Zettelkasten Forum

Zettelkasten, writing and research: a retrospective

While working on a paper, I've collected some of my thoughts on working with a Zettelkasten for writing. I currently do not have a blog, so I'll be "publishing" it here.

We probably all know that knowledge is only useful when put into use [1, p. 32][2][3]. Yet, when I was starting my Zettelkasten back in the beginning of the year, I missed an example of how this "use" would actually work. This is a collection of some of my thoughts and experiences on working with a Zettelkasten for writing. I'll make some later installments at some other time.

First, I should mention some "prior work." A previous thread discussed how to move from notes to written text: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/871/moving-from-notes-and-ideas-to-written-text
I also found two threads on using Zettelkasten for fiction writing.*

The setting for my writing is mainly a research paper and my Zettelkasten has about 900 notes, but only a subset of these are directly related to this paper.
The idea for the research pre-dates my knowledge of Zettelkasten, so the idea didn't originate there.

I've found the Zettelkasten to be a piece of a larger workflow and not the workflow itself, but I think the Zettelkasten is a key enabler. The reason why I focus on "workflow" is that there is a feedback between application and study, which is the idea captured in the "knowledge cycle" [2]. This "holistic writing workflow" is everything from how I approach my reading, how I take my notes, how I contextualize ideas and finally produce writing. I previously tried to dedicate time to review some articles and chapters, but it never seemed worth it because my workflow didn't allow me to put it to good use.

I feel that the combination of a Zettelkasten and a more mindful approach to the reading process has allowed me to spend less time and get the right output. When I have time, I skim a paper using the technique described in [4] (similar to [3] and produce a literature note in Zotero and possibly a few notes in my Zettelkasten. Often I need to mull on it, before I can create good enough notes, but often enough I can add just a small note. And this is where I found Zettelkasten to really shine: it gives these nuggets of insight a place to be and makes them worth the effort.

Sometimes, this is just a reference for something "I knew". These are still highly valuable, but the real benefit is of course that which is unexpected. When we read, we should expect to not find what we expect -- that is the whole reason for reading [1, p. 26] (and I'd argue, research too.) An off-hand comment in one paper might reveal surprising connections and thus a single, tiny note in a Zettelkasten can bridge between previously unrelated notes. This happened at least a few times and these "minor" details ended up shaping a significant chunk of the discussion in the paper. And of course, all notes are referenced, so citations were a complete non-issue -- I've never said that before.

All in all, I am extremely satisfied with the workflow which a Zettelkasten supports. Even writing out this post was outlined in my ZK and I am eager to write more. I have a few more topics to write about ("discovery and exploration in ZK" and "Writer's block and ZK"), but I wanted to share this and hear your thoughts.

  1. Ahrens S. How to take smart notes, 2017
  2. Christian. Use a Short Knowledge Cycle to Keep Your Cool, 2014. Available from: https://zettelkasten.de/posts/knowledge-cycle-efficiently-organize-writing-projects/
  3. Sascha. The Barbell Method of Reading [Internet], 2018 Available from: https://zettelkasten.de/posts/barbell-method-reading/
  4. Srinivasan Keshav. How to Read a Paper. Available from: https://web.stanford.edu/class/ee384m/Handouts/HowtoReadPaper.pdf

* Zettelkasten for fiction: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/568/vague-thoughts-on-a-fiction-oriented-zk and https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/442/using-zettelkasten-for-creative-writing

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