which might help clear up some confusions.

  • One thing is sure, I want to avoid anything looking like PARA as much as I can, which I believe to be very inefficient.

    @KillerWhale you mention that you find PARA to be very inefficient. I’ve enjoyed your posts both here and on the Mac Power Users forms. Can you elaborate why you feel this way? I’m beginning to implement some of this (and what you’re suggesting) and would love your input!

  • @Nick You have not failed anything, thank you, on the contrary, for your patience in explaining all this. I suppose I’m still a little unclear as to the level of processing that differentiates a literature note from a true Zettel. If you would have a few examples of « processed » zettels coming from read material, I would indeed greatly appreciate it – thank you!

    @millerstevew I wrote a long post about that on the BASB forums, I can post it if you like, but here are my points summarized (without the possibly ranty parts…) –

    • PARA is designed for short projects with a horizon of a year. I work in an industry (creative writing) for which such a horizon is way too short; I believe much more in gradualism than in spring work (around which PARA is designed).
    • PARA is designed through a continuum of « actionability » but "Actionable" notes seem to me a contradiction in terms. GTD very, very explicitly states that actions need to be separate from reference. Notes are reference material. It’s the task manager’s role to drive you from horizon to horizon.
    • PARA does not scale with complexity. “Flattening” everything in each folder of PARA means that, instead of taking advantage of what technology offers us, such as nested folders, everything is in your face at every moment, mixing, in my case, writing technique with my car maintenance directives. You lose a lot of granularity and the ability to only see what matters in a given moment. Very quickly, I am drowning in flat folders that bear no relationship to one another. And if you replicate your areas of responsibility in them, you redo four times the same hierarchy.
    • PARA does not translate well between apps. PARA is supposed to be used across the board from your files to your task manager, but it’s such an inefficient way to use OmniFocus for instance.
    • PARA tries to do without tags, objecting technical constraints that are no longer applicable (tags do autocomplete, they can be edited easily) but, more importantly, they allow you to cross-reference stuff, which is a strength of computer systems that PARA encourages you to do without since everything lives has to live only in one place.

    I said especially

    When I look at Apple, and see that the Mac has a different approach than the iPhone, for instance, and they both do excellent jobs at what they are with different paradigms, I am increasingly thinking that action and knowledge repository are two vastly different approaches that need different paradigms. PARA might work for many people (and I’m sincerely glad it does for you – my gripes, or maybe personal failures, do not invalidate your success) and it might work for many PKMs, but when I see the number of those people on those very forums that struggle to implement it in their task managers (especially OmniFocus), my thinking is, these are different areas and they require different approaches. A note-taking app works vastly differently from a to-do app, and they need different entry points, meaning, in my opinion, different systems, different ways of thinking, the way that an iPhone is not a desktop computer.

    → I believe the Zettelkasten to be that system, which is why I’ve been studying it deeply for the past six months. :smile:

    "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

    Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
    Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

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